The French have a way with design, articulated with a distinct vocabulary of their own. Historically, no French car—especially a coachbuilt one from before World War II—would ever be mistaken for an English, Italian or German one. French design is about elegance, whether it’s a Louis XV chair or Dior haute couture. Or, in the case of an automobile, the Figoni et Falaschi–bodied 1937 Talbot-Lago to be featured by Gooding & Company during its live auction at Florida’s Omni Amelia Island Resort on March 4.
“The significance of bringing a car as revered, valuable and influential as this 1937 Talbot-Lago T150-C-SS Teardrop Coupe, bodied by Figoni et Falaschi, cannot be overstated,” says David Gooding, founder and president of Gooding & Company. “With its stunning, timeless styling, storied and unbroken provenance and indisputable rarity, this car comes to auction as one of the most valuable French automotive offerings, and surely the greatest Talbot-Lago offering, the market has ever seen. We are honored to present this masterpiece of a car on the auction stage in Amelia Island later this week.”
Talbot began with the acquisition of Automobiles Darracq in 1916, and changed its name to Automobiles Talbot in 1922. A decade later, businessman Antonio Lago was brought on as managing director to turn around the automaker afflicted by the Great Depression. Lago, who introduced new models with four- and six-cylinder engines, went on to buy out the company, adding his name to the marque by 1936.
Following the war, the company struggled as the automotive industry grew and embraced mass production. Despite developing a number of road-going models, and even machines for Grand Prix competition, Talbot-Lago failed to thrive. By the early 1950s, the demise of the French luxury marques like Bugatti, Delage, and Delahaye was a fait accompli. Talbot-Lago folded and was acquired by Simca in 1959, but not before leaving to posterity one of the most beautiful cars ever made.
The Talbot-Lago 150-C-SS was a real performance car for the time. The “C” stood for Competition, and the shorter, lighter Super Sport (or “SS”) chassis was the one to have. The vehicle is powered by a 4.0-liter inline-six engine—designed by lead engineer Walter Becchia—featuring overhead valves and three Zenith-Stromberg carburetors. Output is about 140 hp at 4,100 rpm. Shifting is through a Wilson pre-selector gearbox, which allows the driver to “pre-select” the next gear, the transmission remaining in the current gear until the driver presses the clutch pedal, thus eliminating the need to master smooth gearchanges in a non-synchro transmission.
The model is also equipped with an independent front suspension and live rear axle with leaf springs, while the Brakes are mechanical drums all around. The platform, being lightweight, short and low, was ideal for such an aerodynamic body. The T150-C-SS was sold as a bare chassis for 78,000 francs—expensive for its day— and priced in line with competitors like the Alfa Romeo 8C 2900 and Bugatti Type 57S.
From 1937 to 1939, Talbot-Lago built a limited number of T150-C-SS chassis, which received custom bodies by a variety of coachbuilders, the most beautiful of which were, by far, designed and fabricated by Figoni et Falaschi. Depending on the source, between 10 and 12 were made in two variations: a fastback, known as Goutte d’Eau, or “Teardrop,” and a notchback called Jencart, after the patron who commissioned the first of five examples.
The all-alloy Modèle New York coachwork, unveiled at the 1937 New York Auto Show, is the most elegant version of the Teardrop concept, taken to the extreme with fully enclosed, skirted front fenders. While two examples were made, the car on offer—chassis No. 90107—remains the only original-bodied example of that design. Its shape exemplifies the modern streamlined style, and may be considered the ultimate automotive expression of “art for art’s sake.”
Remarkably, this exotic French confection has spent nearly 80 of its 85 years in Southern California. It’s speculated that chassis No. 90107 was commissioned, with three other built-to-order Teardrops, by famed playboy and Olympic bobsledder “Suicide Freddie” McEvoy. It was purchased, in 1939, by Stewart Lee, the 33-year-old heir to the Don Lee Cadillac and broadcasting fortune, who had inherited $9 million dollars in 1934.
Lee ran his companies while amassing numerous custom cars and aircraft. According to Automobile Quarterly, many of Lee’s cars were acquired through racer Luigi Chinetti, who later became the exclusive Ferrari importer for the United States. A man with an eye for Talbot-Lago, Lee owned two other T150-C-SS Coupes, chassis No. 90108 and No. 90114. During his ownership, No. 90107 was repainted dark red and occasionally raced in the desert, where it was clocked at over 117 mph. During the 1940s, Lee was badly injured in a car wreck, got hooked on painkillers and, tragically, took his own life in 1950 after being committed to a sanitarium.
The publication Road & Track, whose classified ads from the 1950s and 1960s offer a tantalizing glimpse of the period’s used sports car market, announced the Talbot-Lago as follows: “Forced Sale of Prize Collection: The Thomas S. Lee world famous foreign sport cars must be sold immediately. By order of the Los Angeles County Public Administrator.”
The purchaser was John Duckworth, a car enthusiast in San Fernando, Calif., and the car subsequently appeared on the cover of Road & Track. After a couple of interim owners, it was acquired in 1956 by Lindley Locke, a collector of French cars who saw the Talbot-Lago parked on a street in Los Angeles. The car was put in storage at his Santa Monica garage in the early 1960s, and remained unseen for 40 years. In 2004, Locke’s widow donated the Talbot-Lago to the Nethercutt Collection in Sylmar, Calif. Known internationally for the quality of its cars and its fastidious restoration work, the Sylmar team returned No. 90107 to its original specification, including its blue and silver paint.
This car is no newcomer to the concours lawn. Prior to coming to California and being sequestered for decades, it won the Prix d’Excellence at the 1938 Concours d’Elegance Fémina in Paris, testament to the influence of, and regard for, Figoni’s design when new. In this century, and after its restoration by Nethercutt, the Talbot-Lago was awarded Best in Class at the 2005 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, followed by Best of Show at the 2007 Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance.
Presented for public sale for the first time since 1950, the car is estimated to fetch more than $10 million when it crosses the block. In a world where flavor-of-the-month modern supercars can command a third as much, this seems a relatively modest valuation for one of the greatest French automobiles of all time.