Automotive beauty can be a subjective and inscrutable thing. But few question the aesthetic allure of French cars from the 1920s and 1930s—their luscious curves stand alone as being among the most transcendent in the four-wheeled world.
French automotive design peaked during a time when carrossiers (custom coachbuilders) served clients by creating one-off bodies and interiors based on rolling chassis supplied by manufacturers like Citroen, Hispano-Suiza, and Voisin. These unique creations were rolling sculptures, offering an entirely bespoke way for wealthy customers to express themselves.
Celebrating that fabled era is L’époque des Carrossiers, a new exhibit at the Mullin Automotive Museum in Oxnard, Calif. Peter Mullin’s lifelong attraction to French cars of the era is well documented in his collection, but his appreciation for the Art Deco movement is particularly notable because it marks the merging of art and science, a crucial moment in history when imaginative design married mechanized production.
Curator Brittanie Kinch traces the era’s pivotal inspirations to the 1925 Arts Decoratifs exhibit in Paris. “While it was a singular show,” she explains, “it had this impetus to create a modern aesthetic for the French. That’s really the legacy of the 1925 show, and that’s what we’re trying to bring to the exhibit: cultural context.”
Though it’s difficult to pluck standouts from this expansive array of automotive art, here are a few favorites from the Mullin Automotive Museum’s newly opened exhibit.
1937 Talbot-Lago T150 C-SS “Teardrop” by Figoni and Falaschi
When asked about his favorite car from the collection, Peter Mullin cites this absolute stunner, a 1937 Talbot-Lago T150 C-SS “Teardrop” by Figoni and Falaschi. Combining fluid aerodynamic design with groundbreaking performance, this Talbot-Lago Teardrop won the inaugural Peninsula Hotel Best of the Best competition (Mullin’s cars have earned two of the three coveted distinctions to date).
Its legendary provenance can be traced back to original Bentley Boy and Bentley chairman Woolf Barnato, and it spent two decades in the United Kingdom before moving stateside. In spite of its delicate lines, a Teardrop managed a third-place finish in the grueling 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1938. This particular example demonstrated extreme functionality when playboy and 1936 Olympic bobsled champion Freddy McEvoy made a $10,000 bet that he could cannonball from Paris to Cannes in under 10 hours (he won, by a 15-minute margin).
These models, of which only 14 were made, rarely go up for sale, but Mullin was able to acquire his Teardrop in 1985. “I think it’s the most gorgeous piece of automotive design ever done.”
1939 Delahaye Type 165 Cabriolet
The remarkably streamlined shape of this cabriolet, with body by Figoni and Falaschi, was so emblematic of 1930s French design that it represented the nation at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Shipped without a powerplant because it could not be built in time for the show, the engine-less body was impounded by U.S. Customs when Europe became embroiled in World War II. After trading hands at a public auction and receiving a Cadillac engine, it eventually wound up at a used car lot in Honolulu until it was bought by a military serviceman.
Following his death, it was abandoned by his widow in the 1970s and sold to a tow-truck driver for $1,200. It took four years of negotiation, but Peter Mullin and Jim Hull eventually purchased the car in 1985 and spearheaded a restoration that included the installation of the original 4.5-liter V-12 engine that can be tracked back to Count Hubertus von Doenhoff.
1936 Bugatti Type 57C Atlantic
Arguably one of the most beautiful automotive designs in history, the Bugatti Atlantic was the production version of Jean Bugatti’s Aérolithe Coupe that was unveiled at the 1935 Paris Auto Salon. Though the Atlantic’s novel construction includes an aviation-style riveted spine, the technique was originally employed because welding the Aérolithe’s magnesium-alloy body could set off a difficult-to-extinguish fire. This particular Atlantic was originally delivered to Nathaniel Mayer Victor Rothschild, the third Baron Rothschild, who had the factory install a supercharger, earning it its “SC” designation. Of the four Atlantics built, only two survive in original condition.
1938 Dubonnet Hispano-Suiza H6B ‘Xenia’
The personality behind this bullet-like conveyance was Andre Dubonnet, a Renaissance man who was heir to the Dubonnet aperitif fortune. Credited with five aerial victories in World War I’s “Stork” squadron, Dubonnet later worked with an engineer to patent a four-wheel independent “hyperflex” suspension system that made its way into Alfa Romeo, Fiat, GM, and Delahaye automobiles. Bodied by Jacques Saoutchik, the “Xenia” (highlighted here) was named after Dubonnet’s late wife and began life as a Hispano-Suiza chassis he saw at the 1932 Paris Salon. It became a one-of-a-kind creation penned by aircraft and automotive designer Jean Andreau. Xenia was acquired by Mullin in 2003.
1945 Voisin Type C27 Aérosport Coupe
Only two Voisin Aérosport Coupes were built, and this example was rebodied numerous times before it was restored to its original configuration. Designed by Gabriel Voisin in collaboration with architect André Noël-Noël Telmont, the car was owned by Telmont for a decade following its showings at the 1935 Geneva and Madrid motor shows.
The Coupe subsequently passed through numerous stewards, from the son of painter Moïse Kisling and P47 Thunderbolt pilot Jean Kisling to rally driver and Renault Sport founder Jacques Terramorsi. Following some botched body modifications, Voisin expert Philipp Moch unearthed the original underslung chassis and Aérosport underpinnings and endeavored a two-year restoration process, rebuilding the body based on three period photographs. Mullin purchased the Aérosport from Moch in 2010.