Motoring Weekly’s marque articles have covered some of the earlier car companies that have been swallowed up by other manufacturers that are still producing vehicles. This week I am going to talk about Darracq, another pioneer in the European market.
Alexandre Darracq founded his car company in 1896. He was a Frenchman of Spanish origins and was an entrepreneur and astute businessman who stretched his tentacles into several European markets. His first company was set up to manufacture bicycles – a common thread in early motoring as many bicycle manufacturers evolved to make motorcycles or switched to building cars.
Darracq formed the Gladiator Cycle Company in 1891 in France and ran it for 5 years before selling out to Adolphe Clement and the British aristocrat Charles Chetwynd-Talbot. They continued the bicycle production but also added in cars as Clement had won the deal to produce Panhards that he renamed Clement-Panhard and in the UK they were called Clement-Talbot, which ultimately became the Talbot brand which would come full circle and join up with the Darracq brand years later. The Gladiator brand was used on some cars for over 20 years with a variety of company owners.
With the money that Darracq made from selling Gladiator, he founded Automobiles Darracq to initially build electric carriages and in 1900 launched his first true car, an electric powered vehicle capable of 15kmh and a time range of four hours use. It is said that Darracq didn’t really like cars but he saw the market as a way to make money and improve manufacturing processes. The first petrol powered cars used a Leon Bollee designed horizontal engine and Darracq had learned much from the bicycle industry, especially as he had fitted a radial motor to a bicycle frame!
The cars soon changed to a more conventional vertical twin cylinder engine design with 12hp and in 1902 Darracq released a four cylinder car with 20hp and a pressed steel chassis. To increase sales and therefore reduce unit costs, Darracq signed a deal to supply Adam Opel in Germany with rolling chassis. These were then clothed with an Opel body and sold as Opel-Darracqs. This agreement lasted for five years.
As the business grew, Darracq also saw a need for motor sport as a marketing tool and he built a car that captured the Land Speed Record at 104mph in 1904. He then developed a 10-litre car for racing in 1905 and also a 200hp V8 based car that pushed the Land Speed Record to 109 mph. Some of the cars ended up in the US and were successfully raced in the Vanderbilt Cup by drivers including Louis Chevrolet and one of the cars again broke the Land Speed Record in the US, pushing it out to 122mph.
This provided significant market exposure and still in 1905, Darracq expanded by opening a British outfit called the A. Darracq Company in collaboration with some British investors who pumped money into the parent company. This was followed in 1906 by the formation of Società Italiana Automobili Darracq in Milan with backing from an Italian aristocrat and in 1907 by the formation of Sociedad Anonima Espanola de Automoviles Darracq in Spain. Not much is known about the Spanish subsidiary – there is very little information about whether they built cars locally or were just a sales outlet.
Darracq also put together a deal to build taxi-cabs and ordered several thousand chassis so that a new factory could create the cab bodies and ship across Europe and the US. This lead the company to start building more heavy vehicles including trucks and steam buses. Another product that was spawned from this diversification was an aero engine. By 1909, the Italian subsidiary was struggling to keep afloat so Darracq sold it to a group of investors who reformed the company as Anonima Lombarda Fabricca Automobili. This company was then bought by Nicola Romeo and rebranded as Alfa Romeo!
In 1913, Alexandre Darracq sold the parent company to some British investors including Owen Clegg who had jumped ship from Rover after working at Wolseley. Darracq then retired to the French Riviera to manage a casino – clearly another way to make money! Clegg moved to Paris and continued to build cars – some based on a design that he had been working on at Rover, although the First World War was looming and like other manufacturers, they stopped building cars in favour of war equipment until 1919. The first cars to be built after the war were the pre-war models and Clegg engineered a merger with Clement-Talbot to form Talbot-Darracq.
The following year the British company Sunbeam who had been successful developing bicycles, cars and aero engines bought the merged entity and created the Sunbeam-Talbot-Darracq company. The French factory built cars that were sold as Talbots in France but Darracqs in Britain!
This conglomerate lasted until 1935 when it collapsed financially and the British side was acquired by the Rootes Group with Anthony Lago picking up the assets in France to create the Lago-Talbot marque. Lago had been very instrumental in developing sports cars for the company and got the assets in a fire sale. By this stage the Darracq name had all but disappeared and did so completely after Rootes bought the British assets.
Lago-Talbots were built at the old Darracq factory in Paris and were absorbed by Simca in the early 1960s, which in turn was bought by Chrysler who yet again brought all of the brands together when it acquired the Rootes Group.