This small company will forever be in the motor sports history books, thanks to one major race win – the first running of the Le Mans 24 hour race. The company is Chenard et Walcker.
The company was founded in France in 1900 by Ernest Chenard and Henri Walcker. Chenard was a railway engineer and like many other formative car builders, he also manufactured bicycles. Walcker was a mining engineer and as such was used to engines being used in industry. The two engineers had first got together two years earlier to apply their skills in making motorised tricycles.
In 1900 they made their first true four wheeled car, which was advanced for the time with a 1100cc, two-cylinder motor and a four-speed gearbox driving the rear wheels. Because this was at the start of industry, there was a lot of experimentation and Chenard designed the transmission with two drive shafts – one for each wheel. The car was shown at the 1901 Paris Motor Show. Production was brisk and after several years had grown enough to buy a larger factory making taxis for the Paris market. By 1910 they were making 1,500 cars a year – quite a feat as this was at least a decade before mass production became commonplace in Europe.
By the time Europe collapsed into conflict in 1914, Chenard were making models with several four and six cylinder engines and they then switched to making Hispano-Suiza aircraft engines as well as the Type U car – for military use. Once the war had finished, Chenard went back to producing an updated version of the Type U – the UU powered by their 4.5 litre six. They also added in a 2.6 litre model called the 12CV and they also built some commercial vehicles as well.
Ernest Chenard died in 1922 and his son Lucien took over. The company then produced a new three litre sports model. It was this car that took the top two places at the very first Le Mans 24 hour race in 1923. This success helped the company grow in size and by the mid 1920s they were the fourth largest car manufacturer in France. As often described in these European marque histories, the economy of the 1920s came to a screeching halt and many companies needed to merge or collaborate to survive. Chenard needed that support too and they collaborated with Delahaye for several years, sharing designs and components.
The early 1930s were even more of a struggle for Chenard and by 1936 they were bankrupt and the assets were acquired by Chausson, a coach-builder who bought bodies from Matford, a joint venture between Mathis and Ford. That partnership ultimately became Ford of France. The Chenard cars used Ford V8s or Citroen engines with different body trim to distinguish them from the Matford cars.
Car production stopped in 1940 due to the Second World War and Chenard developed light vans for military use which quickly became available for civilian sales as well. Interestingly, with fuel rationing in place, Chenard even offered an electric version of their van! Once hostilities had stopped, they continued manufacturing commercial vehicles until they were purchased again, this time by Peugeot who bought the parent company in the late 1940s. One of the first changes to be applied after the acquisition was the replacement of the Citroen engines with Peugeot ones and they used the Chenard et Walcker brand until 1950 when it was finally dropped with the vehicles being rebranded as a Peugeot.
The Chausson business was kept alive to build buses and commercial vehicles and became a contract manufacturer for Renault and Citroen – they built the fabulous Citroen SM at their factory and even the Opel GT. Today, many of those partnerships are now all under the PSA Group: Peugeot, Chausson, Chenard et Walcker, Citroen and Opel are all combined into one entity.