As France’s leading classic car show, Retromobile seems a fitting event to showcase a French triple class winning Le Mans 24 hour racer.
Granted, the car in question might not be a mighty pre-war Bugatti Type 57 G or Delahaye 135 S, but the 1959 Deutsch Bonnet (DB) HBR4 Barquette is as much a part the 24 hour race’s history as these fine Le Mans winners.
Conceived and constructed by racing engineer Charles Deutsch and leading aerodynamist Rene Bonnet, the HBR4 was an evolution of a long line of Panhard-powered small, aerodynamic and efficient Le Mans racers from the early 1950s onwards.
This DB barquette was one of a number of HBR4 derivatives that campaigned the Le Mans endurance events in the late 1950s and early 60s, with other race models including closed coupes and berlinette lightweight fibreglass body types.
This particular HBR4 took three consecutive class wins at Le Mans, including the prestigious Index of Performance in 1959 and 1960, as well as a first in the widely contested 501 to 750 cc class, plus the Coupe Biennale. The 744cc DB also finished an impressive ninth position overall in the 1959, beating many substantially larger and more powerful cars. In 1960 the car finished in 15th place overall, with an 18th (but no class wins) in 1961, the last year that the DB marque would compete at Le Mans.
Due to differing design philosophies, the Bonnet and Deutsch partnership split in late 1961, with Rene Bonnet favouring a mid-engined configuration, ultimately using Renault power, whilst the gifted aerodynamist Deutsch remained loyal to front-wheel-drive Panhard power (but also dabbled with DKW and Peugeot engines) for his uber-slippery racers.
For the 1962 Le Mans, rather than being partners, Deutsch and Bonnet were now racing rivals, competing against each other, with the former’s C.D. Panhard taking the Index of Performance award, and Rene Bonnet’s pioneering Djet (which went on to become the world’s first production mid-engined sportscar) first place in the 851cc to 1000 cc class. Both rivals would continue to compete at Le Mans until the mid-1960s, with Deutsch going on to design the Bugatti circuit at the Sarthe race venue.
This charming little DB HBR4 Barquette can usually be seen on permanent display at the Le Mans circuit museum, Le Musee des 24 Heures, which is well worth a visit next time you are visiting the famous Sarthe track.
Photography by Gary Axon