From smuggling watches to racing at Le Mans: This Delahaye has lived the most exciting life
Whisky heir Rob Walker’s wealth allowed him to indulge his passion for cars: Gullwings, Dinos, Facel Vegas… you get the drift. They came and went, the sale of one helping with the purchase of another.
But one so gripped him that he bought it three times: once as a Cambridge undergraduate, once from Customs & Excise and once sight unseen.
He loved its Art Deco looks, thrilled to its title of Britain’s Fastest Road Car and guided it to an eighth place at Le Mans – the highlight of his competition CV as a driver rather than an entrant.
Delahaye’s 135S of 1935 was emblematic of its recent merger with the more sporty Delage marque – and symptomatic of France’s preference for racing production-based sportscars rather than be crushed by the might of Germany’s Silver Arrows in Grands Prix (although Delahaye’s 145, a 4.5-litre V12, when driven by the dapper René Dreyfus, would embarrass the brand new Mercedes-Benz W154 shared by Rudi Caracciola and Hermann Lang at the 1938 Pau GP).
The 135’s humbler 3.6-litre pushrod straight-six was sufficient to propel its 18cwt to 130mph and so mix it with homegrown rivals Bugatti and Talbot.
One of the original batch was registered in Britain – and DUV 870’s first owner Tom Clarke raced it in the 1936 RAC Tourist Trophy, the last run at Ards, Northern Ireland: it held briefly the fastest lap before retiring because of ignition woes.
By the time Walker spotted it in a Park Lane showroom, it had been raced by Prince Bira, who co-drove it to victory alongside Riley expert Hector Dobbs in a 12-hour race at Donington Park in 1937, and also by noted ERA driver Arthur Dobson.
Infatuated, Walker purchased this his first competition machine on Higher Purchase – its £400 tag being £60 beyond his annual allowance – and used it in national sprints, hill climbs and minor races.
But in a nod to his future in the sport, he had Dobson drive it at Brooklands’ Whitsun Meeting of 1939, which is when it beat all-comers in aggregate races over the Surrey venue’s Campbell and Mountain layouts to determine Britain’s fastest road car.
Walker, however, would have to do the bulk of the driving at Le Mans three weeks later.
“The footwell was overheated hugely due to a leaking exhaust,” explains Walker’s son Robbie. “But my father happened to have a pair of rope-soled shoes with him and, when soaked in water, they just about protected him between pit stops.
“Poor Ian Connell [Walker’s co-driver] had no such protection and so my father did about 18 hours.”
The sartorial Walker also happened to have packed a pinstripe suit, into which he changed as dusk fell at La Sarthe; thus Robbie will be so attired when he parades the car at the Goodwood Revival.
The poor Delahaye, however, has not always looked so smart.
Stored in a squash court during WWII, it returned to Le Mans in 1949 but retired when its engine’s unchanged bearings failed after 21 hours.
Restyled somewhat unsympathetically in ‘the modern idiom’ – streamlined nose and headrest – it then suffered the ignominy of being impounded at Newhaven docks when Guy Jason-Henry, who leased the car, used a dummy fuel tank to try to smuggle 3,000 Swiss watches into the UK.
Walker had to pay £400 for its release.
“I was returning with the car from Le Mans in the 1980s when I, too, was pulled over at Newhaven,” says Robbie. “The officer involved was old but not old enough to have been present in 1950, but he explained that the car was so recogniseable and that its was a well-known case.”
Walker’s third purchase of it occurred in 1970 in an auction to raise money for the RNLI. This time it cost him £5,000 and a heap of heartache when it arrived at his Dorking garage looking as though it had been shipwrecked.
Faithful mechanic John Chisman restored the waterlogged machine to its former glory by referring to a very detailed scale model that Walker had commissioned before WWII, as well as period photos.
“It’s terrific to drive – once you’re in it,” says Robbie. “It takes me about 10 minutes because the gap between the steering wheel and seat is so small.
“It’s quick. Very torquey. And the gearbox is fantastic.”
The latter is a Cotal electro-magnetic epicyclic affair that selects its ratios – four forward and four reverse – at the flick of a switch. Walker had its original and rare crash ’box removed after he hurt his left hand not long before his Le Mans adventure.
DUV 870 recently featured extensively in an extended ad for Johnnie Walker Blue Label entitled The Gentleman’s Wager II – with bit parts for world champions Jenson Button and Mika Häkkinen – and Robbie had to coach leading man Jude Law about the car’s quirks: “Its steering lock is terrible, its brakes nonexistent, compared to a modern car at least, and it’s very uncomfortable.
“But it meant a great deal to my father. I couldn’t say for sure if it was his favourite but certainly it was very high on the list.”
A very stylish and exclusive list at that.
Photography courtesy of Peter Russell and Johnnie Walker Ltd.