The 1923 Delage DHV12 is mighty yet elegant

09th November 2022
Andrew Willis

As Delage showcased its insane 1,115PS (832 kW) prototype V12 hypercar at the 2022 Goodwood Festival of Speed presented by Mastercard, we thought it prudent to educate ourselves about the French marque’s V12 credentials. And what better way to do so than taking a nose around the exquisitely presented, largely original Delage DHV12 from 1923. A World Speed Record holder that unquestionably inspired the engineers who developed its modern-day two-seater descendant, itself sporting a 7.6-litre naturally-aspirated V12 hybrid engine.


With a staggering 99 years between the two cars, the gulf in engineering and styling couldn’t be more vast. Yet despite their differences, standing next to the imposing but still very much beautiful 1923 DHV12, it’s evident that humanity’s need for speed was as vital and life affirming then as it is today.

Built at the Paris works in 1923 by Frenchman Rene Thomas, the record-breaker is all engine. The enormous V12 is mounted within a nine-foot-three-inch chassis, with a cosy two-seater cockpit pushed way back over the rear axle. Like many cars of the period, much of its aesthetics and engineering harks to the styling of a WW1 bi-plane. As does the enormous 10.5 litre V12 engine, capable of 355PS (264 kW) with two valves per cylinder worked by pushrods and a five-bearing crank.

It is a car with a staggering history, accented by its world record breaking 143.3 mph performance on the open public roads at Arpajon in 1924. But aside from that achievement, one that was broken merely a week later by Fiat, the Delage went on to win races and hold records right through to 1935. Notably with a Ladies’ Brooklands Outer Lap record of 129.5 mph by Mrs Kay Petre – a record that remains unbroken. A certain John Cobb would also own and drive the car between 1929 and 1931 during his own domination of Brooklands.


While gawping at the open engine bay, breathing in the heady fumes of yesteryear, Eddie Williams from the Classic Motor Hub introduced himself. As the man responsible for piloting the DHV12 in anger up the Goodwood Hill during the Timed Shootout, we were keen to hear his thoughts on the Delage’s performance.

“It's got lots of power, but it's really easy to drive. It's very smooth. But you can fire this car up and drive it down to the shops to get your sandwiches. It's that kind of car. Still very elegant.

“It revs to around three and a half thousand rpm. I'm not going to be thrashing it, but I am planning on pushing to around 90 per cent. It would be good not to let any older cars beat me. That's the goal.”

As a man who has plenty of historic racing experience under his belt, including a Brooklands Trophy win alongside Duncan Pittaway in a Frazer-Nash, there’s a chance Eddie is being modest. There is of course the very real consideration of self-preservation involved.


“It's a big and heavy thing. It takes quite a lot of stopping. It's quite physical. In the corners it floats and slides around quite nicely because these beaded tires are blown up to about 80 psi. But you need to be careful.”

In terms of stopping power, the Delage has four original drum brakes, fitted during John Cobb’s ownership to contend with the speeds of Brooklands. But before that, the DHV12 didn’t run front brakes at all, with stopping being the last of Rene Thomas’ worries.

Ironically enough, it is the braking which identifies a small chink in the Delage’s armour, pushing fuel forwards into the four enormous carbs, essentially stalling the engine unless there is a deft amount of throttle feathering taking place under braking. Very much similar to early fighter planes, notably the Spitfire, that would stall out during inverted rolls and loops. But other than that, Eddie is confident, if a little superstitious about the Delage’s reliability.


“I’m looking for a bit of wood to touch. There we go, the original wooden steering wheel. That'll do. You just need to be careful to check everything before you start. Oiling all the valves before each start up. Crank it over a few times to get oil pressure. Generally, though, it is very reliable.

“The original engine did have a huge blow out. A rod went through the side of it. The engine has been recast with a new crankcase. The majority of it is completely original though, from the bodywork to the carbs. The most fascinating bit is the steering wheel. That's the same wheel all of the drivers and owners have clung on to.”

It’s this tangible link to history that clearly excites Eddie, and as we say our goodbyes, he gushes a short, simple summary of why he came to the Festival of Speed: “This car is the reason I wanted to work where I do. Being able to look after it. I just love it. I love the look. I love the noise. It's even fast by today's standards. It’s a remarkable thing”.

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