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Car of the Month - July 2009

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Donnet-Zedel CI-7 - conduite interieur body - manufactured in 1929

Donnet-Zedel was a French car manufacturer that not many people will remember. The marque only existed for a short while, though its roots lay in the beginning of the twentieth century and its factory produced cars up to the 1970s. A special aspect was that it was founded and managed by Swiss.
It started with engine manufacturers Zürcher & Lühti & Cie. in Neuchatel, Switzerland in 1898. For export reasons the company established a branch in Pontarlier, just across the border in France and abbreviated its name to Zedel (phonetic for Z-L). Soon the production of cars was added to the activities in Pontarlier and until World War I a varied range of luxury cars was offered which were made in relatively small numbers. During the war the factory was requisitioned by the French government for the production of grenades. When the hostilities had ended Zedel started offering its old models again but this proved not to be profitable.
And so the company was bought by Swiss industrialist Jerome Donnet in 1919. Donnet had made a fortune during the war making water planes and planned to enter the middle class market with mass produced cars, not unlike André Citroen did at the same time. The Zedel luxury car models were gradually phased out in favour of smaller engined, more affordable models. First of these was the CI-5, which was made in small numbers. It was replaced by the CI-6 in 1922 and this was the model that put Automobiles Zedel on the map. Though it was based on a design that could be traced back to 1912 it was durable and dependable and became a popular model.
In 1924 the name of the company was changed to Donnet-Zedel and production was rapidly stepped up. Next to the old factory in Pontarlier new production facilities were acquired, amongst them Donnet's old plane factory and the former Vinot & Deguingand factory at Nanterre, which was turned into a modern 5-story production line. New models were introduced to complete the range, most notably the affordable G-series with smaller engines. Donnet-Zedel grew to be the fourth largest car manufacturer in France in 1927-1928, only beaten by Renault, Citroen and Peugeot. The obsolete Pontarlier factory was sold in 1929 and with that both the CI-6 model and the Zedel name disappeared. Now the cars were simply called Donnet.
The CI-6 and the G-series models were replaced by the CI-7 and CI-10, which were 4-cylinder models with 1294 cc and 1978 cc displacement and accompanied by a series of more expensive and less popular 6-cylinder models. By now Donnet had formed an alliance with Delahaye, Unic and Chenard & Walcker to conquer the economic depression but at the start of the 1930s things began going downhill for Donnet. Sales fell rapidly and new models, amongst which a little 2-stroke 2-cylinder model called the Donnette, weren't able to turn the tide. By 1934 the factories were sold to Henri-Theodore Pigozzi, who started licensed production of FIAT models under the name of SIMCA in Nanterre in 1935. This meant the end for Donnet.
A small number of 4-cylinder Donnets was assembled and sold by Contin-Souza, a supplier of electric components, in 1935. They also offered a redesigned version as the Donnet-Contin D35 up to 1936. After that the Donnet name disappeared from the market. The Nanterre factory however was in continuous use until 1968, with as last occupant Citroen which is sort of ironic.

Most Donnet cars weren't very elegant or innovative, nor did the company indulge much in activities to boost their image. This is probably why the success of the marque was short lived and it succumbed to competition, in contrast to Citroen. In total some 100,000 cars were made under the Zedel, Donnet-Zedel and Donnet name, the majority between 1920 and 1930. A reasonable number of Donnet cars have survived to this day and though not particularly valuable there are still enough enthusiasts to keep this forgotten marque on the road for us to enjoy.

© André Ritzinger, Amsterdam, Holland

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