Last revised: 24-7-2011

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Car of the Month - February 2011

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Derby Six L1 - cruiser body - manufactured in 1930

This rather unusual display for designer shoes is formed by a Derby, a car made in Courbevoie, France. Derby manufactured cars in the same vein and era as Amilcar, Rally, BNC etcetera which were usually lightweight sportscars with limited capacity engines. It was Bertrant Montet, assisted by Georges GoŽtt, who established the Derby marque in 1921 as an offshoot of the engineering firm he started in 1912. As he was a Harley-Davidson dealer at the time the first Derby models were so-called cyclecars powered by the V-twin engines of the famous motorcycles.
These first cars were very basic 2-seater sportscars, aimed at competition. Soon they were joined by more elaborate models powered by 4-cylinder Chapuis-Dornier engines which replaced the Harley-Davidson propelled models by 1923. From the early beginnings racing formed an important part of the company's activities, accumulating numerous victories in the popular cyclecar and voiturette races in the process. Derby rapidly gained credit for making competent sportscars and became known beyond the borders of France, especially in Belgium and Italy. Its most important export market however became Great Britain, after a Derby cyclecar had set a record on the famous Brooklands circuit by driving 320 km at an average speed of 110 kph in 1923. This may not seem much now but at the time it was an impressive feat for a car weighing less then 350 kg and being powered by a tiny 1097 cc 4-cylinder engine, though this engine did have 3 overhead valves per cylinder and 2 carburettors.
Next to the sportscars Derby also added roadsters, saloon cars and even a small van to its range of models and production rose from 50 cars in 1922 and 1923 to 80 in 1924 and up to 200 in 1926. That year was one of the most successful in the history of Derby, following its first Grand Prix victory in the 1925 Grand Prix de Boulogne-sur-Mer with a car named the Grand Sport Special which featured an aluminum monocoque construction. Also one of the best known Derby models was introduced, the Type C, which scored 24 victories in 35 races. Boosted by this success Derby introduced larger and more stylish models and also offered more engine choices, adding 1096 cc SCAP and 1097 cc Ruby engine options, which could be fitted with superchargers, to the standard Chapuis-Dornier engine. In Italy Derby cars were assembled and sold under the Fadini name between 1924 and 1926 while in Great Britain the type C was sold by racing driver Vernon Balls as the Vernon-Derby from 1927 till 1930. To boost the marque's image the Grand Sport Special and other competition models raced by the factory team were offered to customers as well, in order to accumulate as many victories on the track as possible. All this ensured healthy sales and expansion of Derby's sales network through Europe though the peak production of 1926 was never reached again; in 1927 and 1928 around 150 Derby cars were made each year.
By 1928 lowered ("surbaissť") chassis became available which could be fitted 6-cylinder engines by CIME and with this step up Derby abandoned its cyclecar origins and established itself in the Voiturette class, offering compact but full-grown cars. Unfortunately the progress of Derby was seriously jeopardized by the sudden death of Bertrant Montet during surgery in 1928. His place was taken by Georges GoŽtt and he steered the marque through the difficult years of the economic depression by concentrating on car repair- and maintenance while developing and introducing new models like the type L and L1, attractive cars with 4-cylinder Ruby and 6-cylinder CIME engines up to 1847 cc displacement. Also Derby's involvement in competition continued, crowned by 7 victories and numerous podium finishes in 1929 scored by factory driver Rougeyron.

Fresh capital was attracted in 1930 when British racing drivers Wallace Douglas Hawkes and his fiancťe Gwenda Steward took over the company. The Brits acquired Derby following their record attempts in France during 1929 where Steward set some endurance records with a 3-wheeled Morgan, followed by both drivers taking to the circuit in a Vernon-Derby and scoring endurance records over 1000 miles, 2000 km, 12 hours and 24 hours. Clearly they saw potential in the small French manufacturer and had some special plans for it.
Hawkes had a bought a front wheel drive Miller racecar in the US in 1929 and from 1930 this car was entered in competition as Derby-Miller though the Derby company only kept the car in good working order. Especially Gwenda Steward generated a lot of publicity with this car in the early 1930s. Engineer Etinenne Lepicard, formerly of Donnet, was attracted to develop Derby's own front wheel drive car. In 1931 this model, the L2, was shown at the Paris Motor Show in three body styles and got plenty of attention thanks to the attractive looks. The L2 was fitted with a 4-cylinder 1097 cc Ruby engine in a revolutionary fully detachable drivetrain and was relatively successful with 200 of them sold in 1931 and 1932. Lepicard's dream however was creating a V8 powered car with front wheel drive and that was realized in 1933 when the last and most exotic Derby appeared: the L8 with a 1992 cc V8 engine providing up to 85 hp to the front wheels. It was a very beautiful and compact luxury car which was fitted with elegant low slung bodies by Duval and other famous coachbuilders. Initially a production of 100 of these cars were planned but ultimately only about 20 left the factory.
From 1934 Derby was in serious financial trouble. Developing the front wheel drive models had been too expensive and sales declined with the introduction of the CitroŽn Traction Avant in 1934. In 1936 the curtain fell for the small but illustrious manufacturer, finishing in style with the last Derby being a Grand Prix car designed by Lepicard with front wheel drive and a 1500 cc Maserati 4CM supercharged engine to replace the venerable (and to Lepicard offending) Derby-Miller. Georges GoŽtt continued manufacturing towing hitches in the Derby factory, which lasted well into the 1980s.

The elegant Derby L1 2-seater shown here is fitted with the lowered chassis and the 6-cylinder 1837 cc CIME engine driving the rear wheels through a 4-speed gearbox. It's one of the only around 10 Derby cars that have survived to this day, which is a remarkably low number considering production count and the much higher survival rate of similar cars like the Amilcar. Still, though generally not well known, Derby cars are appreciated by collectors and enthusiasts alike and the few that have remained are very valuable.

© André Ritzinger, Amsterdam, Holland

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