How A Double Agent’s Talbot-Lago Lived Two Lives

Sitting on the floor of RM’s Chatham, Ontario restoration shops were two nearly identical Talbot-Lago T150-SS cabriolets, one a chassis with its body removed, the other nearly complete. That both were there at the same time was just a coincidence, yet considering their intertwined relationship and subsequent lengthy separation the odds of it happening were long, indeed. It’s a story that includes spies, race drivers, the swapping of components and registrations, and the inevitable confusion over each car’s true identity.
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Our tale begins in 1938, when twenty-three Talbot-Lago SS chassis were constructed in the firm’s Suresnes, France, factory. All but two, possibly three, were coupes, the others cabriolets. Outwardly similar, none would be exactly alike for it was typical that luxury automobiles built in small numbers would have custom bodies, thus each would be unique. Talbot-Lagos were certainly not mass production but they did come with impeccable specifications thanks to Anthony Lago’s enthusiasm for high-performance cars.

The Italian had, himself, a fascinating history. First employed as an engineer with the manufacturer of Wilson pre-selector gearboxes he subsequently joined STD (Sunbeam-Talbot Darracq), an English-French combo that sold Sunbeams and Talbots in England and Darraqs and Talbots in France. Neither company was doing well at the time so Lago was sent to France in search of a cure for the ailing French firm. When Rootes took over the English branch Lago assumed total control of the Talbot-Darracq operation, renaming it Talbot-Lago.

For someone in love with beautiful sports-touring cars the dull transportation devices being manufactured by his newly acquired firm were not enough to stir Lago’s competitive juices. He began by ordering his engineer, Walter Becchia, to design a new engine based on the 4-litre Talbot-Darraq Type K78, a six-cylinder pushrod ohv unit. Becchia provided an ingenious hemi-head with valves worked by crosswise pushrods. With twin Solex carburetors the engine delivered 140 hp at 4000 rpm. Semi-automatic pre-selector Wilson gearboxes were, of course, standard. Known as the Type 150-SS, the rugged chassis featured independent front suspension utilising a transverse spring. Most of the cars were clothed with voluptuous coachwork by Figoni et Falaschi although Pourtot was also a designer/builder of Talbot-Lago coupes.

Talbot-Lago SS chassis 90111, the subject of this tale, was first registered by Michel Dassonville of Lille, a young wool merchant with a successful family business and enough resources to become a serious car collector. Chassis 90115 was also delivered in 1938; the client was an M. Cottino, although the registration was made out to a Marseilles company.

At a glance the two cars may have looked like twins but they were different in subtle yet significant details. 90111 had its wipers on the top of the windshield frame, with the headlamps on visible brackets, whereas 90115’s wipers were cowl-mounted and its headlamps were placed directly on the fender catwalks. 90115’s front bumper had a slight downward vee in the middle; the sister car’s blade-like bumper is straight. What largely distinguished one from the other, however, was the color scheme. 90111’s body and wheels were ivory, contrasted with red fenders and moldings. Figoni’s records tell us that 90115 had a metallic blue body with fenders in iridescent blue.

Not long after the cars were delivered to their respective owners the story became more than a description of technical details. By 1941 Dassonville had moved to Paris, taking 90111 with him and re-registering it with a Paris number. Although the Germans had occupied France, Dassonville somehow maintained his business interests. How was this possible in such circumstances? In reality he was a double agent, a spy, who escaped to Brazil before hostilities ended, leaving 90111 behind. A French tribunal sentenced him to death in 1948, however Dassonville remained in Rio de Janeiro, where he died four years later.
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We know little of 90111’s history during the war years but somehow it survived to 1952 when it was sold to Lucien Fayen in Paris and driven with the same registration numbers as 90115, which was also owned by Fayen. And this is where things get confusing, for Fayen found it more convenient to swap license and chassis plates whenever he chose to drive one of the Talbot-Lagos rather than endure a French taxation system that penalised owners of cars with large capacity engines. Fayen later sold 90111 to George Leroy of Montvilliers who continued to use it with 90115’s license number: 796 CA76.

Here we must deviate to the sister car’s history, which is perhaps more interesting even though the former was restored to its original beauty while the chassis of 90115 awaited a restoration than would take many more months to complete.

90115 had remained in Marseilles during the war, in 1946 being sold to Louis Rosier, a Talbot specialist and well-known race driver from Clermont Ferrand. Motorsports had obviously ceased during hostilities but you can’t stop racers from racing and it wasn’t long before competition resumed, albeit with an odd collection of pre-war cars and early attempts at newer designs, plus whatever machines enthusiasts could cobble together. Rosier immediately took his T150-SS to the track, removing only the fenders and cutting down the driver’s door to provide an armrest.

In that stripped down state 90115 was no longer the glamour queen it had been when Figoni and Falaschi introduced the 150-SS in Paris, but we can’t blame Rosier for little else was available. Not that he lacked success, thanks to the modified Talbot-Darraq engine. He scrapped its original body and adapted the chassis, including a proper monoposto body, to single-seater racing. In 1948 he sold it to Charles Huc of Bordeaux, and in 1951 Huc sold the much modified race car to Lucien Fayen. After competing at the Doullens hillclimb on May 20, 1952, Fayen sold 90115, as mentioned earlier, to George Leroy. The original body had allegedly been scrapped.

The mystery deepens. Historian Pierre Yves Laugier claims that the chassis plates for both cars had been switched during the Fayen and Leroy ownerships, so that if stopped by police the numbers on the car would match those on the registration. He even suggests that the body from 90111 was transferred to 90115 and writes “we believe that the car known as 90115 in the USA, ex-Mashek, has body ex-90111.” A complete body transplant seems odd if provenance matters, thus Laugier adds that “close examination of the 90115 chassis in the USA could possibly tell us if it ever sported the racing body.” That examination, however, took place in Canada, sixty miles north of the Michigan border.

Over to the sleuths at RM Restoration in Chatham, Ontario, led by chief investigator Don McLellan: he reports that the two cars had indeed been renumbered. The race car carried chassis plate 90111, while the surviving cabriolet carried 90115, which corresponded to license plate 796 CA76. However a closer examination showed that the windshield frame not only included the top rail mounting holes for the wipers but the outer end was stamped “661,” the commission number for the Figoni body affixed to chassis 90111. Several pieces of trim were similarly stamped, an important process in the building of a custom body where correct parts need to be mated. Conclusion: 90111 was wearing its body and chassis plate with number plates attached from 90115.
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An impressive performer, the engine features triple Solex carburetors and now produces 150 hp, thus justifying the Type name 150-SS. It’s the Figoni et Falaschi body, however, that most distinguishes Kentucky collector Jim Patterson’s T150-SS Cabriolet. With hardly a straight line to be found, aside from the windshield and bumper, it typifies a French car designer’s focus on curvaceous lines combined with art deco fashion and period streamlining. A close look will also reveal how Sir William Lyons may have been influenced when designing his Jaguar XK 120. But if that marque association is not enough for you, be aware that Zora Arkus-Duntov once owned a 4-1/2 litre Talbot-Lago single-seater, an unsuccessful competitor in the 1941 Indy 500. (Two cars were entered but failed to qualify, not being suited to oval-track racing.) Arkus-Duntov was the man behind the Corvette’s development from concept to “America’s sports car.”

Ralph Stein, in his book The Great Cars, devotes several pages to Talbot-Lago. It includes a color photo of a 1937 Figoni and Falaschi Type 150-SS, shown above two rare but beautiful postwar models. Otherwise identical to 90111, including the license number 796 CA76, the body is silver-blue with matching fenders. It’s not known who ordered the repaint, or why, but a photograph from another source shows both cars together at Rouen during George Leroy’s ownership; 90111 has been repainted in that photo. Fortunately the beautiful T150-SS now sports its original color scheme.

So RM has solved the mystery and Jim Patterson’s Cabriolet is certainly what it claims to be. Adding the perfect postscript to this tale, Talbot-Lago T150-SS, chassis number 90111, finished first in the “European Classic: French Grand Touring Class” at the 2012 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. The sister Talbot-Lago, 90115, made its appearance at Pebble Beach in 2013, winning the “Elegance in Motion” trophy.

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