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The Saga of the Caswell BNC Part 1

by pete on November 14, 2012

BNC in garage-under-cardboard

French Charm seeing the light of day after forty years. Photo by George Lymber.


French Charm

By Eric Davison

Getting involved in writing about old cars is something like a disease that is incurable. The symptoms keep on recurring. Case in point: Last year I was involved in helping my friend Phillipe Defechereux with the latest edition of his book about Watkins Glen in the period from 1948 to 1952. (Watkins Glen, The Street Years. 1948 – 1952. Dalton Watson)

The intention was to try to locate some of the cars that appeared at the Glen during those years and to tell where they are today. Unfortunately I had only a few months in which to work. To do a comprehensive job would take years and would make a pretty good book all by itself.

The famous cars were easy. Just about any car that Briggs Cunningham was involved with is in the Collier Museum in Florida. Talbot Lago Figoni coupes, while rare and wonderful, are easily traced. Poison Lil is a legend all by itself. Cars like 2.9 liter blown Alfas don’t disappear; they wind up in important collections. However it was the rare, unusual and not so famous cars that aroused my curiosity.

What's that car? Number 5 is George Caswell at Waktins Glen, 1948. The modified nose would make the car hard to identify. Behind him is the MG of Dean Bedford, Jr. Both cars would finish the Junoir Grand Prix. Photo by Harold Lance.

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In particular was the BNC. I had no idea what a BNC was; just that one had run at Watkins Glen in 1948 and had been driven by George Caswell. I could only speculate what had happened to the car. It was a spidery little two-seater that oozed personality and the only picture that I had of the car was as it was in the first corner of the Junior Prix.

When I thought I was done, I wasn’t even close.

A number of months later I wrote a series for VeloceToday.com (Watkins Glen: A Memoir) about my experiences as a teenager visiting Watkins Glen with my Dad during those early ‘street years.’

And what popped out of the woodwork? A gentleman named George Lymber wrote in to say that he was enjoying the series and that he was the current owner of that same BNC. I contacted George and here we are…the BNC. Lymber has owned the car since 2008 and has spent a lot of time tracking down its history. 1

BNC-Chassis-Moteur-Ruby

The first BNC models were still inspired by the JMK cyclecars but after 1924 until 1931, BNC developed a great number of the most attractive small sportscars in France. Some were even fitted with a supercharger. The first BNC were assembled in a small factory in Rueil-Malmaison, but the production soon moved to Levallois (a Paris suburb). These early BNC cars were equipped with Ruby 1095 cc and 1097 cc engines, made by the firm Godefroy et Levêque, who were practically neighbors Levallois. Courtesy Gijsbert-Paul Berk.

Serious students of vintage French automobiles will know that BNC stood for Bollack, Netter et Cie, a small manufacturer of sporty French cars. They began production in Paris on Avenue de Paris, 39 in the Levallois-Perret district. Levallois-Perret was an important location for the French auto industry. It was home to Delage, Citroen and the Chapron operation. Incidentally the Ile de la Grande Jatte is located on the Seine in Levallois-Perrett and is where Georges Seurat created his pointillist masterpiece “Ile de la Jatte.”

The BNC Type 527 at the peak of fame, 1929. Like the Amilcar and Salmson, they were considered 'poor man's Bugattis'. Photo courtesy Gijsbert-Paul Berk.

While the Brits were racing about their sceptered isle in MGs, Rileys and Austin 7s, the French were having a great time in their own countryside with a variety of delightful small sports cars. The best known of these was the Amilcar. A few examples still exist and show up at various vintage events. Another was Salmson. Like Amilcar, there were some very sophisticated versions. (Read about the Amilcar )

Until I started digging into this subject I never knew that the car driven into much hilarious mischief by Jacques Tati in Mr. Hulot’s Holiday was a Salmson. Later Salmsons were very sporty and fast. Also there was Mathis.

BNC-Course

The BNC Course 1.1 liter Type 527 at Le Mans, 1929. Courtesy Gijsbert-Paul Berk.

A very long time ago I saw a Mathis at an event in Michigan. That was probably 65 years ago and I haven’t seen one since. I did learn that Billy Durant was so taken with Mathis that he wanted to build a GM joint-venture Mathis alongside Oldsmobile at the Lansing, Michigan, Oldsmobile plant. 2

(Can you imagine the Rocket powered Mathis with HydraMatic and wrap around windshield?)

I don’t mention Bugatti as a small French sports car of the era. Bugattis, big and small, stand apart from every other vehicle of any era.

Footnote 1
October 5th, 2011, VeloceToday Comments section: “I enjoyed your article about the early Watkins Glen races. I presently own the #5 car entered in the 1948 race. It is a BNC-Ford special campaigned at the time by George Caswell. I would like to know if you have come across any photos of the car. Being a little obscure, both driver and car, I haven’t been able to find many photos of it. It only appeared in the 1948 race. Before and after, it ran quite a few Hill Climbs and then disappeared. I don’t have many records of this either, since sports car racing was still in its infancy, and not many records were kept. Thank you, I look forward to your next article”. George Lymber

Footnote 2
Durant not only wanted to build the Mathis, under the name of Matam–Mathis-Americana—(see “The Complete Encyclopedia of Motorcars, Georgano 1973 page 463) but was involved with doing the same for Amilcar, and bringing the tiny French car to Indy in 1928. ( See Amilcar )

Part 2 The Caswell BNC: Franco American Hybrid

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Bill Giltzow November 14, 2012 at 1:33 pm

I have a good color photo of the Caswell BNC at the Linden Airport race in 1949 taken by my father. I will email it to Peter with permission to publish

Carl Goodwin November 14, 2012 at 2:48 pm

More interesting articles about interesting cars. Thank you Eric.

George Lymber November 16, 2012 at 12:53 pm

Dear Mr.Giltzow,
Thanks for offering your photo, I hope Peter Vack will use it to enhance Eric Davison’s article on the Caswell BNC which I now own. I welcome any information that I can get about this unusual car and its driver. I would love to get a copy of the photo, and talk with you about your father’s interest in the early races that began to spring up after WWII. Are you still in the area? Many thanks again regards, George.

Jon McKnight November 18, 2012 at 4:49 pm

A great article that really piqued my interest. Can’t wait for Part 2. thanks,Eric

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