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October 17th, 2007

While doing research for this article, Mr. Lancaster began a search to find the current location of the ex-Ramponi/Seaman Delage. He found it in the hands of Mr. Abraham Kogan, who has consigned it to the RM Auction in London. Our thanks to RM Auctions for providing the illustrations used in this article.

Albert Lory's 1926 Delage was a masterpiece of racing design. French Champion Louis Chiron placed seventh at the 1929 Indianapolis 500. Courtesy RM Auctions.

Read Ramponi Part I.

Story by Nicholas Lancaster

Louis Delage had been active in Grand Prix racing since before the First World War with a series of first-rate designs that had achieved numerous successes, culminating in victory in the Indianapolis 500 in 1914. In the mid-1920’s Delage returned to front line motor sport with the introduction of the 1923 2 Litre V12 engined Grand Prix car, designed by Charles Planchon, and refined by his protégé Albert Lory.

Whilst the V12 eventually came good, winning the Grand Prix of Spain in 1925, the design had suffered from numerous initial teething problems, and this cost Planchon his job. For 1926, a change of formula required the use of 1.5 litre engines and Lory — who had eventually developed the V12 into a winner — took a different approach with the new car, designing a jewel-like supercharged straight-eight engine capable of 170 bhp at 8000 rpm.

Richard Seaman was perhaps the greatest British interwar driver. Giulio Ramponi gets a time check before a race, while Seaman sits in the Delage. Courtesy RM Auctions.

If the engine was brilliant the chassis left something to be desired, the length of the engine/transmission limiting the scope for a cross member to strengthen the structure, a problem that afflicted the design throughout its career and would later allow Giulio Ramponi to demonstrate his ingenuity, with the aid of two blocks of wood! There was one other major design flaw — the exhaust ran along the right hand side of the cockpit and roasted the driver. During the 1926 season the cars must have established some sort of record for driver changes — indeed in at least one instance a car was disqualified because of this game of musical chairs.

For 1927 a number of improvements were made, by far the most important seeing the intake and exhaust ports changed to opposite sides so that the exhaust ran along the car’s left-hand side, well away from the driver. Finally the Delage was able to realise its potential, with Robert Benoist winning in France, Spain, Italy, and Great Britain, to earn Delage the World Championship and for himself, the Légion d'Honneur.

The front view of the restored Delage, which will be sold at the R&M Auction on October 31st. Courtesy RM Auctions.

With the subsequent withdrawal of the factory from competition, several cars were sold to private owners, including race driving English aristocrat Earl Howe, who owned two of the cars, racing them with some success before destroying the chassis of one car in an accident at Monza. In the other car he had dominated the 1932 Avusrennen at Berlin, lapping the entire field within seven laps, but that was well before the appearance of the ERA and Maserati designs that were setting the standards in the very competitive 1.5 litre voiturette class by the mid-1930’s.

Meanwhile, whilst working for Whitney Straight, Giulio Ramponi had also prepared an MG for Richard Seaman and, following Straight’s retirement form the sport, Ramponi continued to work for Seaman, preparing an ERA during the 1935 season. The year was not a success and for the following season Seaman was convinced that the works entered ERAs would have an advantage over his own car. He began to look around for an alternative, capable of taking on the works ERAs on equal terms. To his astonishment, Ramponi claimed to know of just such a car — the Earl Howe owned 1927 Grand Prix Delage.

The ex-Seaman Delage is currently owned by Mr. Abraham Kogan. Courtesy RM Auctions.

Howe seems to have been quite attached to the car and took a little persuading to part with it, but finally agreed to sell, as — ironically enough – he thought that the ERA was the way to go for 1936. But finally the deal was done and, with the Delage in his workshop, Giulio proceeded to strip the old car down and begin a rebuild on the basis of increasing power whilst also stiffening the chassis and reducing weight. A new front suspension and a larger fuel tank were installed whilst a new five speed gearbox from a V12 Delage was fitted. The chassis was stiffened by the simple means of fitting blocks of wood within the channel sections at the front, which significantly improved the torsional rigidity. Duralumin wheels saved weight, as did a new radiator, whilst the new fuel tank integrated into the rear bodywork and saved a further 90 lbs.

Race Team owner Rob Walker owned the Seaman Delage for many years. It suffered in a fire and was completely restored in the 1970s. Courtesy RM Auctions.

Turning to the engine, the supercharger pressure was increased to 12 lb psi and the valve timing, which was apparently incorrect, was rectified. Higher compression aluminium pistons by Hepworth and Grandage and new valves were also fitted. Altogether Ramponi lightened the car by some 250 pounds while the power was increased from 170 to 195 bhp, and to improve stopping power the brakes were now hydraulically operated, by courtesy of Lockheed.

Seaman's team transporter in 1936. Seaman and the ten-year-old Delage almost unbeatable in the Voiturette class. Courtesy RM Auctions.

In the early part of the season it looked as though the doubters may have been right. Apart from a win on the Isle of Man against national competition, Seaman and the Delage suffered a series of misfortunes that ran on into the midseason. But later in the year Seaman silenced the doubters, scoring a string of victories over a 15 day period: winning the Coppa Acerbo in Italy, the Prix de Berne in Switzerland, then, back home in England, the JCC 200 at Donington Park. This spectacular run of success propelled Seaman into the Mercedes Benz Grand Prix team for 1937.

With Seaman now racing in the top rank, the Delage was purchased by the Siamese, Prince Chula Chakrabongse, for his cousin B. Bira, who had enjoyed considerable success with an ERA. Chula was particularly enthusiastic about the car and attempted to go one better than Seaman with a new independent front suspension system and new chassis frame grafted onto the car — designed by none other than Albert Lory. Unfortunately the redesign was not a success and the car was soon set aside, eventually falling into the hands of racing driver Reg Parnell along with the original chassis frame and enough spares to construct three separate cars!

The Delage engine was a work of art as well as a highly advanced power unit. Courtesy RM Auctions.

The Seaman car, still identifiable by the Ramponi chassis modifications, ended up in the hands of well known Grand Prix entrant Rob Walker, who began a slow renovation which had only just been completed when a fire swept through his workshops destroying much of the car, but not the engine and chassis — although the latter had melted out of shape. Walker, to his eternal credit, allowed his mechanic John Chisman to start work on rebuilding the car. This involved a search for several rare components, from the correct brake system to a Bosch magneto discovered in the company’s museum. Today the Delage is owned by Mr. Abraham Kogan, and is to be auctioned following a second restoration in New Zealand.

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