World’s Best Concours Car. How a Talbot-Lago won ‘Best of the Best’. Teardrop Talbot-Lago Officially the world’s best concours winner. This Talbot-Lago T150-C-SS has been judged the supreme concours winner of the 2015 season. Mark Dixon finds out from owner Peter Mullin what makes it such an exceptional car. Studio photography Michael Furman.
BEST OF THE BEST
In the old car world, a Best in Show at Pebble Beach has traditionally been as good as it can possibly get for an owner who’s into the concours scene. Other concours may be just as special in their individual ways but the name of California’s pioneer event confers a certain elevated status on any car that’s done well there. A class win at ‘Pebble’ is a cast-iron guarantee that the car in question is of the very top rank. Since 2016, however, there’s been a new goal for concours aficionados to aspire to: the Peninsula Classics ‘Best of the Best’ award. Not just of all the fabulous machinery on show at Pebble Beach, but of all the world’s major concours. It’s voted on by 24 internationally renowned judges and the first such award – covering the 2015 season – went to Peter and Merle Mullin’s 1937 Figoni and Falaschi-bodied Talbot-Lago T150-C-SS.
The Mullins’ Talbot-Lago is something of a veteran of concours events. Since the mid-1980s it’s taken five class wins at Pebble Beach, plus numerous other concours victories, and scored Best in Show at the Goodwood Festival of Speed’s Cartier Style et Luxe concours in 2015 – the win that finally propelled it to the very top of the tree, by qualifying it for 2015’s Best of the Best award. So what, you may be thinking: a car as stunning as that is always going to be a contender for top honours. But the intriguing fact about the Mullin Talbot-Lago is that it also gets driven. Peter has done a 1000-mile Louis Vuitton rally through Europe in this teardrop coupé and, as he tells us over a relaxing cup of tea in a friend’s house just after the mayhem of Pebble Beach, the reason is simple: ‘It’s my favourite car, and it’s fun to drive.’
The first half of that statement is significant because Peter and his wife Merle own the most important private collection of Art Deco supercars in the world (and yes, we know that ‘supercar’ is a post-Miura 1960s coinage but, really, it’s the only word that’s appropriate to use here). The Mullin Automotive Museum in Oxnard, California, is an homage to Art Deco that showcases the very finest examples from the likes of Bugatti, Delage, Delahaye, Voisin and many more. When Peter says the Talbot-Lago is his favourite car, it really means something.
‘I fell in love with this car way before I was able to add it to the collection,’ explains Peter. ‘The designer Brooks Stevens had one, and I thought it was the most gorgeous automobile I’d ever seen. Then, in 1984-1985, I heard of one that might be coming up for sale, so I pursued it and made the deal happen. It’s been a favourite for a long time now.’
Peter’s passion for Art Deco extends way beyond vehicles alone. ‘Cars are the centrepiece of our museum but I’ve been collecting paintings, furniture, graphics and sculpture for a long time. I don’t know where the enthusiasm came from, but I started off in life as an art major and was always interested in line and curves and shape; I liked the way that Art Deco made functional objects beautiful. Why does a toaster have to be ugly? I studied at UCLA but in a class of 11 I was barely 11th, so I switched to economics!’
Probably a wise move, in view of what Peter has achieved since… He’s owned American cars, of course – his first-ever car was a 1953 Chevy Bel Air convertible (‘I put ’54 tail lights on it, had it painted gold and then pinstriped by Von Dutch; it was a real thing of beauty’) but the fins-and-chrome style of classic US automobiles has never appealed. ‘My second car was a Porsche 356, which I loved and drove for a number of years’. And the Porsche, of course, essentially has a teardrop shape.
The teardrop design was properly refined decades earlier, however, and Peter is able to reel off his car’s history without a moment’s hesitation. ‘It is a Figoni design, created in 1937, one of a small series known as goutte d’eau or teardrop Talbot-Lagos after the shape that a raindrop makes as it falls through the atmosphere, or a teardrop as it rolls down a woman’s cheek.
‘Joseph Figoni was one of the most brilliant carrossiers of all time and I think he figured to himself that he couldn’t compete with what nature or God himself had created. Instead, he should simply look around, discover the most perfect shapes in the universe in terms of elegance and coefficient of friction, and replicate them. ‘The finished car went to the New York World’s Fair in 1938. “Bentley Boy” Woolf Barnato then acquired it and kept it for a while. There’s a famous anecdote about a fellow called Freddie McEvoy, who was a notorious man-about- town, pilot, racing driver, raconteur and ladies’ man, and who made a bar-room bet with heiress Barbara Hutton that he could drive the car from Paris to Cannes in under ten hours. She bet him $10,000 that he couldn’t, and I don’t know how he would have paid up if he’d lost the bet! But he took off at night by himself, went through the Alps on those narrow switchback 1930s roads, and got there in 9 hours 45 minutes.
‘McEvoy’s drive set the tone for those cars, that they were not only fast and beautiful but also had real endurance. Driving one for 9 hours and 45 minutes flatout through the Alps was a phenomenal achievement.’
The more Peter talks about the Talbot-Lago, the more apparent is his enthusiasm for the car. He explains how 1930s Californian playboy Tommy Lee, the son of a wealthy Cadillac dealer, bought a T150-C-SS (the one later owned by Brooks Stevens) and street-raced it around Los Angeles, and on the salt flats in the desert. In an article about Peter’s car, the automotive writer and designer Strother Mac Minn recalled how they could be tail-happy, too, as Tommy Lee proved to him: ‘I had confirmation of this behaviour during a 1941 run up Outpost Drive in the Hollywood Hills in one of Tommy Lee’s three teardrop coupes. Sideways (with Tommy driving), it was sensational.’
According to the Figoni archives, Peter’s car, chassis 90106, is one of only 14 ‘faux cabriolets’ built by the coachbuilder in 1937-1938. It was received as a chassis on 29 September 1937 and bodied as a faux cabriolet sans toit ouvrant – a ‘hardtop convertible without sun roof’. Two other cars from that small batch, numbers 90116 and 90117, raced at Le Mans in 1938 and ’1939, where their aerodynamic teardrop shape must surely have helped their performance: 90116 finished third overall in ’1938, although its sister car failed to finish in ’1939.
In choosing the T150 chassis to body, Figoni and Falaschi (Figoni was the artist, Falaschi the businessman in the relationship) could hardly have started with a better base. The T150 had independent front suspension and a 4.0-litre overhead-valve engine with a hemi-head. It was as handy on circuits as it was on the road, and racked up a string of competition successes in 1937 – including first and second in the Tourist Trophy at Donington. Here they were described as ‘Darracqs’, reflecting Talbot’s convoluted history in the 1930s.
In simplified terms, the Sunbeam-Talbot-Darracq combine went bankrupt in 1934, and the French Talbot factory – which had nothing to do with the British one, based in London – was snapped up by a charming entrepreneur called Anthony Lago. Actually, he was Italian by birth and christened ‘Antonio’, but he also called himself ‘Antoine’ when domiciled in France! Lago moved to England in the 1920s and revived his wartime rank of Major, which no doubt helped him when he was seducing investors. But his Paris-built Talbot-Lagos (as they were now known) had to be sold in Britain as Darracqs, to avoid confusion with the British Talbots.
Peter Mullin’s T150-C-SS was built to competition spec, with the shorter chassis option, higher-compression engine and triple Zenith-Stromberg carburettors, the ‘C’ standing for Competition and the ‘SS’ for Super Sports. Figoni’s records state that chassis 90106 left the works painted metallic grey and was bought by Woolf Barnato off the stand at the 1937 Earls Court Motor Show.
What happened to it post-war is unknown but at some point it was repainted blue with grey wings and then, in the early 1960s, it ended up in the hands of one Otto Zipper, who specialised in unearthing forgotten exotics and exporting them to the States. He loaned it to the Briggs Cunningham museum in California for many years, until in 1980 it was sold to John Calley, the president of Warner Bros. By this time the once-understated Teardrop had been painted ‘retail red’, and its Art Deco faired-in headlights-behind-grilles had been replaced by conventional Marchal lights in pods, giving it a vaguely Jaguar XK120 aspect.
In 1982 another Californian enthusiast, Pat Hart, bought the car and had it repainted in a more flattering black, which resulted in a second-in-class at Pebble Beach in 1984. Realising that it still wasn’t quite good enough for top honours, he started a restoration that was continued by Peter Mullin when he acquired the car in 1985. Peter entrusted the hugely respected Hill and Vaughn Restorations – that’s Hill as in racing driver Phil Hill – with the job and requested that it was repainted in the subtle aubergine colour you see it wearing today.
‘That colour is one of my favourites,’ explains Peter. ‘Some people painted them two colours but I thought that this car was the essence of sculptural beauty and didn’t need a two-tone finish. A solid, darker colour allows the shape to really stand out, and it’s why I think it’s one of the most beautiful automotive designs ever. Possibly the most beautiful.’
After 20 years of being shown at concours events, and driven on rallies in between, the T150’s lustre was beginning to tarnish and Peter decided to have the car freshened up by Sargent Metalworks in Vermont. It turned out to involve rather more than a respray, as Scott Sargent recalls.
‘The car had non-original vent windows [quarterlights] in the door glasses, probably put in during the 1950s or ’60s, so we ended up removing those. Then we found some stress cracking in the A-posts, plus the hood had become damaged after it was left unlatched on a rally in Europe. We also did some chrome plating, a degree of reupholstery – while not eradicating the nice patina it had acquired – and, of course, the paint. Peter loves that colour and didn’t want to change that, so it was specially mixed to match. I think we redid the gauges, rebuilt the carburettors – bits and pieces like that, but nothing major. Mechanically, the car had been looked after by Bob Mosier, so it was in very good shape.’
Talking of the oily bits, the Talbot-Lago has a Wilson pre-selector gearbox, as found in many 1930s sporting cars, from Riley upwards. Using a small lever, you ‘pre-select’ the gear you intend to use next, after which simply depressing the clutch will automatically change the gear for you. It’s very handy when driving a twisty road, because it allows you to keep both hands on the wheel as you approach a corner, and Peter finds it adds to the enjoyment of driving his T150. ‘I also race a Talbot T26 with a Wilson ’box, and it’s fantastic for racing because you don’t have to think about changing gear as you enter a corner, and can catch people up who are having to double-declutch and wrestle with a gearlever.’
But if you enjoy driving cars, as Peter evidently does, then how do you reconcile the conflicting requirements of physical perfection with originality, history and provenance at a concours? Should we revert to the original concept of a concours, as it was understood pre-WW2?
‘That’s a very good question!’ he chuckles. ‘I’ve long thought that the European view of a concours d’élégance, which married provenance, rarity and significance of a design, along with the elegant style of, say, a beautiful woman in a haute couture outfit complete with matching hat, luggage and little dog on a leash, was the right one. In America we had a tendency to over-restore cars, and fixate on whether screwheads were lined up, or whether there was a slight oil drip underneath – cars are always going to drip oil! Cars were therefore being restored to a condition better than when they left the factory.
‘In fairness, the major concours like Pebble Beach have recognised this and are paying much more attention to originality and provenance. And if you drive a car, and get the odd stone chip as a result – well, that just proves that you’re actually using it, which is a good thing! I’ve already dealt with that question in my own mind. Cars may be works of art but they’re not intended to be hung on a wall or tucked away in a garage with special lighting. They should be driven, they should be enjoyed, they should be shown to the public out on the road.
‘My view is that patina on a car caused by use is just fine. Don’t get me wrong, I love to win awards, but my attitude is that if you’re in the old car world to win trophies, then you’ve picked the wrong passion.’
And with that, Peter climbs into his beloved Talbot-Lago and roars off down the road. Well played, sir.
TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS 1937 Talbot-Lago T150-C-SS by Figoni & Falaschi
Engine 3996cc straight-six, OHV, three Zenith-Stromberg carburettors
Max power c140bhp @ 4000rpm / DIN
Max torque c199lb ft @ 2100rpm / DIN
Transmission Four-speed Wilson pre-selector, rear-wheel drive
Steering Worm and nut
Suspension Front: independent, upper wishbones, transverse leaf spring serving as lower links. Rear: live axle, semi-elliptic leaf springs
Brakes Servo-assisted, cable-operated drums
Performance Top speed 115mph
Facing page and above Chassis 90106 last had a frame-off restoration in 1985 so, though it was repainted in 2007, it is developing a pleasing patination. Peter Mullin has driven it on a 1000-mile Louis Vuitton Rally, too. Clockwise from above This car’s purity of line was enhanced following removal of non-original door quarterlights in 2007; Peter Mullin with his favourite car; 4.0-litre engine was strong enough for racing.
‘Joseph Figoni figured to himself that he couldn’t compete with what nature or God had created’
‘This car didn’t need a two-tone finish. A solid, darker colour allows the shape to really stand out’