Number of the beast. Mathis 666 prototype. An extraordinary ’40s French saloon. It was optimistically billed as ‘tomorrow’s car today’ and as an American car for Europe. But the brave Mathis 666 never stood a chance, says Jon Pressnell. Photography Tony Baker.
It’s carefully stored under covers in a backstreet Strasbourg garage. A bizarre large saloon, it’s clearly from the early post-war years, yet nonetheless has a perplexing modernity about its slab sided lines. This extraordinary vehicle, its form dominated by its green house like glazing thanks to a pillarless Vutotal windscreen, represents the last automotive gasp of a man who was once the French city’s leading industrialist. In his day, he was one of France’s better-known automobile constructors.
The car is the Mathis 666, and the man behind it Émile Mathis. Absent from motor manufacturing since 1938, when a collaborative venture to make Ford V8s collapsed, it was his late ’40s bid to re-start car making in his Strasbourg factory, after spending the war years in the United States. Indeed, Mathis was thinking even bigger: in the launch-time publicity material it was said that the car would be built in different countries around the world. But it was not to be. Just two examples of the 666 were made, it seems – the original prototype, carrying a wooden shootingbrake body, and the car featured here.
A long-time enthusiast for the American way of life, or at least for the American way of doing business, Émile Mathis returned from his sojourn in the US with an admiration for Detroit’s recipe of large vehicles powered by low-stressed, big capacity engines. He demonstrated this affection by buying himself a Cadillac, and with the 666 he sought to achieve the same goals with a smaller power unit in a lighter car. In accordance with the pre-war Mathis slogan of Le poids voilà l’ennemi –‘Weight is the enemy’ – he claimed that his new design was half as heavy as the best US cars and thus had the same power-to-weight ratio, while using a more reasonably sized 2.8-litre engine. It was a means, he believed, of achieving both high performance and respectable economy.
The heart of the 666 – so named for its six cylinders, six seats and six speeds – was a watercooled flat-six of 2840cc, driving the rear wheels. A sidevalve design with alloy block and heads and the US-inspired feature of hydraulic tappets, it had twin Solex carbs and developed a modest 80bhp at 3900rpm. It was said that this lowrevving unit would last hundreds of thousands of miles without an overhaul, because it would rarely be working at more than half its potential.
Mated to a three-speed gearbox with a stepdown high-low transfer ’box, at 55mph it would be turning over at just 2000rpm and consuming petrol at a steady 28mpg, Mathis claimed.
There was all-round independent suspension by coil springs. The layout seems to have evolved, because by 1949 there was a twin-wishbone rear with separate springs and telescopic dampers, whereas our car has trailing arms and coilovers; these are also found at the front, in conjunction with upper and lower wishbones. The steering was by cam-and-peg and the brakes were hydraulic. With the low centre of gravity conferred by the flat-six, roll in corners was eliminated, according to the publicity.
From top: rear has hints of Panhard Dynamic about it; velour-trimmed benches front and rear; lid doesn’t open far enough to give access to boot, which also houses spare and battery; transatlantic-style spear snout; rear suspension sported double wishbones and coilovers. Inset, above: proposal for a more staid-looking version of the 666.
This sophisticated running gear was mounted in a platform chassis using oval-tube longerons and a mix of oval and round tubular outriggers linked to outer perimeter members. The hand-beaten steel body – apparently fabricated in-house by Mathis – was welded to this, giving a unitary shell that was strong enough to allow for the use of the Vutotal windscreen, as invented by French coachbuilder Labourdette.
Exhibited in this form at the 1948 Paris Salon, the 666 was strikingly radical for the time. Of French cars, only Ford’s Vedette, another 1948 débutante, had full pontoon-side styling and it would be 1951 before Simca went down the same route with its Aronde. Perhaps this modernity, allied to the eccentric Vutotal front, was just too much for the French public. In any case, for the next year’s show Mathis stepped back. Instead of displaying the 1948 car again, the firm presented a rolling chassis with sketchy front-end panelwork seemingly modelled on the grille treatment of the recently announced 1950-season ‘spinner front’ Studebaker. This style was intended for a more orthodox four-door saloon with somewhat anonymous rounded lines. Also shown was artwork for drophead coachwork by Saoutchik, Dubos and Chapron, although these remained paper exercises. In the end, putting the 666 into production proved beyond Mathis.
Rebuilding and re-equipping the factory, destroyed during WW2, took until at least 1948, and compensation for war damage arrived only in ’51.With allocations of raw materials blocked by the French government, Mathis tried to re-enter car manufacture via a Jeep-like vehicle for the French army, drawing on the 666’s technology. Possibly production of the 666 could have piggybacked this project, but the authorities preferred a rival proposal from Delahaye. Meanwhile an attempt to rebound by making Minneapolis- Moline tractors under licence was not a success, with barely 300 assembled from 1949 until ’1952.
Subcontract engineering work and making ploughs wasn’t sufficient to keep the business turning over, let alone allow it to contemplate car production. Émile Mathis withdrew from the day-to-day running of the company and apparently one managing director followed another.
After a deal with creditors in ’1951, the factory ground to a standstill and the firm’s assets started to be sold off in 1953. Mathis himself died in 1956, aged 76, when he fell from the window of a Swiss hotel.
It was during this period, with the factory mothballed, that Georges Anthony and his father – a one-time Mathis employee – were invited to the works by a former test driver. What they were shown was a magical Marie Celeste of a ghost plant, frozen in time. On one floor were dusty stacks of the company’s tableware, proudly bearing the Mathis slogan. Suspended from the ceiling was the plane in which Émile Mathis had flown over Strasbourg in 1910.
The highlight, as Anthony recalls, was a visit to the main assembly hall and the machine shop: “All of the machinery was still there. In one hall was the 666 prototype of 1948. In front of it were the ’49 show chassis and the test car with the shooting-brake body, and there was a four-cylinder engine on a test-bed, because they apparently wanted to put it in the ‘Jeep’. On the walls they had hung two or three of the aluminium bodies for the 333 three-wheeler.”
Although Anthony’s father had unhappy memories of the harsh management style of Émile Mathis – “He said Mathis had stolen his youth” – he was persuaded by his son to buy the 666 ‘Vutotal’ for a symbolic sum. Fitted with a flat-four rather than the original flat-six, the 666 has rarely been used since its rescue. “Although it has quite punchy performance, it’s a bit of a chore to drive,” says Anthony. “The steering is lorry-like, and the suspension is too weak for the weight of the car. I’ve adjusted the linkage, so it changes gear easily enough. But frankly there’s not much pleasure being behind the wheel, other than to hear people wondering what it is – most of them have never heard of Mathis, or know that he made cars in Strasbourg.”
From above: just two 666s were produced, the first bodied as a woodie station wagon; Vutotal ’screen now sadly cracked; overhead shot perfectly illustrates the effective packaging, with flat-six up front and generous six-seater cabin.
Such a judgement needs to be tempered. This was, after all, in essence a show car. At best it was a barely tested prototype. More relevant is to assess the overall package. Stylistically the sharpedged windscreen seems at odds with the curved rear, while the grille seems needlessly ornate. But substitute steel pillars and an orthodox windscreen for the Vutotal front and you’d have a shape that would have still looked modern in the mid-’50s. It also has to be said that the Vutotal glass is immensely thick, because it supports much of the roof, and in addition can only bring with it sealing problems plus the potential for rattles and squeaks. The all-glass front also means that the forward windows don’t wind down, there just being a pivoting rear section.
Something would have needed to be done about the back of the body, too: the small lid opens low, making it virtually impossible to load the boot, which already has a high floor thanks to the battery and spare-wheel stowage below.
Shorter, narrower and lower than the Renault Frégate and Ford Vedette that would have been its mass-produced competition, the Mathis nonetheless has ample three-abreast seating at front and rear, thanks to its flat sides – and to the near-flat floor made possible by the low-set auxiliary gearbox. This reduced bulk should also have translated into the promised high performance.
The dry weight has been variously quoted at 980kg, 1000kg and 1050kg. But even at the highest figure – equivalent to 2315lb or 20.7cwt – the Mathis weighs in at roughly 150kg less than the Renault and the Ford. With 80bhp, against the Vedette’s 60bhp – and an early Frégate’s 58bhp – the result can only have been pretty snappy performance. In the abstract, the 666 seems a sensible enough proposition for an engineering-led large saloon to slot in above the Frégate and Vedette and perhaps a little below a regular Hotchkiss.
The heavy and potentially troublesome Vutotal windscreen would have had to go, and the styling would have needed to be smoothed out. But without the complications of front-wheel drive or the cast-aluminium idiocies of a Hotchkiss- Grégoire, it is tempting to think that the Mathis 666 might have emerged as a sort of rational man’s Citroën DS – advanced in its looks and design, but not outlandishly so.
Clockwise, from right: Studebaker-like front was shown at Paris in 1948; flat-four engine replaced the flat-six at some point; fully glazed front means that windows don’t wind down, but rear section pivots open; stylish, multifunction gauge and speedo that reads up to 160kph.
The reality, of course, is quite different. After 15 or so years out of the car-making game, there is no way that a poorly capitalised Mathis, in a rebuilt but doubtless still under-equipped plant, could have made a crack at successfully manufacturing an all-new model. Plus, it had become more demanding to achieve sales in the upper reaches of the French market. That the 666 should have ended up gathering dust in a grandiose but empty factory is a sad reflection on how the star of Émile Mathis had waned. But all credit to the Anthony family for saving this exuberant, optimistic prototype, a now poignant reminder of a dynamic industrialist largely forgotten, even in his home city.
Mathis: going to work on an egg
Émile Mathis entered the motor industry in c1898, selling De Dietrich cars, and soon built a thriving business. He collaborated with Ettore Bugatti on the Hermès and, from 1910, built vehicles under his own name. At first the Mathis was fairly ordinary, but it acquired hydraulic brakes, independent front suspension and – ultimately – an independent rear set-up. After plans to have Durant build a small Mathis under licence in the US had come to nothing and, with too many models made in too small numbers, Mathis ran out of steam. In ’1934, he fused his business with Ford’s French arm. The Mathis range was soon dropped, and the two firms parted company before the war.
Mathis emerged with strong compensation, having emigrated to the States, where he spent the war years running a munitions works. Mathis wanted to get back into car making, and expended much effort on developing the three-wheeler 333 (below), but it was canned after being shown at Paris in ’1946. There was no hope of the government authorising materials for the 333’s construction, while Mathis lacked a functioning factory capable of making it – or the capital. He must also have come to the conclusion that offering an economy model to take on Renault, Simca and Panhard was hardly sensible, and that a larger higher-cost model would stand a better chance. Hence the 666.
“THE FLAT-SIX WAS SAID TO LAST HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS OF MILES WITHOUT AN OVERHAUL”