#0003 - Talbot-Lago T-150 C SS Coupe by Figoni et Falaschi, #90117, Duke Phillipe de Massa, 1937
Photographed: Radnor Hunt Concours d'Elegance, 2007. Note that the registration plate has been altered as a courtesy. Owner: Oscar Davis
To Praise or Ponder: Although the general public isn't familiar with Talbot-Lago, and has no clue what or who is Figoni et Falaschi, these rare Talbot-Lago Goutte d'Eau Coupes have been touted by the congnoscenti as crowned princes of the motoring age. But I admit, not having been part of the motoring press in 1937, the effect is a bit lost on me. I often feel the importance of the aerodynamic teardrop coachwork, and the chassis beneath, is overstated. After all, history at its best isn't narrow-sighted; it can pick apart precedents, honing in on what really etched a lasting impression on the industry. So to be the voice of the small, let me say that the T-150 C SS Coupe has always been an aristocratic expression—from the day it was unveiled at the 1937 New York Auto Show to today, as it is lauded at exclusive concours d'elegance and sold for many millions of dollars at auction.
Once again I find myself in the position of battling popular sentiment by asking how the T-150 C SS Coupe can be one of the greatest. If superlative in any sense, the Goutte d'Eau Coupe is one of the most exclusive cars ever produced, but—particularly in this era of renewed discretion—we must be careful about what we hoist on pedestals. Robert Frost wrote that nothing gold can stay, and yet the collector car market often believes everything that has stayed—surviving the scrap yards and global conflicts of the twentieth century—by this virtue, must be gold.
So what do we mean when we say, the great Goutte d'Eau Coupe? In reality, the Goutte d'Eau moniker is very much like Testa Rossa as it applied to 1950s Ferrari cars—it is a flexible concept, rather than a rigid identifier. Testa Rossa was never a true Ferrari platform, but an idea that crossed platforms. Likewise, Goutte d'Eau was a public reaction to a flamboyant design idea. It wasn't a specific model.
To be precise, within the Goutte d'Eau concept are two distinct cars. The first, which debuted in Paris in 1936, is known as the Jeancart, named for its initial purchaser. That car is a notch-back coupe. The second, which debuted the following year in New York, is known as the New York Coupe. What you see here is the latter, the popular fast-back design.
Between the two, the Jeancart is rarer, and it did at least as much to refine the notch-back style as the New York did for the fast-back. Yet, the New York car is the one most people conjure when thinking on those greatest cars. I'm not sure if that's warranted, because the whole Goutte d'Eau history is slurred between different styles of body. Moreover, the two different styles appeared on different chassis, those being both Delahaye and Talbot-Lago. So which is the aim of a statement like, the great Goutte d'Eau Coupe, I couldn't tell.
The New York Coupe is a fantastic design. Yet, at the same time, it is not without its practicality. Of the many T-150 C SS Coupes that raced in anger, this particular car is one of the few factory prepared racing cars. Various features specific to competition are discussed below, but this racing pedigree is oddly off-set by the whims of the purchaser, Duke Phillipe de Massa, who insisted on a complete lusso treatment to the interior. So the car is a strange blend, but a versatile one—on the surface an expression of aristocratic elegance with numerous performance tricks tucked within.
Contrast this with the Delahaye 135 M Competition Court Cabriolet, and you might see that the Goutte d'Eau Coupe is actually less shocking.
70 Years of Pure Awesome: Ask me which of the greats is my favorite coachbuilder, and I'll say Touring of Milan—a conservative choice. But Touring, Pininfarina, and Zagato—all of which were prominent in the classic era—were of the industry. Theirs is an interest of industrial design likened to the Buckminster Fuller and Giovanni Michelotti sorts. Figoni et Falaschi is really the only prominent design firm who were artists first.
That said, when a friend of mine came into the presence of this T-150 C SS Coupe, he was floored. No other car at this particular show had the same effect on him. And what other cars were present? Well, an Alfa Romeo 8C 2900-A Mille Miglia Spyder—one of three in the world and certainly a candidate for that proverbial Greatest Cars on the Planet list—and a Pierce-Arrow Silver Arrow Show Car—the very car I love to cite as being untouchably significant to the progress of modern automotive design. But no, this was the car he described as "pure awesome." And that's when I realized what the atmosphere must have been like for this model's debut at the 1937 New York Auto Show. Popularity ensues.
You don't care how technically advanced the chassis is, what races the breed has won, how influential the design was, or who owned and raced which example. You care about the fact that nothing else has this kind of presence. This is exactly how Figoni has become the Michaelangelo of the automotive world—seeming to do the same thing as so many others, yet drawing a higher form of being out of the medium with which he worked. The difference is evident. And just as the fine art world has selected the statue of David as the finest embodiment of Michaelangelo's talent, so has the T-150 C SS Goutte d'Eau Coupe been selected the finest embodiment of Figoni's talent.
Goutte d'Eau: Really quickly, Goutte d'Eau—literally waterdrop but always translated as teardrop—is a term attributed to the motoring press; it was never a factory applied name, but has become a respected moniker for these coupes, owed somewhat obviously to the car's shapely silhouette.
Morphology: Objectively, there are some oddities to the general design. First off, the bodywork carries tremendous curvature for such a small car. The bonnet, for instance, isn't very long, nor is it very broad. And the wheelbase is also very short. This means the lines of the car don't hold a constant degree of curvature for very long. Indeed, it was a testament to Figoni's precision design, and to his panel crafters' diligence that the body is almost constantly undulating along multiple planes. When working out a design, this complexity would often require constant fitting and re-fitting of panels until everything was just right. But, it's hard to find a curve that holds its course before heading off in another direction, and that makes the overall form a lot to digest. To briefly compare the car to the massive Pierce-Arrow Silver Arrow, the latter is also highly complex, but spreads the complexity over so much more car that it's actually a bit easier to process visually.
With this specific example, however, Figoni had some extra length, and that extrudes the lines a little bit. Factory prepared for the Le Mans 24 hour race, the car is longer and lower than other T-150 C SS Coupes. In my humble opinion, this makes a world of difference, allowing the car to fulfill its teardrop moniker, although it might still have the tendency to favor a bubble appearance at certain angles, much like the contemporary T-23. A three-quarter perspective might do the bubble trick, (which is why I've finished a full profile instead).
Also important is the tail treatment. In order to give the coupe proper proportions, Figoni extended the coachwork well beyond the rear wheels. On most examples, the lower edge of the rear wheel skirt is angled up slightly to a point where it joins the slanted fast-back, almost like a bobtail. But, on this example, the lower edge of the rear wheel skirt is horizontal, further accentuating the low aspect of the car, taking full advantage of the extra length, and allowing the fast-back to stay on its slanted course all the way to the terminus at the rear bumper. The lines of the roof and the lines of the rear skirts seem to match each other en route to the terminus, and this simplifies the profile. For similarities to the T-23, this tail treatment is frequently shared between them.
Perhaps fortunate, (or unfortunate, depending on your persuasion), this tail treament makes the car sit back visually compared to other T-150 C SS Coupes. Those with the bobtail treatment explained above appear a bit lighter on their feet, an effect helped by their extra ground clearance.
A number of headlamp arrangements are found on existing T-150 C SS Coupes. Our example is fortunate enough to have two sets of lights. The main headlamps are faired into the soffits between skirt and bonnet, each covered by slotted brightwork that functions as protection for the lamps, and as an aesthetic link to the grille. This fairing treatment is found on a few other T-150 C SS examples, (the remainder having more conventional lamps), including the dynamic Nethercutt Collection Coupe, and the red example that's on its way back to auction as of writing.
Another difference to note on this example is that the running gear (although it can hardly be called running gear in the traditional sense) is a bit different than most examples. On all examples, the front skirt tucks into the flank as it tapers toward the far edge of the door. But how the taper is handled in that crease below the door is a point of variation. Some examples have a shroud that extends forward like a flute, closing upon the taper, while others have a just a small shroud on the rear skirt, and nothing more.
Our car has one of the most complex shrouds, (that it is so complex seems odd, as the car was built with Le Mans aspirations). The shroud frames the rear skirt both on the lower edge and up over the top, where it leads into a thin strip of brightwork trailing down the back of the car, but it also extends forward in a flute, holding the tapered front skirt. This much is unnecessary for a competition car, and seems to impart the Duke was more apt to enjoy a bit of weekend motoring in the countryside with his Talbot-Lago than he was earnestly seeking Le Mans glory.
I've mentioned that, as of this writing, a red example is on its way back to auction. Thence it's showing up in pictures on the internet, as things are wont to do. Note how the red car sits a bit higher, and seems to have that bobtail look about it—a good contrast to our example here. Also, if you happen to catch a glimpse of the red car, you'll note that red isn't the most flattering color for the T-150 C SS, (quel suprise). The deep aubergine of this example here does a perfect job of blending the complex curves into a fluid form. Sometimes you hear people talk about how dark colors hide the true lines of a car, but in this case there are so many lines they benefit from a bit of cloaking. So it is that many Goutte d'Eau Coupes are of dark livery, although this particular color was a recent choice. The concours d'elegance where this car was photographed reported that the owners polished eggplants with car care products, then matched the result. That, I think, is one of the more interesting tidbits about this car.
Other body changes made in lieu of racing include a special rear window intended to be held ajar for ventilation. The bonnet sides below the hinge may have been removed or replaced for racing, although I am not sure. Louvre treatment in these illustrations is otherwise identical to many other examples.
Inconsequential History: The rest is minutiae because, as we concluded, the virtue of this car is its popularity. And compared to the idea of Figoni's masterpiece—or even compared to the Alfa Romeo 2900-A or the Pierce-Arrow Silver Arrow Show Car—a few laps and a spin on an oil slick at Le Mans in 1939 is insignificant. As it turns out, the Duke (along with Norbert Jean Mahe), ran under the team banner of the multi-named British driver and patron, T.A.S.O. Mathieson, (Thomas Alastair Sutherland Ogilvie), who somehow went by the nickname 'Donald.' (How's that for minutiae?) This T-150 managed 88 laps before that spin seemed to loosen the motor a bit. The official classification went down as a DNF due to a valve spring.
And that's probably the highlight of this car's racing career; it's not remarkable, but it is worthy counterpoint to the acres of gushing goo you'll hear in the motoring world about the great Talbot-Lago Teardrop Coupe. So once again, I'm looking for perspective. In what capacity is the T-150 C SS superlative? How is it one of the greatest? The answer: It just looks like it should be, and most people agree.
"Auto Legends - Classics of Style and Design" by Michael Zumbrunn and Robert Cumberford, Merrell Publishers Limited, London / New York, 2004, p. 138-143 - Visual comparison
Ultimatecarpage.com: Good information with plenty of visual accompaniment.
Coachbuilt.com: Figoni et Falaschi figure prominently in this history of custom coachwork.
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