The ex-Tommy Lee, Brooks Stevens
1937 TALBOT LAGO T150 C SS TEARDROP COUPÉ
COACHWORK BY FIGONI ET FALASCHI
Chassis No. 90105
Engine No. 85019
Body No. 655
Red with red leather and fawn cloth interior
Engine: straight six, twin high camshafts, twin carburetors, 3,996cc, 140bhp at 4,100rpm; Gearbox: four-speed pre-selector; Suspension: independent front by top wishbone and lower transverse semi-elliptic leaf spring; Brakes: four wheel hydraulic. Right hand drive.
Known simply as the Goutte d'Eau or Teardrop this is an example of one of the greatest series of automobiles ever constructed, a perfect marriage of two companies at the top of their game, Talbot-Lago and Figoni et Falaschi.
The story of the running gear originates when the Sunbeam Talbot Darracq combine collapsed in the mid-1930s. While the Rootes brothers took over the British operations, wisely the receivers were content to let Anthony Lago continue to run the French operation at Suresnes near Paris, and the energetic and capable Lago breathed new life into the business setting out to build a notable range of fast sports and touring automobiles. Under his direction, the French Talbot organization performed a major role on the automobile scene. By the end of the decade not only was the marque very active in racing, both in Grand Prix and in Endurance, it also produced high performance road cars, their technology being closely related to the competition cars.
The most major strategic move that Lago made shortly after he took ownership of French Talbot, was to instruct the chief engineer Walter Beccia to design a new range of cars working on applying pushrod overhead valve technology to the existing range of engines, the 15CV 2.7 litre, 17CV 3 litre and 23CV 4 litre. The latter unit now in the overhead valve form produced over 160bhp and was designated T150C, the 'C' standing for 'course' or competition. Lago combined this with the inherited chassis with independent front suspension by transverse leaf springs and Wilson pre-select gearchange that Lago himself had been instrumental in the development of. Talbot called their 4 litre sports cars 'Lago-Specials'. The cars began their chassis sequence at 90001 in 1936. It is estimated that some 63 chassis were supplied between 1936 and 1939.
Recognising the enormous racing potential of the car, Lago quickly exploited this and in the winter of 1936/37, Lago built his a 'SS' or Super Sport model, for which he took the T150C chassis and shortened it to 2.65m. The definitive sports version of the chassis, it weighed in at some 130 kilos less than a standard T150C. Chassis numbers for Super Sport chassis had a '1' as the middle digit, starting with 90101.
The introduction of the sports T150 C-SS coincided nicely with the revolt of Delahaye, Bugatti and other French manufacturers against the German domination of the Grands Prix and their instigation of a Sports Car only Grand Prix de L'ACF. Although not completing their first race the 3 hours of Marseille, the results quickly began to improve and their persistence produced a 1-2-3 and 5th place finish in 1937 at the French GP.
For the other half of the equation one looks no further than the same country and to one of the most legendary 'carrossiers' of their day, Figoni et Falaschi. Never was the phrase 'Rolling Sculpture' more apt than when describing the legendary coachwork penned by Joseph Figoni. From the mid-1930s, he was backed by wealthy Italian businessman Ovidio Falaschi, whose passion for flamboyant coachwork funded and inspired Figoni's continued development of increasingly aerodynamic and avant garde body styles on the luxury chassis of the day. They were to comment in period "We really were true couturiers of automotive coachwork, dressing and undressing a chassis one, two, three times and even more before arriving at the definitive line that we wanted to give to a specific chassis-coachwork ensemble". When influenced by artist Geo Ham this produced the 'sweepspear' designs which featured bodywork mouldings stretching back from the radiator to the rear wings, and these led to his finest, if not the finest design ever, the faux cabriolet, which became known universally as the 'Goutte d'Eau' or 'Teardrop'.
They were the undisputed epitome of the coachbuilder's art in the immediate pre-war period, and even today the Teardrop looks advanced and it is almost inconceivable to imagine its design approaches 70 years of age. Just fourteen were constructed and of these only even fewer used the Super Sport chassis as their basis, they were famed and fabled their combination of design underpinned by the sporting Talbot-Lago chassis meant that they were as at home on the race track as on the concours d'elegance circuit, though today they are a more familiar find in the latter category.
Three iterations of Teardrop were built, noted by Figoni as design 9221, which was more a coupé style and had an indentation or notched back, the 9220 with a full flowing fastback tail, and a New York model, being as shown at the 1938 New York Auto Salon.
90105 is an example of the latter and is perhaps the holy grail of these fabulous machines, being one of very few survivors still in predominantly original order. That the car remains in such remarkable condition is the result of a succinct and unblemished history, coloured by noted car connoisseurs. The fourth of fourteen built, of which all but one survive, this car was the only example not to have been fitted with a sunroof, instead for cabin ventilation the twin windscreens open outwards on compact dash operated ratchet winders.
The car wears a laurel wreath around its badge signifying that it would have originally been supplied to the export market, i.e. America. Before this it was first registered in Paris with the number '9187 RL 3', which is borne out by a least one known image in which it is identifiable by its lack of sunroof line. It is thought that Frederic McEvoy, the 1937 World Bobsleigh Champion and double gold medallist of that year, may well have used the car prior to its export, his name has certainly been connected with the car in the past, though it is known that he was a dealer for these cars and his use is assumed to have been for promotional purposes.
Shortly after this, in 1939 it was sold to America through Luigi Chinetti, then representative for Figoni and Talbot-Lago, to enthusiast, collector and Playboy, Tommy Lee in 1939. Los Angeles-based Lee habitually campaigned the Talbot-Lago, it was as well-known for being blasted up and down the local boulevards and for drag racing as it was for being raced on the dry lakebeds against the hotrods, this all still in its stock form! While it was housed alongside his other cars which included a series of 2.9 Alfas, and other Teardrops including chassis 90107, that of the Maharani of Khapurthala.
On Lee's death his cars were consigned to Roger Barlow's International Motors in Los Angeles, at which time note is made that it passed to a Mr Neal and then to Ralph Knudsen of Milwaukee. Taking the car back to his home state, Wisconsin, the car came under the eye of Brooks Stevens, the famous industrial designer. Stevens' sphere of influence was huge and he was responsible for many important designs of everyday things, such as the Steam-O-Matic iron, Allis-Chalmers tractors, Miller High Life Soft Cross logo and the sensational 1959 Scimitar All-Purpose sedan, with Reutter body. To a man with such interest in design, as well as a passion for racing, the 'Teardrop' would have been a most fitting addition to his growing stable of cars, and seeing it parked outside a local restaurant he immediately negotiated its sale. An article in Road and Track in 1957 records that shortly after purchasing the car Stevens entered the car Watkins Glen in 1950, when driven by Jim Floria it performed very well, though 'after a few gyrations at Stone Corner' it was 'retired to the pastures of a concours life while still in one piece'. This rather modest reference belies the truth that the car actually came home a respectable 11th overall and was also run locally to Stevens at Wilmot Hills, Wisconsin that same year.
It would later share a garage for the second time with the Lee 2.9 (Chassis 412030), when this too joined Stevens collection in 1968. Brooks Stevens kept the car for more than four decades until around the time of his death when it was sold to collector Bruce Lustman. In his ownership he had the car mechanically restored to correct original specifications. It later passed into the present collection ownership in 1998.
Fully recorded in Richard Adatto's excellent reference work on the 1930s aerodynamic era of styling From Passion to Perfection, 90105 not only retains its original unique coachwork, but is also widely regarded as retaining all of the original running gear, engine, gearbox and axles it began its life with. More surprisingly, many of its detail features survive also, the interior leather and hatched headlining material still being present, though showing their age, the twin opening windscreens being operative, the trunk lid still has its period lining and along the trunk shut lines have cross-hatched chrome trims. All these and more are testament to the long term Stevens ownership and the select number of connoisseurs that have presided over the car, and but for an over officious museum curator, who commissioned the repaint to the current red whilst Stevens was away from his museum the car would perhaps still even sport its original French Blue livery.
The 1957 Road and Track article notes that the car had been advertised for sale in February 1949, when it was quoted as a 'Fine example of European craftsmanship - Talbot Lago with masterpiece in coachwork by Figoni and Falaschi. A real sports car, while providing comfort, reliability and elegance.' Words that are as true today as they were then and Teardrop Talbot Lagos have always been appreciated as such. The new owner of this remarkable automobile will therefore join a role-call of some of the most noted car collectors of all time, collectors who have consistently achieved outright victories at the most esteemed International Concours d'Elegance events. Understandably they rarely change hands, which makes the acquisition of 90105 a fabulous opportunity, be it for entry in similar future competitions in a conservation class or as a definitively complete basis for a concours restoration. One of the all-time greats, Christie's is honoured to present it for sale.