c. 1903 Barré Twin-Cylinder Four-seat Tonneau Coachwork by Labourdette Chassis no. 15690 (see text) Engine no. 104B
In the early days of the French motor industry, prior to the emergence of a handful of dominant makes, regional producers such as Barré were held in high regard; indeed in the early years of the 20th Century Barré was a much greater commercial success than Renault. Company founder Gaston Barré started out as a gunsmith before opening a bicycle repair shop in Niort, a town in the Deux-Sèvres department of western France some 40 miles inland from La Rochelle. In 1894 he turned to the manufacture of bicycles and was quick to recognise the potential of the automobile, building first tricycles and then quadricycles powered by engines supplied by De Dion, Perfecta and Daniels.
With financial backing from a wealthy local landowner, Barré moved into larger premises in Niort, in the Avenue de la République, from which the first voiturettes began to emerge around 1899. Two years later the Barré voiturette gained a Gold Medal at l'Exposition Universelle in Paris, awarded for its quality and performance. By 1902 Barré was in a position to offer models of 6, 8, 10 and 12hp, using power units supplied by De Dion, Aster and Buchet. The firm's first four-cylinder model, powered by a Ballot engine, arrived in 1905. At this time Barrés were still assembled mainly from bought-in components and their distribution remained regional. Like those of Renault, all Barré cars had shaft final drive, though some of its commercial vehicles used chain.
Seeking ways to stimulate demand, Barré pioneered the concept of 'after sales' service in France and supported its customers in the many sporting trials of the day in an effort to drum up publicity. Capitalising on its best results, Barré launched the 'Château-Thierry' model in 1908 following victory in the eponymous race while the cumbersomely named 'Reliability Trials' 10hp model resulted from success in a 1909 endurance test.
Barré's raised profile was reflected in the opening of a Paris office and the fact that its products were now more widely available throughout France and beyond its borders. By this time more of the car was manufactured in house, with fewer components bought in, and some models were offered with Barre's own engines. Adhering to what by now was established practice, the 8hp light car was renamed 'Tour de France' in 1912 after three Barrés, painted red, white and blue, finished in joint 1st place, though this seeming domination was more apparent than real as they shared that honour with several dozen other competitors, such was the nature of the event!
During WWI, Gaston Barré made a fortune manufacturing munitions and military vehicles, but appears not to have reinvested these profits in his company when hostilities ceased. Although well built and virtually indestructible, qualities that appealed to its mainly provincial clientele, Barré cars remained essentially Edwardian in design. Gaston Barré took more of a back seat as production declined, eventually ceding day-to-day control to his son Maxime and a major shareholder, Mr Lamberthon. Following Lamberthon's withdrawal, the company was financially restructured in 1927 as Société Anonyme des Automobiles Barré. The underlying problems associated with an outdated and conservative model range remained however, and in 1933 the receivers were called in. Total production of Barré cars and commercial vehicles is estimated at between 2,500 and 3,000.
Produced by a French make that was once a byword for quality and reliability, we are advised this Barré tonneau was bought from a family in Brussels who had owned it since the 1950s. They used the car frequently in the 1960s for rallies such as the Paris-Vienna, and also drove it all the way from Brussels to Switzerland where they had another home.
More recently, the car was serviced by a well-respected engineer and the gearbox rebuilt. Presented in very good condition, the four-seat tonneau body is by Henri Labourdette of Paris, one of the oldest of French coachbuilders with a reputation for quality second to none. It should be noted that although the accompanying Belgian title document lists the chassis number as '15690', the non-original copper plate on the scuttle records the chassis type as 'B N° 72'. The plate also states the engine as being 12hp but we are unable to confirm this.