The ex-Rob Walker, Countess of Strafford,1938 Talbot-Lago ‘Special’ 150 SS Goutte d’Eau Coupe  Chassis no. 90109

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Lot 523Ω
The ex-Rob Walker, Countess of Strafford, 1938 Talbot-Lago ‘Special’ 150 SS Goutte d’Eau Coupe
Chassis no. 90109

The ex-Rob Walker, Countess of Strafford
1938 Talbot-Lago ‘Special’ 150 SS Goutte d’Eau Coupe
Coachwork by Figoni & Falaschi

Chassis no. 90109
It would be difficult to find a more versatile sporting car than the Talbot-Lago 150 SS Goutte d’Eau, for it combined speed and suavity in equal proportions. Never was that dual character more clearly demonstrated than in 1938 when a brace of privately-entered Talbot-Lago coupes – ‘straight out of a concours d’elegance’ according to the official history of the event – competed in the Le Mans 24-hour race with no more expectation than to acquit themselves honorably… and one of them finished third overall, behind two ‘Competition’ 135MS Delahayes!

The Goutte d’Eau – it translates as ‘Teardrop’ – was the creation of that most elegant of Parisian coachbuilders Figoni & Falaschi, a partnership between two expatriate Italians, master carrossier Joseph – born Guiseppe – Figoni and well-connected businessman Ovidio Falaschi. Its burgeoning lines were so sensuous that rising star of the British motor industry William Lyons is reported as having gasped ‘Why, that car is positively indecent!’ when he first saw the Goutte d’Eau at the London Motor Show (but that didn’t prevent him from drawing inspiration from its styling for his Jaguars...).

It is recorded that only eleven cars were built in this style, all with detail differences, plus five notchback “Jeancart” Gouttes d’Eau. A mere handful survives. Despite the extremely limited production, the importance of this design was underlined when a Figoni & Falaschi Talbot-Lago Goutte d'Eau coupe was chosen by New York's Museum of Modern Art for its seminal 1951 ‘Eight Automobiles’ exhibition of automotive design milestones.

This car, which features Figoni’s ingenious disappearing sliding roof, was bought at the 1938 Paris Salon by wealthy socialite Mrs Robin Byng. She and her husband, the son of the Earl of Strafford, used the car in France before the war. Unfortunately, during the German Occupation of 1940-44, the Nazis commandeered the Talbot, stole its tires and ripped out the interior leatherwork.

After France was liberated the Byngs recovered the car, which was lying at Nice, and in 1946 in a bar at Lugano they met gentleman racing driver Rob Walker, who was heading for Venice with his wife in his Rolls-Royce 20/25 Gurney Nutting drophead coupe (this at a time when there were severe currency restrictions on British motorists traveling into Europe!). The Honorable Robin Byng told Walker that he intended to import the vandalized Talbot into England and renovate it. Six months later Rob Walker ran into Robin Byng in that famous Mayfair haunt the Steering Wheel Club and was told that the restored Talbot-Lago was for sale through sports car dealers University Motors.

Byng asked Walker if he might be interested in buying it. Walker later recalled: ‘I had a look at it and went for a run, and I must say I thought it was the most beautiful car I had ever seen and it certainly went, but it had one small snag at the time; the price asked was, I believe, £5000, and although prices were at their highest maximum at this time, I felt it was too much to pay for any car.’

And it was indeed a high price, more than that of a brand-new Rolls-Royce - including the extortionate level of postwar purchase tax.

Nonetheless, Walker was tempted: ‘I thought about the car a great deal, and it was obviously the thing for me, and from time to time I would meet Robin Byng and haggle about the price; eventually he rang me up one afternoon and said that he would like to see me. He arrived in the car, said they had had an offer for it, very much lower than the original price asked, and if they did not have a better one by that evening, they would let it go. I raised it £100 and the car was mine. I never regretted it.’

Walker carried out several modifications to suit the car to his exacting motoring requirements: ‘Firstly, the brakes were Bendix, and most unpredictable, sometimes grabbing, sometimes fading, and in heavy rain almost non-existent; this was cured by getting the Lockheed conversion from France, and after that the brakes were magnificent. The gearbox was a Wilson and unreliable, also it made the clutch terribly heavy and almost impossible for a woman to drive.

In this respect my wife had an amusing incident at Le Mans. She was leaving the car park at about midnight with Tony Rolt's wife Lois and owing to the strength of the clutch her foot slipped off the pedal and the car shot backwards, nearly running over a Frenchman who was relieving himself at the back. Without completing the job on hand he rushed forward to apologize to Madame for so inconveniencing her - toujours la politesse.

‘The gearbox trouble was cured by fitting a Cotal, which works very sweetly and of course needs no use of the clutch except for the initial starting off. The steering was also very heavy, and this was largely cured by cutting down the front tires from 6.00 by 17 to 5.25 by 17.’

Another problem was due entirely to the car’s track-bred background: ‘I was somewhat troubled by boiling in large cities, especially Paris, so I went to the factory to find out what the trouble was. When I told them, they looked at me in amazement, and said of course it boiled if I drove it at less than 70 kilometers per hour, so I retired squashed!’

On the open road, the Talbot-Lago had an altogether exceptional performance for its day. Only an elite handful of cars of the 1930s and ‘40s were capable of exceeding the magic 100 mph yet, recalled Walker, ‘As far as performance is concerned, it did the standing kilometer in 34 seconds; and although I drive very slowly through towns, I did average 70 mph for one hour in France. This necessitated cruising consistently at over 100 mph, and I found that once that speed had been attained it could be held easily, with the throttle eased well back.’ Top speed quoted by the factory for this car was 112 mph.

In 1949 Walker raced his famous Delahaye 135 in the first postwar Le Mans 24-hour race and used the Talbot-Lago as his practice car: ‘At night it put in some very reasonable times, and I think I am correct in saying that its time was faster than the practice time of any British car then present.’

In 1956 the Talbot was advertised in Motor Sport by London sports car dealers Metcalfe & Mundy as a ‘Darracq Special, ex-Countess of Strafford and Rob Walker’ (French Talbots were known as Darracqs in England to avoid confusion with the Rootes-owned Sunbeam-Talbot marque); shortly afterwards it was shipped to the United States, where from the early 1960s to 1974 it was owned by Mrs Gladys Gehrt Milnes of Indiana. It was then sold to John Calley of Beverley Hills, and in 1985 was acquired by noted collector Tom Barrett, who traded it to John Wallerich of Tacoma, Washington.

In 1992 the Talbot-Lago became part of the celebrated Blackhawk Auto Collection in Danville, California, returning to Europe the same year when it was added to the Rosso Bianco collection. In 1995 it was selected for ‘Moving Beauty’, another landmark exhibition celebrating the automobile as ‘an object of art and design’ organized by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Observes the exhibition’s catalog: ‘The clean, unbroken lines designed by Figoni and Falaschi create an aesthetic balance that is remarkable.’

The flowing lines of the Goutte d’Eau were no accident: as a young coachbuilder in the Parisian suburb of Boulogne-sur-Seine, Joseph Figoni had worked close to the cradle of French aircraft production. Moreover, since 1904 the world’s first facility for testing aircraft models had been in operation at nearby Chalais-Meudon, which had been a focus of aviation experiment since the 1880s. And before setting up on his own in 1923, Joseph Figoni had also worked for aircraft builders Nieuport and Blériot and studied streamlining during a spell at Lavocat & Marsaud, best-known for the distinctive sports bodies they built on Bugatti chassis. During his aerodynamic studies at Meudon and in the Eiffel wind tunnel, Figoni met engineer and aerodynamicist Jean Andreau, who was to work with him on streamlining during the 1930s.

The Goutte d’Eau – undeniably Joseph Figoni’s masterpiece – was unveiled on the 4-litre Talbot-Lago T150SS chassis at the 1937 Paris Salon. Prosaically recorded as Figoni Style Number 9220 in the company’s records, the Goutte d’Eau was a purer, less mannered expression of aerodynamic perfection than its contemporary, the Bugatti Atlantic. With its body surfaces seemingly sculpted by the wind, the requisite touch of tension was given to the vital rear view – the only one lesser motorists ever got of a Goutte d’Eau on the road – by Figoni’s trademark Gothic arch cross-section wings.

The car has evidently been superbly restored and, although having been a museum exhibit for a number of years, has enjoyed a recent and modest road test where engine, gearbox and brakes were reported to be in good working order.

Iron fist in velvet glove? This must be the supreme expression of that age-old expression, a competition-bred chassis clothed in what Automobile Quarterly described as ‘some of the wildest, swoopiest and most avant-garde sheetmetal the world has yet seen’.

The Teardrop is the ultimate connoisseurs’ car, and no connoisseur’s collection is complete without one.

Estimate upon request
The ex-Rob Walker, Countess of Strafford,1938 Talbot-Lago ‘Special’ 150 SS Goutte d’Eau Coupe  Chassis no. 90109
The ex-Rob Walker, Countess of Strafford,1938 Talbot-Lago ‘Special’ 150 SS Goutte d’Eau Coupe  Chassis no. 90109
The ex-Rob Walker, Countess of Strafford,1938 Talbot-Lago ‘Special’ 150 SS Goutte d’Eau Coupe  Chassis no. 90109
The ex-Rob Walker, Countess of Strafford,1938 Talbot-Lago ‘Special’ 150 SS Goutte d’Eau Coupe  Chassis no. 90109
The ex-Rob Walker, Countess of Strafford,1938 Talbot-Lago ‘Special’ 150 SS Goutte d’Eau Coupe  Chassis no. 90109
The ex-Rob Walker, Countess of Strafford,1938 Talbot-Lago ‘Special’ 150 SS Goutte d’Eau Coupe  Chassis no. 90109
The ex-Rob Walker, Countess of Strafford,1938 Talbot-Lago ‘Special’ 150 SS Goutte d’Eau Coupe  Chassis no. 90109
The ex-Rob Walker, Countess of Strafford,1938 Talbot-Lago ‘Special’ 150 SS Goutte d’Eau Coupe  Chassis no. 90109
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