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Exclusive: Andre Dubonnet Car and Prototype Chassis Images

Updated – Andre Dubonnet was a French Military pilot, racing driver and inventor, who designed the Dubonnet independent suspension. His father Joseph Dubonnet was the founder of the Dubonnet wine-based aperitif beverage company, which allowed Andre the funding to work on his inventions and automobiles. In conjunction with engineer Antoine-Marie Chedru, he developed and patented a four wheel front and rear independent suspension system in 1927. He sold the rights to Chevrolet for its “Knee-Action” front end.

Update: The car has been identified as “Xenia I” – read an excerpt from J. Saoutchik – Maitre Carrossier” sent in by author Peter Larson at the bottom of the post.

1933 Dubonnet Suspension Patent

  • 1933 Dubonnet patent for hydraulically dampened leading and trailing link four-wheel independant suspension.

Guillaume Keller, an archivist at the Citroën Heritage Center near Paris, sent in today’s feature photos for identification.

He wrote: “I have just found the enclosed pictures of Charles Brull, he was an engineer and driver during the Citroën Yellow Journey in Asia. He was sent to the USA in the twenties and became a friend of Mr. Dubonnet; the two men are in the pictures. There are two cars, a chassis and a complete car with the Andre Dubonnet name on the radiator grill. Do you recognize the manufacturer?”

André Dubonnet and Mystery Car II

  • Dubonet is the third from the left in the image, and since they were good friends, possibly Charles Brull is to his left? From the “run hard and put away wet” look of the car in storage the photo likely dates to a later time.

This automobile indeed does look somewhat familiar, and the image of the prototype below clearly shows that it is powered by an Hispano-Suiza OHC H6B engine. Also knowing that this model was Dubonnet’s preferred chassis of choice for his custom bodied cars, it might be safe to assume one was used for these creations?

Andre Dubonnet Mystery Car Cat Mascot

  •                              Cat mascot and “Andre Dubonnet” name plate on the radiator.

Starting at the front of the car is a narrow angled radiator with a leaping cat mascot. Just below the peak of it is a plaque with “Andre Dubonnet” spelled out upon it. A look through the boldly shaped hood louvers below appears to show a Hisso aluminum crankcase and at the top of the third louver, the bottom of one of the marque’s distinctive water jacket plates. The coachwork and general appearance of this car have the appearance of having been built in the early to mid thirties.

The Andre Dubonnet Car

The prototype chassis is clearly visible is in the lower portion of the photo above and in three-quarter rear view below. Starting at the front is a radiator of the same as type seen on the “Andre Dubonnet” car, behind it is the Hispano-Suiza engine and transmission which is mounted quite high in the frame, which angles out front-to-rear ending at the rear tires. At that point the structure curves in behind the rear wheels and the fuel tank all visible above.

Due to the appearance of the low frame, and the Hisso engine, transmission, and drive shaft all mounted above it, points to the likely possibility of this chassis being outfitted with Andre’s patented four-wheel independent suspension system. The “Andre Dubonnet” car’s frame shares this same appearance below the door which may indicate that the vehicle also used the same chassis layout?

Andre Dubonnet Car and and Prototype

Two other later Dubonnet cars are widely known due to the advanced construction used on both, along with state of the art aerodynamic coachwork: the Dubonnet “Dolphin” built circa 1935, and the 1938 Dubonnet “Xenia” which has survived and is part of the Mullin Automotive Museum collection. More can be learned about both at: “Andre Dubonnet, Wealth And Talent Well Spent” and “Andre Dubonnet’s Flight Of Automotive Fancy” at “Simanaitis Says” by retired Road & Track Engineering Editor Dennis Simanaitis.

If any of our readers can add more information about the “Andre Dubonnet” car or the chassis, please comment.

Dubonnet Car Chassis Close Up

Update – The car is “Xenia I” – read an excerpt below from ” J. Saoutchik – Maitre Carrossier” sent in thanks to author Peter Larson:

The platform selected by Dubonnet (for Xenia II – Ed.) was the one he had used for the Xenia I. At the Paris Salon in 1932, Dubonnet had displayed an experimental chassis numbered 103, as well as a completed car with a pillar less body by Vanvooren on an identical chassis numbered 102. One source has speculated that the Xenia II was built on chassis 102 after the original body had been removed. Today, the Xenia II carries chassis number 103. While this number in theory could be a period rest amp, it seems unlikely. Further, while the Xenia I is lost, there is no record of the car returning to France from America after Dubonnet brought it there in late 1932 when he was trying to sell his patents for four-wheel independent suspension. It is likely that the Xenia I remained in the USA and that it was perhaps included inthe suspension deal struck with GM. In that case, GM was probably “kind enough” to destroy the Xenia I after they were done using it, as they did with so many of their experimental vehicles.

Chassis 103 was a box section chassis with long side rails, stiffened by cross members, which had been drilled for lightness. The chassis itself was very low to the ground with the drive shaft which connected the gearbox to the differential located above the side rails and cross members. The four-wheel independent suspension system designed by Gustave Chedru was the original reason chassis 103 was built, and it was retained for the Xenia II. The rear suspension was mounted inside the chassis rails, while the front was on steering pivots which turned with the wheels. Springing and damping was contained inside a box mounted at each wheel, which Chedru had dubbed a “suspension shock-absorber”. Inside the box was a horizontal shaft with a series of fins that were in contact with no less than twelve sets of triplicate coil springs. Nine of the coils provided the suspension action, while three functioned as dampers. All of this was contained inside a piston located in a cylinder fixed to the suspension housing. The housing or box was filled with oil, and each piston head had an adjustmentvalve to regulate the amount of oil. In effect, this meant that the suspension could be adjusted to deliver anything from the cushioning ride required in a heavy limousine to the stiff suspension control demanded by a sports car. No wonder GM experienced reliability and maintenance problems with the suspension in use on American roads – in spite of having spent additional time and money developing a simplified system based on the Dubonnet-Chedru patents.

One source has indicated that André Dubonnet was quoted in period as saying that he had built a similar chassis with front wheel drive. No pictures exist of such a chassis, and it has been impossible to document this assertion. It is true that front wheel drive had remained all the rage in France since the introduction of the Citroën Traction Avant. Jean-Albert Grégoire with his Tracta sports cars and the 5CV Georges Irat sports car introduced in 1935 had also made quite a splash in the media. Against this background, it is quite possible thatDubonnet may have made such remarks in the heat of the moment, but as with Anthony Lago, while it is one thing is to say something, it is quite another to put your money where your mouth is and do it.


28 responses to “Exclusive: Andre Dubonnet Car and Prototype Chassis Images

  1. The very tan man standing to Dubonnet’s left in the top image, and in the center of the chassis photo, is the silent movie star Douglas Fairbanks.

  2. That Dubonnet suspension was, arguably the worst ever designed as Chevrolet found out to it’s huge cost!

  3. Another intriguing post at TOM!

    It certainly appears that the electrical harnesses were fabricated and installed by expert craftsmen on the unbodied chassis.

    Wish I knew what is on the tag tied to the steering wheel of the unbodied chassis.

  4. Apparently, Andre Dubonnet and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. were friends. Both were board members of Raffles, an exclusive New York club, right into the 1970s. Dubonnet also new Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. (who died in 1939), as we see in the photos above.. Dubonnet died in 1980.

    • I noticed all these details in research too. Mrs Douglas Fairbanks (Mary Pickford) had imported a Saoutchik bodied Delage in the early pre war years. Photos online may be viewed. Pickford also appeared in at least one early 1920s Saoutchik ad which ran in French magazines (also view online).

      This photo is unusual. It appears to be an arranged occasion, and also has the look of a posed press photo of the day. Everyone present is posing, and none of these people will do more than supervise the work of others.

      I think it may be both Douglas Fairbanks Sr and Jr next to each other.

      Additional research may reveal more about those present.

      I too thought it was on board ship (as mentioned below). The photos may well document the arrival of the Xenia I and bare chassis to the US.

  5. What an intriguing prototype! Not only the advanced chassis, but also what had to be a gorgeous custom body. It looks as if the rear deck is integrated into the main body, making it an early three-box sedan. Since we can’t see the door handles, its likely the doors are center-opening and possibly its completely pillar-less as well. Would I love to see move views from different angles!

  6. Those steel beams on the ceiling are interesting. Where could this room be? In a ship? The chassis shot is interesting. The driveshaft is above the floorboards. It has the same sloping radiator as the complete car. What is that lever on the left side pointing up with a cable or thin rod going forward?

  7. Andy M. I though it might be a freight elevator. Looks like a ladder between the sections. It is nice to see all those rivets doing the job instead of welds.

  8. Dear all,

    My many thanks for your comments about this interesting mystery !

    I know that on 20th december 1932, Mr Dubonnet landed in N-Y Harbor, he was in the SS Champlain. maybe these cars were on the boat ?

    2 months before he put on display at the Paris Motor Show a Hispano-Suiza H6 B 46 HP (coachbuilder Daste) can it be this car ?

    I wish you all the best for now

    • Yes, this car was on display at the Salon de L’Automobile in Paris in 1932. I have a photograph from a vintage magazine that shows it at the Salon next to the chassis.

  9. The seats on the chassis are just for try it and to go to the body workshop, as said earlier.
    If you visit the India, they have the same system to carry lorry and coaches chassis to the various bodys factory’s.

  10. Certainly not the most inspiried choice of mascots, altho at some point I suppose all the “good ones” are taken. The cat could denote agility as well an engine that “purrs like a kitten” while at the same time perhaps finicky indifference as in “I’ll start when I darn well feel like it!” I wonder if anyone ever offered an aftermarket mouse to be dangled in front of the Pouncing Pussycat?

    That looks like a shipboard location to me as well as the pallets above are stacked with cargo and appear to be adjustable or removable. The front fender looks like it has suffered some damage in shipping.

  11. Definitely appears to be ship board. Those are freight elevators above the cars in the next to last picture. Notice the safety pins with tether chains inserted into the vertical guide rails at each visible corner of the platforms and the gaps between the platforms and bulkheads. The lead and fifth photos also show a safety pin, or at least it’s chain in the upper right corner.

  12. Hello

    The pictures were taken, without a doubt, in the hold of the ship “SS Champlain” on 20th december 1932.

    Mr Dubonnet was on the passengers list…

    If someone in USA can look at the NY Harbor archives we could be sure that the two cars were on board.

    • Getty Images has a photo of Andre Dubonnet caption-

      “French Wine Dealer Arrives. Andre Dubonnet, one of the owners of the famous Dubonnet Wines, is seen here aboard the S.S. Champlain on his arrival in New York. Dubonnet, whose hobby is the racing and designing of motor cars, brought with him the patent of a mechanical suspension for automobiles. December 20, 1932 ”

      Internet search for “Andre Dubonnet “”” SS Champlain”

      Apparently Douglas Fairbanks was also a passenger on the SS Chaplain on the same voyage.

      Getty Images has a photo of Douglas Fairbanks with the caption

      ” As Good as Ever. Just to prove that he’s in good shape, Douglas Fairbanks, popular motion picture star, climbs a ladder aboard the S.S. Champlain on his arrival in New York after a round-the-world hunting trip. He will hurry on to Hollywood to spend Christmas with his wife Mary Pickford. December 20, 1932 License

      Internet search for “Douglas Fairbanks””SS Champlain”

    • A new find. Douglas Fairbanks sent correspondence of some sort to Edsel Ford introducing Andre Dubonnet in 1933.

      Edsel B Ford Office Papers 1903-1945 Accession 6 Finding guide at The Henry Ford (museum).

      1933 Box 90:

      “Douglas Fairbanks re introduction for Andre Dubonnet. ”

      Dubonnet correspondence with Edsel Ford is indexed several more times in later years.

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