Poor Amilcar, always dismissed as ‘the poor man’s Bugatti’. Was it deserved? Wealthy artist and photographer Jacques Henri Lartigue clearly didn’t think so.
His evocative ‘Mediterranean Sea, 12 September 1927’ could be much more than a holiday snap shot. It might even raise questions about the death of notorious dancer Isadora Duncan a few days later.
You don’t win the Monte Carlo Rally by accident. Or the Bol d’Or, the world’s first 24 hour race.
But with just 40bhp from their 1098cc side valve engines, Amilcars’ top speed would never be a strong point, even for the time. Solid rear axles made them tricky in the corners too though on loose surfaces the lack of a differential could be an advantage.
They were also quick off the mark thanks to a torquey four cylinder motor and lightweight aluminium bodies. Jacques Henri Lartigue’s Amilcar CGS3, above, weighed just 650kg. That made for light steering, beneficial on long distances. Brakes on all four wheels, rare for the time, completed the package.
Amilcar’s Monte Carlo victory came the same year this picture was taken, 1927. A very different event to these days, competitors started from all over Europe and ‘rallied’ in Monte Carlo. Points were awarded based on the distance driven, the state of the car when it arrived and the number of passengers (for an insight into the 1927 rally, see this excerpt from the biography of one of the – female – competitors).
The Age of Speed
Eventually Lartigue had to work for a living but in 1894 he was born into one of France’s wealthiest families. He had a ring side seat on a fast developing period of history and seized the opportunity literally with both hands after getting his first camera aged eight.
In 1906, the family bought its first car, a Panhard-Levassor 18 * 24 HP, often used to visit airfields and motor races. Lartigue took photos of the early test flights and the pilots too, including Wilbur Wright and Louis Blériot.
A few months after learning to drive in March 1911 he was hanging out in the Bois de Boulogne, taking snaps of the trendy ‘elegantes’. He escaped the draft in 1915 on health grounds, drove a tiny Peugeot and photographed the 14 year old World Champion tennis player Suzanne Lenglen training in Nice. By 1917 he had a Pic-Pic racing car.
‘I always had sports cars,’ he told the BBC in 1983. ‘They intrigued me.’
You will notice Lartigue’s car is right hand drive, a pointer to its motor sport origins. Circuits were mostly clockwise so the driver sat on the right for the best view, and the best weight distribution.
Incidentally, the luggage is strapped over the third seat hatch.
Because of its large exhaust, with an exit further left than usual, Amilcar expert Rod Martin thinks Lartigue substituted a souped-up engine.
‘Having a motor car in this landscape is magical,’ Lartigue wrote in his diary. ‘The drive to Cannes along the narrow, deserted little road which follows the coastline via Golfe Juan is wonderful. A motionless sea falling asleep in the sunset with its eyes still open.’
This isn’t where the photo was taken however (they are driving in the opposite direction). It could be Corsica on the horizon but it’s more likely to be the long, thin Île du Levant off Le Lavandou. There aren’t that many islands along the Côte d’Azur.
DriveEurope hasn’t driven this road but we did cycle it in 2004, from Toulon to Saint-Raphaël. From Le Lavandou, the road closely traces the coast for fifteen miles towards St Tropez. Precisely where are they? We’d say just before Rayol-Canadel-sur-Mer. This bit of coast is quite built up now, hidden behind villa walls, but when we were there it was still possible to enjoy that same view.
This was Lartigue’s third trip to the Riviera that year. He had stayed with some of his famous friends, an actor in Beauvallon near Avignon and a playwright at Cap d’Ail on the border with Monaco. Both places are just off Route Nationale 7, Route Bleue – Route de la Morte! – the main road from Paris.
Other photos dated September 1927 were taken in Hendaye, the Atlantic coast resort on the Spanish border, 500 miles due west. It’s not an impossible itinerary but the trip isn’t mentioned in the diary. He would have to avoid the Pyrenees because Amilcars weren’t noted for their hill-climbing ability, though that might explain why he changed the engine.
Tragedy on the Côte d’Azur
The date of Lartigue’s masterpiece has some significance. Two day’s later – 14th of September 1927 – the legendary American dancer Isadora Duncan died just up the coast in Nice. Her ridiculously long scarf had become caught in the rear wheels of the car she was riding in and she was strangled.
As Gertrude Stein said of the incident, ‘Affectations can be dangerous’.
The lurid death of a famously theatrical, scandalous figure – she had performed bare breasted – was a huge story and made front pages around the world.
Even today, it’s widely held Duncan was passenger in a Bugatti (see the Daily Telegraph in 2009). The 1968 Vanessa Redgrave film has her meeting death astride a flaming red Bugatti Type 37. Actually, she was riding in an Amilcar CGSS – a lowered, racing version of Lartigue’s car – put beyond doubt by Matt Stone and Preston Lerner who even have the number plate.
But the Bugatti myth flourished, though Stone & Lerner exaggerate when they say, ‘Duncan dying in an Amilcar would have been like Princess Di being killed in the back of a Toyota Camry.’
Their much nicer comparison was with the modern Mazda MX-5: ‘an agile, spirited, and reliable sports car for the masses.’
Lartigue’s CGS3 differs from regular cars in another, important, respect. The wheel spats were not standard either says Rod Martin. As we’ve heard, Amilcars had wire wheels. Perhaps Lartigue wanted his car to look more modern, or make the wheels easier to clean.
Or maybe he wanted to prevent scarves getting caught in the spokes?
‘Med Sea’ is a very different kind of picture from Lartigue’s usual dynamic shots. It‘s the opposite in fact, contemplative and still. Composed?
Despite the great photography Lartigue was really a painter and mixed with the great creative minds of the day (not least Picasso). ‘Med Sea’, along with the rest of his photo archive, didn’t surface until the 1960s. Meanwhile he obsessively organised and annotated them. It was the faithfully recorded time and place that marked out even his most hurried snapshots as social history.
If ‘Med Sea’ wasn’t contrived – or recast – then it obliquely foretold the elements of the major event that took place in that vicinity at that time: the car, the female passenger, the French Riviera and the unique wheels that, had they been fitted to Isadora Duncan’s car, would have prevented disaster.
If Lartigue did compose this picture, what else might he have been trying to say?
There’s a lot of luggage. Fair enough, they are away for some weeks, but don’t forget the seat cavity underneath. Could that luggage, strapped to the body, also be suppressing something?
There was only room for Isadora and her young lover in a two seat Bugatti, but Amilcars had three seats…
Conspiracy theories have swirled for years around Duncan’s death, including the supposed presence of a mysterious third person, and we’re delighted to be able to add our own.
It’s a great theory! Unfortunately, Duncan’s CGSS was also a two-seater. But if it’s not an elaborately constructed whodunnit, maybe it’s a poignant tribute? Not just to Isadora Duncan, whom he would have undoubtedly come across in the South of France, but also Amilcar’s important win on the Monte Carlo Rally earlier that year, possibly even on an actual road used by competitors.
More than likely – as ever – Lartigue was just in the right place at the right time that Monday afternoon, taking a holiday snap that still resonates nearly ninety years later. But the picture has another echo. Lartigue died on 12th September 1986, in Nice.
Among the many speculations invited by this picture, for us the one at its heart is why a modern man, of every refinement, would forgoe the mighty Bugatti in favour of a humble copiste?
Was Lartigue’s family fortune in long decline before it was lost completely in 1935, or was he simply restrained in his tastes?
Or did his discerning eye fall upon the Amilcar and realise that – despite the lack of luggage space – with its sporting pedigree, reliability, purposeful stance and perfect proportions, it was – with some modifications – the ideal car for an artist on the move?
‘Mediterranean Sea, September 12th, 1927’ was featured on ‘The Riviera: A History in Pictures’ on BBC Four 15.01.13, available on iPlayer.
Amilcar’s later cars had bigger engines, six and eight cylinders, but by the time it was taken over by Hotchkiss in 1937 the company had returned to its lightweight roots. The Amilcar Compound of 1938 was an advanced front wheel drive coupe with a unitary body/ chassis and aluminium panels (and four wheel independent suspension and rack and pinion steering). The marque never reappeared after the war. You can pay £40,000 for a pedigree Amilcar these days but regular cars go for a few thousand pounds.
Lartigue finally achieved fame in 1963 after his photos appeared in the JFK assassination issue of Life magazine. Seen by a huge audience, overnight he became a great of 20th century photography. For worldwide stockists of Lartigue’s original prints click here. Prices range from €800 to €9,500, sizes from 24x30cm to 50x60cm.
While we are careful not to imply any endorsement, DriveEurope would like to thank the following for their help: Len Battyll, Rod Martin and Richard Lane from the UK Amilcar Register. The Register also holds information on many other contemporary French sporting cars. For more information see www.amilcar.co.uk
Also, thanks to ‘Donation Jacques Henri Lartigue’ for permission to reproduce the photographs. Lartigue donated his entire photo archive – some 100,000 prints – to the French nation in 1979. It is now held at Charenton-le-Pont, south east Paris. For more information see www.lartigue.org/indexus.php