The next couple of days CHB will be dedicated to some great Parisian coachbuilders, kicking-off with Henri Chapron! Of course… because we have two Delahayes with Chapron coachwork. Henri Chapron is definitely a big name when talking about prominent French coachbuilders. His influence can be detected in nearly every custom-built French body from 1935 to 1955, regardless of the house by which it was designed and built. His designs are sober as well as elegant, in an outstanding way. His identity could be described as vanguard, never ahead of his time.Let’s first take a look at where it all started, how he developed into this profession and how his style and his business evolved.
Henri Chapron (1886-1978) founded his first design house in 1919 in the chic Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine. The main focus of his company was to design and build tourer and saloon bodies on Ford Model T chassis, left behind in France after WW1 by the American Army. This proved to be a very lucrative business, and so, after three years, he expanded and moved his workshops to Levallois-Perret, together with his nephew M. Dubois. Dubois was Chaprons right-hand man for 54 years!During Chapron’s most successful early years (1928-1931) his company produced around 500 bodies a year with no fewer than 350 employees. In that early period most coachwork was built on Ballot, Delage, Panhard-Levassor and Chenard-Walcker chassis, but also a few on high class chassis such as Hispano-Suiza, Bugatti, etc.But Chapron was to reach his absolute climax in the second half of the 1930s with the extremely tasteful coachwork he designed for the Delahaye 135 chassis and its derivatives. Many Delahayes were coachbuilt by the house of Chapron, and he was their main supplier until the outbreak of WW2. After WW2 this continued until at least 1953, around which time Delahaye disappeared from the French automobile manufacturing market, mainly due to excessive French taxes on such large cars as the Delahaye and Delage, but also Hotchkiss, Salmson and Talbot-Lago. During WW2 Chapron’s company had survived doing repair work and he probably would not have guessed that after hostilities were over the coachbuilding business would be booming again. During this period he did not only do series-production for Delahaye, but also produced special coachwork for Talbot-Lago, Salmson, Hotchkiss, Gregoire, Simca, etc.
Chapron was the last coachbuilder to work on a Rolls chassis, when they built a touring limousine on the Phantom V chassis in 1960.During the 1950s coachbuilders experienced a very difficult time, mainly because of a revolution within the automobile industry. European car manufacturers, following in the footsteps of their American competitors, started building complete cars of their own, including their own (self-supporting) bodies, doing away with the independent chassis and the traditional art of steel panels over a wooden frame. So now that this was happening coachbuilders lost a major part of their business, and within a few years most had disappeared from the automotive scene…
But Chapron was one of the very few who found a solution in the Citroën DS, which took him into a new direction. I like this part, because when my dad and I participated in the Concours d’Elegance Palace het Loo in the Netherlands in 2014 with our 1950 Delahaye 135MS Chapron drophead, one of the antagonists in that particular class was a Citroen DS cabriolet with a Chapron body. The DS beat us, having just been freshly restored, and became first in class (didn’t really expect that…)!
The DS story is one of a kind… Chapron designed a lovely cabriolet and requested Citroen to supply him with a chassis, which Citroen refused. But Chapron persevered with his plan and bought a saloon from a local dealer. He replaced the body of the saloon with his lovely design and showed it at the 1958 Paris Salon. It worked and he went on to build 300 cabriolets in a period of 2,5 years. All of those 300 cabriolets were produced the same way as the first prototype. This proves that Henri Chapron was not a quitter. I like that!
Eventually Citroen realized that they had made a major mistake and offered Chapron a contract to build cabriolets (the DS Décapotable type usine) on the DS19 platforms, supplied by the factory. Citroen paid for the redesign and retooling of Chapron’s workshop and overall some 1800 models were produced! Not all were cabriolets, such as those 97 2+2 or 5-seater DS19 coupés, 25 DS21 coupés and 44 4-door saloons on DS19 and DS21 platforms. The last models were delivered in 1974 and all have become highly collectible in recent years.Even more special were the presidential cars that Chapron built for the French State on the Citroen 15/6, DS19/DS21/DS23 and SM platforms, as well as on the Talbot-Lago T-26 chassis. These were made for Presidents Vincent Auriol (Talbot-Lago), Charles de Gaulle (Citroen DS variants), Georges Pompidou (Citroen SM) and even for King Hassan II of Morocco! He also built a special Peugeot 403 cabriolet for the Peugeot family and about 1500 Autobleue bodies for tuned Renault 4CVs. Other work of his were a small number of Renault Frégate and Dauphine cabriolets. His last designs on the Citroen SM unfortunately came too late, when Citroen was about to end its cooperation with Maserati, which supplied the engines for the SM.
Henri Chapron died, aged 92, in Paris on May 14th 1978. His widow, Francoise Chapron, continued to run the workshops for a while as a restoration center for high-quality collector’s cars. But less than five months after Chapron’s death the company presented again a SUPPRISE! A landaulet bodied conversion, built for a rich Dutch customer, based on a lengthened Peugeot 604. Later the company also did some special luxury versions, with lavishly equipped interiors, of the Citroën CX. Operations finally ceased in 1985, putting a definite end to the operations of this very special coachbuilder. Let’s honor him for all his great designs and of course his persistency, which made his so successful!
His legacy lives on in the many gorgeous collector’s cars with Chapron coachwork that continue to receive honors at events around the world. Next article will be about coachbuilder Jacques Saoutchik, who I already briefly mentioned in the POTW.
Written by Rosemarijn Veenenbos