The Museum of the 24 Hours of Le Mans will be proudly displaying a Tracta Gephi at the 2018 Rétromobile show, held in Paris from 7 to 11 February. The pride of the French automotive industry, the Tracta pioneered front-wheel drive technology.
The 24 Hours of Le Mans was originally intended to be a testing ground for road car technology. In keeping with the race’s origins, Jean Todt, current president of the Fédération internationale de l’automobile (FIA), has made safety a priority for his tenure. Of the countless inventions the race has inspired, two stand out as having enabled a huge leap forward in terms of safety for regular production cars.
Firstly, disc brakes, which equipped the Jaguar that triumphed at the 24 Hours in 1953. They are now found on even the most basic models, keeping motorists safe in all circumstances. Secondly, front-wheel drive (FWD) technology, which first appeared at the 1927 Le Mans 24 Hours, pioneered by Frenchmen Pierre Fenaille and Jean-Albert Grégoire – just ahead of British firm Alvis (24 Hours, 1928). This innovation has undoubtedly saved millions of lives over the years, improving roadholding and giving the average driver better control in almost every situation.
Tracta overturned traditional automotive architecture and its rear-wheel drive systems when it introduced the constant-velocity (or homokinetic) joint. Until then, power was transmitted from the engine to the wheels via a double cardan joint, a system that could be unreliable and subject to vibrations and wear. The revolutionary technology was first developed by Fenaille, but Parisian Jean-Albert Grégoire finetuned his patent to enable perfect synchronisation of the two drive shafts. The two accomplices joined forces to apply their technology to the race track and built their first car, the Tracta ‘GePhi’ (short for Grégoire and Fenaille’). Fenaille – whose father had sold his oil company, Standard Oil, which went on to become Esso – agreed to put up the funds on condition that the car break all the established codes. The 24 Hours of Le Mans was the ideal opportunity to put their project to the test and Tracta cars competed in La Sarthe for four years running, enjoying a degree of success: P7 in 1927, P12 in 1928, P9 and P10 in 1929, and P8 and P9 in 1930.
Today, 90% of the French automotive fleet is powered by FWD, which is largely thanks to Grégoire and Fenaille. In 1934, André Citroën, another Polytechnique graduate, launched his own game-changer – the much-lauded ‘Traction’ renowned for its peerless roadholding. Front-wheel drive technology came with the added benefit of improving car floorpan design, doing away with the ungainly traction tunnel. Another benefit of the advent of FWD was that cars were lower to the ground.
The Tracta that is now part of the Museum of the 24 Hours collection was carefully conserved in its original condition for 59 years, complete with its SCAP engine fitted in an inverted position to couple it with the front axle. The car was first registered under number 16 E 26 but competed in the 1929 Le Mans 24 Hours under number 3207 W 1. It was then registered under 4991 RS 4 on 15 February 1950. Finally, in 1958, it was assigned no. 2093 GY 75, the number it still bears today. For a while, the Tracta was abandoned under a pile of leaves in the streets of Paris when its then owner ran out of money to pay for garaging. The car was eventually acquired by Jacques Liscourt. Major collectors, including Serge Pozzoli and even Jean Albert Grégoire, the car’s creator, tried to buy it but Liscourt kept hold of it as the pride of his collection.
As the pride of the French automotive industry, it has now rightfully returned to the home of its sporting achievements. It was acquired by the 24 Hours of Le Mans museum last June, at an auction that fittingly coincided with the Le Mans 24 Hours podium ceremony. At the first glimpse of the chequered flag, the ACO’s managing director Frédéric Lénart and ACO collections manager Fabrice Bourrigaud pulled out their mobile phones, keen to follow the sale at Fontainebleau. Their enthusiasm paid off and the Tracta is now back at Le Mans for good.
Photo: Ninety years ago, the Tracta Gephi (left) led the way in front-wheel drive technology, illustrating its efficiency at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Le Mans has seen many more inventions since, from disc brakes tested by Jaguar in the fifties to the hybrid technology of today’s prototypes.