Farman brothers built better cars than Rolls

MENTION the name ‘Farman’ and the eyes of students of aircraft history, and the handful of people aged more than 103 — will light up.

Maybe not exactly light up for the latter group, but there might be a nod of recognition.

That’s because Farman rose to fame during WWI, when French aircraft not only defended France, but many were exported to countries all over the world.

Farman later also built what some say was the world’s finest motor car.

However, only about 120 were built, and though few people know much, or anything, of Farman cars — one actually arrived in Australia.

But back to the WWI and Farman aircraft: Russia, was probably the biggest customer, buying  more than 400 of them.

Others went to nations all over the globe.

The products of Avions Farman were mainly military fare and commercial aircraft used on long-distance routes between the two World Wars.

Some 200 different models were produced, bi-planes, reconnaissance, fighters, passenger and sundry other examples.

Although the machines were built in France, the Paris-domiciled Farman brothers were of English parentage. 

Their father was journalist Thomas Farman, the Paris correspondent for the London Standard newspaper and their mum was Sophie, the daughter of author, William Mudford.

They had three sons, Henri, Maurice and Richard, who became well-known as racing cyclists, with Henri becoming the nation’s cycling champion in 1892.

Then motor cars started arriving on the cobbled roads of France and Henri, at the wheel (or tiller of a Panhard), won the light class of the Grand Prix du Palais d’Hiver, while a year later, Maurice won the heavy class  in the 1901 Paris to Vienna Race.

The brothers by then owned the largest garage in Paris, the Palais de I’Automobile, and in 1902 built their first car, a little twin-cylinder model.

But it wasn’t exactly tres bon and production soon ceased.

In 1905, the Farmans became absorbed in the new science of aeronautics, and Henri won many prizes in competitions. 

The brothers set up an aircraft factory at Billancourt, close to Renault headquarters on the Seine, and supplied flying machines to the French Army.

Their planes gained an excellent reputation during WWI.

After the war, demand for aircraft dropped and the vast factory had space to spare.

That’s when the trio decided to enter the luxury car market by building, what they planned to be — the best car in the world.


The A6A Farman made its debut at the 1919 Paris Salon. 

It was powered by a 6.6-litre six-cylinder engine with unusual features.

The steel cylinders had welded-on sheet steel water jackets, while the overhead camshaft was driven by bevel gears through an enclosed vertical shaft. 

The four-speed gearbox had helical-cut teeth for silent running and was mounted separately from the engine. 

Other features were a cone clutch, dual ignition, semi-elliptic springs at the front and cantilevers at the rear. 

The engine developed 100 bhp (75kW) at 2800 rpm. 

In addition to the touring model, a sports model was also offered.

And it came with a five-year warranty, something that arrived in Australia with Hyundai all of 80 years later.

The A6B, launched in 1921, had the gearbox connected to the engine, a multiple disc clutch replaced the cone system, and four-wheel brakes became available.

It was superseded by the NF in 1924, which had a 7.0-litre engine, aluminium alloy cylinder block and new steering gear with large radius rods fitted to maintain the alignment of the front axle. 

It was claimed that the bursting of a tyre, even at speed, would not affect the steering.

Wood or wire-spoke wheels were available, shod with 880 x 120 Michelin tyres. 

The fascia reflected the car’s aircraft ancestry, being equipped with tachometer, speedometer. clock, barometer, inclinometer, water-thermometer, oil-gauge, petrol-gauge, cut-out control, petrol-tap lock, an anti-theft steering-column device, a control for the cooling-fan clutch, an ammeter, and the electric switches.

Farmans appeared at the London Motor Show from 1919 to 1926 and a polished chassis or engine always featured on the stand. 

Coachwork of outstanding merit was also on display, ranging from rakish Grand Sport tourers to the ultimate in luxury limousines. 

Farman had its own coach building department, but the cars could also be had with bodies from bespoke coachbuilders such as Barker, H J Mulliner, Windovers and Million-Guiet.

At the 1919 Olympia Motor Show, the price of the chassis was quoted at £1900, compared with £1575 for the Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost. 

In 1920, Farman raised their price to £2360, making it the most expensive chassis in the show. 

In 1922, an A6A Type Sport tourer was given a road test by La Vie Automobile, which, by the standards of the vintage era, was surprisingly thorough.

It had two carburettors and the timed maximum speed was 90 mph (144km/h) — an astounding  figure for the period. 

The magazine declared that, among all the cars that had passed through its hands, the Farman came the nearest to perfection.

It was a car of great luxury and yet a sports car. 

In 1923 the The Motor gave its impressions of the A6B touring model fitted with a French-built 4-seater torpedo body.

The British journalists were not able to make an extensive test of the car, but they spoke highly of the flexibility and silence of the power unit, and the acceleration in top gear.

The Motor found itself at one with its French contemporary in declaring “. . . it would not be exaggerating in the slightest to say that it is one of the finest touring cars in which we have ridden.”

That fitted well with the brand’s slogan: “Une automobile route, la Farman glisse ” (A car rolls, the Farman glides).

The Farman brothers built two special cars for the Nice Speed Week of 1923, but neither made much of an impact.

There was a streamlined saloon and a two-seater, the saloon featuring entry via a hinged roof section — could that have inspired the ‘gullwing’ Mercedes 32 years later?

 The Farman was lauded as a car turned out regardless of expense for the fortunate few. 


But by 1931, when the world depression caused the company to stop production of these majestic cars, fewer than 125 had been built. 

Only half a dozen are believed to have been sold in the UK, and in 1929 the  correspondence columns of The Motor featured a debate on the subject of the world’s best cars. 

One reader paid glowing tribute to the marque. His family had the latest model, which, he claimed, was the only French car capable of beating the American eight-cylinder cars in silence and top gear performance. 

The steering lock was phenomenal and the steering and springing on pot-holed French roads had to be experienced in order to be fully appreciated. 

The writer pointed out that the car had a five-year guarantee, and he concluded his letter by making the claim: “This new model is the French Rolls”.

The Shah of Iran had a Coupe de Ville with coachwork by Jean Gaborit, and the Sultan of Morocco rode in a magnificent Torpedo, the rear compartment of which was fitted with a separate windscreen. 

American film actress Pearl White owned a Coupe de Ville, while Charles Nungesser, French air ace of WWI, had a Grand Sport Tourer. 

The Farman that arrived in Australia is a mystery. Who imported it, which model was it? Where is it now?

All that’s known at this point, thanks to help of Perth motoring historian John McLean and his colleagues, is that it was registered in Victoria as number 106218.

But that was cancelled in August, 1939.

A  particularly splendid Farman A6B Super Sport went to Maharajah Sir Daulat Singh  in 1921.

He was then the ruler of the princely state of Idar, in the present-day Gujarat state of India.

He later gave the car to Maharajah Sir Bhom Pal, the ruler of the state of Karauli, in neighbouring Rajastan, who greatly admired its striking silver finish. 

The gleaming silver effect was in those days achieved by mixing clear varnish with fish scales. 

In 1967, the Classic Rolls-Royce specialist John Fasal discovered the Farman in one of the garages of the Karauli Palace.

The car was “somewhat derelict but intact” and had only 10,802 miles (about 16,000km) on its clock.

Fasal bought the car, though it took him several years to get it back to Europe, where he sold it to German enthusiast Wolfgang Gawor. 

It was completely restored and featured in a richly illustrated article in the French magazine Automobiles Classiques in 2000. 

Since then the Farman Torpedo has been regularly seen at Concours d’Elegance and has won several prizes.

So, in all, the Farman was a rather glorious failure.

Everyone admired it, and the motoring press was full of praise for the brilliance of its engineering — but very few people were prepared to buy one. 

Richard, Henri and Maurice Farman, all retired from the company in 1937 when, to their bitter disappointment, the socialist government under Prime Minister Leon Blum  nationalised the French aircraft industry. 

The Farman’s company became part of the Société Nationale de Constructions Aéronautiques du Centre (SNCAC), also known as Aérpcentre.

The airline which the Farman brothers founded was eventually incorporated into the company that became Air France.

Henri Farman died in 1958 and Maurice Farman in 1964. Henri lived in France all his life but did not adopt French nationality until 1937. 

He was made a Commander of the Legion of Honour, the order founded by Napoleon. 

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