GREGOIRE is a name indelible in motoring, aviation and agriculture, but hang on.
There were three of them with the same surname, none of them related, yet all achievers of consequence in their fields.
Pierre Joseph Grégoire, born in 1876, set up shop in Poissy in 1902 building aircraft engines and started making cars in 1904.
The handsome cars with their distinctive pear-shaped radiators could be had with single-, two- or four-cylinder engines, and in 1911, a six-cylinder joined the family.
They were largely hand-built and built a solid reputation, in part backed by active participation in motorsport. In 1920 one even raced at Indianapolis.
Soon after WWI Grégoire introduced his first car with an overhead-valve engine.
The 2.3-litre vehicle could achieve 100km/h, a blistering speed at the time, but it was a pricey product, so sales were slow and competition was fierce.
Bear in mind that France had roughly 180 different car brands on the market at the time and in the wake of the war, there wasn’t a lot of cash in anyone’s piggy bank.
Grégoire was the 15th most popular brand, but with a staff of more than 220 and mounting bills, the proverbial writing was on the wall.
He shut his car plant down in 1924, but went on to produce engines for the Bignan company, which fired up in 1919.
Its first models were priced at 30,000 francs in bare chassis form – and that did not include the tyres. Apparently it was not unusual in those days.
The Bignans did, however, have some impressive competition results at Le Mans, Spa Francorchamps and in the Monte Carlo Rally before the Great Depression shut it down in 1931.
However, the most famous of the Grégoires was not Pierre, but Jean-Albert.
People with high IQs are known to often change direction in their careers, few more so than Jean-Albert Grégoire.
The Frenchman had surprising diversity in his abilities, excelling in various physical sports as well as in multiple avenues of the automotive industry — plus the arts, literature, law, and he was also a good pianist and an authority on wine . . . and mushrooms.
In his later years he also became an author of note.
He was born in Paris in 1899, orphaned when he was only nine, and was raised by a wealthy uncle who was intrigued by the emergence of the motor car.
After graduating from Stanislas College he enrolled at the École Polytechnique and completed his scientific training with a doctorate in law.
Apart from his academic achievements, he was a brilliant athlete and became the French national 100-metre sprint champion, won the international long jump at the 1919 inter-allied games and also played some rugby.
After WW1 he started work as an engineer in a company that made weaving looms, but found it boring and headed to Madagascar in 1924 on behalf of the Compagnie Minière des Pétroles de Madagascar. That, too, was short-lived.
On his return to France, Grégoire joined some friends to run a car business in Versailles.
There his romance with motor cars started. He began racing an Amilcar and a Bugatti, and it was there that he also met Pierre Fenaille, son of Maurice Fenaille, the nation’s oil industry pioneer.
The two young engineers shared a passion for motorsport and decided to design a car which would allow them to race under their own brand name.
Fenaille liked experimenting and convinced Grégoire that they should build a car with front-wheel drive.
Although front-wheel drive gave better road adherence than via the rear wheels, strong vibrations to the steering from the double cardan joints in use at the time was a negative.
So Fenaille designed a revolutionary constant-velocity system, which teammate Grégoire fine-tuned to obtain perfect synchronising of the two drive shafts.
Voila! The universal joint was born and is still used in most vehicles today.
The brilliant boys then applied their technology to the race track.
They called their first car a Tracta, a short-form of traction avant, French for front drive.
They gave their prototype the nickname of Gephi, the phonetic sound of their initials, and their front-drive Tracta with independent suspension and power from an 1100cc SCAP engine fitted with a Cozette supercharger, was good for a 140km/h.
The first competitive outing for the new car was the Coupe de I’ Armistice, in 1926, a reliability trial for cars and motorcycles on a short circuit in the suburbs of Paris.
However, an electrical short-circuit had the Tracta go up in flames, but Jean-Pierre quickly smothered the blaze with a travelling rug which he used as an impromptu fire blanket.
Once the flames were extinguished, the car was driven directly to the Levy-St, Nom hill-climb in the Chevreuse Valley – where it made the fastest time of the day!
Next adventure was even more dramatic: they entered two cars in the famed 24 Hours of Le Mans.
On their way to the circuit in their Panhard support car, they were involved in a serious crash that put them both in hospital.
But Grégoire a little less injured, escaped and made his way to Le Mans, where, with the help of drivers recruited just before the start, managed to get his two Tractas qualified.
Next day, his head swathed in bandages under his crash helmet, he took to the track – and at the end of the 24 hour marathon, finished seventh outright.
This initial success was also a great loss, because Fenaille, after a lengthy coma, never completely recovered from the crash and had to leave management of their Tracta company to Jean-Albert.
He entered the punishing Le Mans event three more times, finishing each time – 17th in 1928, 10th in 1929 and 8th in 1930, which says a lot about his talent as builder and driver.
Still backed by Fenaille senior, Grégoire built several hundred Tractas between 1927 and 1934, variously using 1100 and 1600cc SCAP and 2.7-litre Continental and 3.0-litre Hotchkiss engines.
The Tracta front-wheel drive system was widely copied under licence, although it seems Gregoire did not always receive the appropriate payment.
In 1932, he designed a six-cylinder car for Donnet, the French aircraft builder-turned-carmaker, which at that time was the nation’s fourth biggest car company with its range of four-cylinder models.
The plan to advance to six-cylinder products unfortunately coincided with the start of the depression days and only four of the Grégoire-designed prototypes were produced before Donnet ran out of funds.
Next, he worked with Lucian Chenard to design two cars for Chenard et Walcker.
They were of advanced design but were not a commercial success.
However, the track record of the Tracta and customer satisfaction with the road holding of the vehicle interested renowned manufacturers.
DKW in 1931, Adler in 1932, Chenard and Walker then Citroën in 1934, and Amilcar in 1937 all brought out front-wheel drives under the Tracta licence.
In 1937 Jean-Albert designed the Amilcar Compound, produced by Hotchkiss from 1938 to the start of WWII, by which time 681 examples had been made.
They were built using another of Grégoire’s ideas, a cast Alpax (light alloy) chassis.
But Amilcar’s efforts came to a sudden end when Germany invaded France in 1939.
However, that also proved to be a sales bonanza for him as virtually all the Allied builders of military scout vehicles and light trucks led by Jeep, used his Tracta joints.
Russia and Germany also used them, but didn’t bother about the licensing.
Jean-Albert refused to work for the occupying forces, but he secretly designed the Aluminium-Francais Gregoire, a tiny four-seater 600cc flat-twin car with Alpax integral chassis/body frame, though it was never built under his name.
There were ambitious, but short-lived, schemes to build it under licence in England as the Kendall and in Australia as the Hartnett, the latter producing only about 120 cars.
However, Panhard used the design as the basis of their Dyna range, which was a successful venture.
In 1942, some 30 years before Tesla’s Elon Musk was born, Jean-Albert designed an ultra light electric car for Compagnie Générale d’Électricité (CGE).
In September that year he set a new record of 225km without recharging the batteries – a distance not far off the mark of the EVs of today.
Despite the difficulties of wartime, more than 200 of the neat little two-seater cabrios, branded CGE-Tudor, had been built at the Hotchkiss plant.
In the early 1950s, Socema (a French aviation equipment company), built a 100hp turbojet engine and engaged Jean-Albert to design the first French turbine car, the Socema-Grégoire.
He had by then studied aerodynamics and the prototype of his creation stunned everyone at the 1952 Paris Motor Show.
The sleek bullet-shaped car was built by Hotchkiss and had a theoretical top speed of 200km/h.
But it had a few problems yet to be ironed out, notably great cost, and soon after its official presentation and a test run, the futuristic project was abandoned.
The car is still on display at the Museum 24 Hour of Mans in Sarthe, and still has visitors drawing their breath at its beauty.
However, it was followed by another very upmarket car, the Hotchkiss-Gregoire, which, apart from the famed CV joints, fair bristled with Jean-Albert innovations including all-independent variable flexibility suspension, cast alloy wheel rims that bolted directly to the brake drums and a complex chassis cast, not pressed, entirely of Alpax aluminium alloy.
Power came from an aluminium 2.2-litre flat-four engine ahead of the front axle and mated to a four-speed column-shift gearbox with overdrive top.
The aluminium body was designed in a wind tunnel, tapering in width from front to rear and sacrificing aesthetics to aerodynamics with a Cd of just 0.24, allowing the 53kW motor to propel the 1080kg car to an impressive 170km/h top speed with 9.4L/100km economy.
The turning circle was excellent for a FWD car with precise rack-and-pinion steering and a deceptively spacious cabin with comfortable seating for five.
Of course, none of this came cheap and the Gregoire proved so time-consuming to produce (the rear-hinged doors alone took eight men to fit) that it ended up costing 1.8m Francs — four times the price of a Citroen Traction Avant.
As a result, only 247 were sold before production ended in 1953.
About 60 are said to still exist.
His most successful post-war design was his Aerostable variable-rate suspension system, adopted, among others, by Renault on 1.5 million Dauphines.
He labelled himself as a researcher and once said: “I don’t build cars. I research, I assemble, and I develop new prototypes. Any interested manufacturers can then either produce these prototypes in full, or adopt any other devices” adding that he did his engineering work “not for love of money but through passion for the automobile.”
His autobiography L’Aventure Automobile (Best Wheel Forward) is one of the classics of motoring literature.
In his first book he lambasted car people he accused of sabotaging his ideas.
Oddly, he then started writing murder mysteries under the nom de plume of Albert Gregory, and became quite prominent in French literature.
Jean-Albert Grégoire left this world in August 1992, at the age of 93.
This multi-talented man was undoubtedly one of the most brilliant, innovative and original French, if not European, automotive engineers of the 20th century.
Then there’s the third Grégoire: Victor, who started making agricultural equipment in Montigné, France, in 1802.
He might be the most successful of them, since his company is still going strong to this day.
He set up a blacksmith’s shop at Montigne-sur-Moine and started producing ploughs, paving the way for the future of one of the world’s leading farm machinery companies.
Today, his company, known as Gregiore-Besson, still occupies the same premises in Montfaucon Montigne, France, and the street has been named after him: Rue Victor Gregoire.
It now has four modern manufacturing plants in France and Italy and more than 60 dealerships. There’s one in Australia too.
Although it has nothing to do with motors cars, it more than likely uses Tracta universal joints in many of its products.