Race failure spelled doom for Porthos

HOW much traffic could there have been in London back in 1907?

The city’s population had just reached seven million and motor cars, nearly all of them from France, started appearing on the streets in the late 1890s.

In 1895 there were 15 cars on the streets, with actress Minnie Palmer in her Rougemont probably the nation’s first woman driver.

First man to own and drive a car in the UK was Evelyn Ellis, who had a Panhard et Levassor.

In 1896 poor Walter Arnold became the victim of Britain’s first speeding offence.

He drove at 8 mph when the speed limit was 2 mph.

He was pursued, overtaken and stopped by a policeman on a bicycle.

How they measured vehicle speeds in those days is not known, but Walter had to go to court, where he was convicted and fined five shillings.

By 1900 the numbers had increased to about 700 cars on the roads and by 1910 sales had soared to some 1000.

Rudyard Kipling, who had owned a car since 1897, described car journeys as ‘a catalogue of agonies, shames, delays, rages, chills, parboilings, road-walkings, water-drawings, burns and starvations’.

Still, he was an enthusiastic owner, enthralled with this new technology of personal transport, describing the car as “swifter than aught ‘neath the sun,” and outrun by only two things: “Death and a Woman who loved him.”

The thrill of driving this “thund’ring toy” he said, was akin to sexual excitement, involving a “blind, fierce, uncontrouled descent on Love’s fiery chariot.”


1907 Emile Stricker in a Porthos
Emile Stricker at the wheel of a Porthos in 1907.


However, it must have been an interesting street scene, with London’s 300,000 horses still providing the main means of travel. 

So traffic might have been a little congested, yet an advertisement in 1907 claimed a Porthos ran ‘in the heart of London for six continuous hours in top gear.’  

It was a standard 24 horse power four-cylinder model of the French vehicle, also available in six-cylinder form, from Colin Defries Limited, of 2 Denman Street, Piccadilly Circus, sole concessionaires for Porthos cars for the British Empire.

The Motor magazine of November 5, 1907, said: ‘To have accomplished this in top gear is a wonderful performance.’

The ad went on to claim ‘the flexibility and silence of the Porthos are the talk of motoring experts.’

It was a fine car indeed, comparable to the Rolls-Royce.

The brand was founded in November, 1905, by the brothers Armand and Michel Farkas and Luxembourg businessman Jean-Nicholas Kiefer.

They set up their production plant at Boulogne-Billancourt on the outskirts of Paris and immediately aimed their products at the luxury market, their 7.0-litre cars ‘capable of transporting five people at more than 100km/h in the comfort of a living room.’

The company soon attracted investors and built larger premises, equipped with modern US electric machine tools, including a massive generator to ensure constant power in the event of a glitch in the normal supply.

The company chose from day one to reduce the price of its products by using more modern production tools to minimise the use of labour.

It also opted to build some racing cars, since competition, at the time, was the best way to get your product noticed in a world suddenly awash in car producers.

There were 157 car manufacturers at the time – and that was just in France. Many more were available in Germany and other nearby countries.

Porthos produced a monster nicknamed The Bomb.

It was powered by a 9.0-litre straight-eight engine, and with Emile Stricker at the wheel, it was clocked at more than 150km/h before it came to an inglorious halt with a mechanical problem.

The next year a trio of six-cylinder racers was produced at great expense and entered in the Grand Prix of Dieppe.

Winner was Christian Lautenschlager in a Mercedes, from Victor Hemery and Rene Hariot, both in Benzes.

All three Porthos retired with water pump failures.

Gaubert’s car didn’t even complete one of the 10 laps of the race, Jules Simon managed two laps and Emile Stricker retired on lap 9.

That was calamitous for Porthos’ domestic sales and also for the company’s finances.

It had negotiated what should have been a lucrative business deal with Romer, a British taxi conglomerate that included the Reliance taxi company.

The British paid a lump sum to ensure the supply of 800 chassis, 500 of them for Reliance.

However, instead of investing the money in expanding production, Porthos put a lot of it into producing the three racing cars for the Dieppe Grand Prix.

So, unable to attract investors, the Porthos company was obliged to pawn its premises to meet supplies and to honour its deliveries to Reliance, which, in turn was the victim of financial embezzlement by Romer. 

Reliance was then declared bankrupt, taking Porthos with it and the once elite car maker had to shut up shop at the end of 1909.

It remained in sequestration for two more years, and was in the process of starting up again with a range of four and six-cylinder models, just in time for the Great War to break out and end any hope of its resurrection.

The brand name, Porthos, could have come from the ancient Greek for ‘strong’ – or it might have been borrowed the one of the characters in Alexandre Dumas’ work, The Three Musketeers. 

We’ll never know. But we do know that one of the great cars cruised through London in top gear for six hours back in 1907.


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