At the 1955 Paris Auto Salon, two microcars that looked almost exactly alike debuted. Their builders were two men who had taken a separate, but almost identical path to arrive at the same destination. Paul Vallée and Pierre Brissonnet did come from different backgrounds, but in a case of convergent evolution, being in the same place at the same time brought them to parallel conclusions.
Vallée was an idea man who had fortunately married into enough money to indulge in these ideas. He was managing a transport business that promised one-day delivery just after the war when he decided to establish The Société Industrielle de Constructions et de Réparation des Automobiles Francaises (S.I.C.R.A.F.), a shop located in the old Hemy motorcycle factory to build race cars. He ended up forming quite a successful Grand Prix team, Écurie France. Vallée's money and considerable enthusiasm got Talbot-Lago on board supplying cars.
Vallée's mission went beyond winning races. He wanted to promote the French auto industry which was obviously in rough shape due to WWII. Image was everything to Vallée. He had silk coveralls made for his mechanics which, in the words of one of them, made them "really look like clowns." When Talbot couldn't supply enough cars for the team, Vallée had two Delahayes rebodied by coach builder Desplats with controversial styling owing to a slanted radiator, a feature which was then copied by most GP teams. In 1947 and 1948, Écurie France was the most important French Grand Prix team, racking up wins while employing some of the best drivers of the day like Charles Pozzi, Louis Chrion, and Georges Grignard among others.
The racing team, however, wasn't what Vallée saw as the end result for S.I.C.R.A.F. He happened to be one of the first to anticipate the need for cheap transportation in postwar Europe. During the war, he began planning a scooter which he saw as the perfect vehicle for a resource-poor nation. He debuted an open-bodied bike in 1949. It was a minimal machine, but with typical Vallée style and flair, and it featured a novel telescopic front fork.
It was quite well received as being more comfortable than the Italian scooters, but stability problems with the hastily designed fork doomed it. Vallée was to gain a reputation for great ideas that lacked practicality, and for dropping one when a new idea popped into his head. He managed to turn lemon into lemonade by chopping off the scooter's front end and replacing it with a cargo box over two wheels.
This tiny utility vehicle became something of a success. The P. Vallée Triporteur became ubiquitous in small French towns transporting goods and selling ice cream.
Paul loved the limelight that the success of the racing team and now scooter brought him. He was considered an important figure in French industry and he promoted himself relentlessly. He became a society fixture and loved organizing publicity stunts. And, he began ignoring his businesses on and off the race track. Écurie France descended into disarray and was disbanded after the '49 season. Louis Chiron did manage one more major win for Écurie however at the 1949 Grand Prix de France in Reims, a triumphant last hurrah.
Vespas and Lambrettas surpassed the P. Vallée and sales sputtered. Paul himself had started thinking about microcars. Microcars were taking off as an alternative to scooters and a few French makes like New Map, Rovin, and Mochet had cars on the market.
The Citroen 2CV and Renault 4CV were also being built, but there was a waiting list for delivery. Simple microcars could be built quickly and, if powered by 150cc's or less, could be driven without a driver's license. In 1952 he combined his interests in microcars and race cars when he showed a streamlined little monoposto at the Paris Salon. It was powered by the same 175cc motor that drove the Triporteur and in fact was just a pretty steel body designed by Paul Née over the 3-wheeled scooter's frame. Next to the car was a study for a two seater version that became the basis for his next project.
By the mid-50's, many microcar makers like Fuldamobil and Frisky, had turned to fiberglass instead of steel because of its lightness and cheapness. Vallée was always forward-thinking and loved the way fiberglass could be molded into space-age shapes. And, when his 3-wheeled Chantecler had its debut in 1955 it looked like nothing else. (Except that it did, but we'll get to that.)
It was bulbous and fish-like with a cyclops single headlight. It was powered by a 125cc Ydral engine, had a conventional square-tube ladder frame, angled swing arms, and Niemann rubber ring suspension. Its bench seat was comfortable, and low sides and a d-shaped steering wheel made it easy to get in and out of, a sometime bugaboo for tiny cars.
"Chantecler" means rooster which was Écurie France's old symbol. It and the gregarious Paul impressed enough people for it to go into production. It had a slight redesign with the bumpers and windscreen, got a second headlight, and also a unique Westinghouse gyrostarter. Meant for helicopters and airplanes, it was an inertial starter that would wind up when you pulled a lever making the same sound you hear copters make. You would hold it for 10 seconds then let go which would suddenly engage a clutch that caused the engine to turn over. It was, needless to say, unnecessary and terribly fragile. Only one other car, the equally weird and French Inter, ever employed this system.
It had a top speed of 75 kph and was a nice way to get around Paris. It was actually priced between the 2CV and 4CV, both much larger and more capable vehicles. Sales were steady, but slow.
200 were built between 1956 and '58 when Paul decided to stop production after the sudden death of his wife. Sadly, less than 10 are known to survive. Paul Valée wasn't kept down for long, though. Soon after the demise of his car company, he bought into France's largest importer of Rolls Royces and Ferraris.
So, what of Pierre Brissonnet? Well, he was kind of Paul's doppelgänger, but with more humble beginnings. Brissonnet was a tinkerer and inventor who also came up with the idea of building a scooter while living in Nazi occupied France. He saw the same conditions Paul did after the war and had his own ingenious plan for personal transport. He had built sidecars before the war and adapted this experience into a design for a lightweight, open-bodied scooter to be powered by a 50cc Motobecane motor.
Mors, an electronics company that made railroad signals as well as appliances, bought his designs for a new subsidiary, S.I.C.V.A.M. (Société Industrielle et Commerciale de Véhicle a Moteur). Hey, that sounds just like Paul Valée's company, you're thinking. *shrug* They were planning on building a bike to be marketed as the "Speed." Under Brissonnet's direction, the Speed would become the most advanced scooter of its day.
It featured body parts made of Alpax, an aluminum-silicon alloy that was light and strong. It also had a new ingenious, and this time successful, fork design with hidden Nieman rings. It could be had with a thrifty 98cc, or zippy 115cc engine. Another feature was the ability to be easily unbolted into two pieces for easy storage at home, on a boat, or a plane.
The scooter market was dominated by Vespa and Lambretta, but the well made, versatile, and easy to ride Speed found a niche. After a few years, S.I.C.V.A.M. moved on to someone else's cheaper to produce design for a new Speed, and Pierre moved on to a microcar. A fiberglass three-wheeled car called the Voiturette that looks almost exactly like Paul Valée's car. How? I don't know.
They were both first displayed at the 1955 Paris Salon which is either an incredible coincidence or very suspicious. It, too, was powered by a Ydral 125cc engine, but these were really popular engines and the size made them perfect for sans-permis cars. It also had a box steel frame, but its drivetrain setup was more scooter-like.
Brissonnet also thought of using a d-shaped steering wheel for comfort. It was built by the Colas Company which doesn't seem to have any connection to Vallée. So, which egg came first? No one seems to be sure. But, it does look like someone saw someone else's ideas. Or, maybe when you put a Frenchman in a war torn country and tell him to develop inexpensive transportation for the masses, acronyms, scooters with weird front forks, and fish cars is always going to be the result.
There is one Brissonet left of the 2 or 3 prototypes built. It's awaiting restoration. The car never went into production like the Chantecler, and Pierre left car building to start making accessories for Citroens. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em, I guess.
This incredibly restored P. Vallée Chantecler sold at auction last year for $98,000. The entitled party boy wins again.