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ANDRÉ DUBONNET is exemplary of inherited money put to good use. His wealth came from his father’s inventing the aperitif bearing the family name. Andre didn’t have to work, yet he applied himself in a rich and varied life.
Flying fighter planes, driving race cars, competing in Olympic bobsleds, designing concept cars and thinking up stuff. One invention was bought by GM; another idea well nigh wiped him out financially. All the while, though, the impression is that Dubonnet was having a jolly good time.
André’s father won a government competition in 1846 by concocting a vin tonique au quinquina, considered a useful means of French Foreign Legionaires taking their quinine. Dubonnet is a blend of fortified wine, herbs and spices, its fermentation controlled by addition of the alcohol. It’s a sweet aperitif with a 15-percent alcohol kick. Lots of cocktails combine it with other ingredients.
The current Queen Elizabeth’s mum, the late Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother, enjoyed her gin and Dubonnet, 30/70, respectively. She once remarked, “I think that I will take two small bottles of Dubonnet and gin with me this morning, in case it is needed.” The Queen Mum never had malaria.
The aperitif’s primary benefit to André Dubonnet was his inherited wealth. He didn’t just swan around, though. During World War I, André enlisted as an artilleryman, then switched to aviation. Though he never rose beyond sergeant, Dubonnet flew a SPAD XIII in the Stork Squadron and was credited with six aerial victories, several shared with other flyers.
After mustering out, he turned to land-based competitions, only slightly less hazardous. André and his Hispano-Suiza H6 won the Boillot Cup at Boulogne in 1921. He bored its engine out to 6.9 liters and took that year’s Autumn Cup at Monza. In 1923, he and two other Hispano drivers finished first through third at Boulogne; honoring this, the company introduced a Boulogne model.
Dubonnet ran the 1924 Targa Florio/Coppa Florio in a Hispano-Suiza modified to his own specifications. To lighten the car, he had aircraft maker Nieuport-Astra devise bodywork of tulipwood strips fastened to an aluminum structure by tiny copper rivets.
This Sicilian road race had a special quirk for several years: After completing the Targa’s regulation four laps of a 67.1-mile circuit, the Coppa Florio required cars to complete a fifth lap.
Dubonnet was running 2nd overall at the end of two laps; tire troubles dropped him to 6th in Targa standings, 5th after the added Coppa Florio lap.
André was a member of France’s Winter Olympics bobsled team in 1928, back when they were called bobsleighs. It had been a four-man event in 1924 at Chamonix, France; five-man was added in 1928 St. Moritz, Switzerland. Two-man bobs didn’t come along until 1932 Lake Placid, but by then André was into other activities.
In his idle time in the late 1920s, André designed the Dubonnet independent suspension system that had a brief popularity in both production cars and racing machines. He sold GM on the concept, which had its introduction with 1934 Chevrolets and Pontiacs.
In 1930, Dubonnet married Xenia Johnson, who, sadly enough, died not long afterward. André met his second wife, Ruth Obre, during his dealings with GM’s Alfred P. Sloan, famed for his visions of the automaker’s incremental product levels and planned obsolescence. Both women figured in Dubonnet’s continuing tale, to be told here soon. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2016
Hi DrD. The advantage of Dubonnet’s independent suspension “kit” was that it did not require a redesigned frame. One could simply bolt the solid front axle to the existing frame, as Alfa Romeo did, and attache the self-contained Dubonnet box to the king pin opening. The GM version did include a stamped replacement for the axle with a location pin for the “knee-action” block. I have a good file on Dubonnet’s design and its corporate revisions. A fine phantom view illustrates the small-diameter spring and the pair of arms that did the work.
It seems that Ms Obre was mightly offended by having a fabulous Hispano-Suiza prototype named Xenia on her property and demanded it be destroyed. It was moved, but survived and lives happily in the Peter Mullin collection in Oxnard, CA.
Good for you! You evidently mind-read my next installment on Dubonnet’s tale, to appear shortly.
Also, thanks for the Dubonnet suspension info. I’ve heard it was clever, but suffered from oil leaks.