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ANDRÉ DUBONNET’S FLIGHT OF AUTOMOTIVE FANCY

ANDRÉ DUBONNET had already distinguished himself in many ways: flying a SPAD XIII in World War I combat, driving a Duesenberg to fourth in the 1921 French Grand Prix at Le Mans, finishing sixth/fifth, respectively, in a Hispano-Suiza at the 1924 Targa Florio/Coppa Florio, competing in bobsleighs in the 1928 Winter Olympics—and designing an innovative independent suspension used by the likes of Alfa Romeo and GM. All this before Dubonnet was out of his 30s.

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André Dubonnet, 1897 – 1980, French flying ace, athlete, race car driver and inventor. Heir to Dubonnet aperitif wealth.

Dubonnet’s marriage in 1930 to Xenia Johnson, a woman of Irish heritage, ended soon afterward with her premature death. André immortalized her in one of his automotive flights of fancy, the Dubonnet Hispano Xenia.

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1938 Dubonnet Hispano Xenia. This and other Xenia images from From Passion to Perfection: The Story of French Streamlined Styling 1930-1939, by Richard Adatto, Editions SPE Barthélémy, 2003.

Dubonnet’s Xenia used a modified chassis from a Hispano-Suiza H6B that had appeared at the 1932 Paris Salon. The concept was a showcase of André’s enthusiasm for modernism and of the Dubonnet suspension. He wrote that the car’s “hyperflex suspension system would give it the suppleness of a cat,” an animal André chose as his corporate logo.

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From any angle, in any era, the Xenia is an example of futurism.

French coachbuilder Saoutchik worked with Dubonnet and aerodynamicist Jean Andreau in the Xenia’s styling, so advanced that later many took it for a post-World War II design. Its doors, for instance, opened out and longitudinally, not unlike those of modern minivans. The car’s undercarriage received aerodynamic attention for reduced drag. Its curved windscreen was decades ahead of Detroit’s “wraparound” windshields.

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An innovative mechanism gave longitudinal actuation of the Xenia’s doors.

Nor was the Xenia André’s only flight of automotive fancy. A second showcase for his suspension and other innovative ideas was the Dubonnet Dolphin. Another joint effort of Dubonnet and aerodynamicist Andreau, this car was a bizarre configuration of aeronautical and automotive concepts.

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Dubonnet Dolphin, c. 1935, styling by Andreau and Dubonnet, fabrication by coachbuilder Latourneur & Marchand. This and other Dolphin images from ClubCara.

The Dolphin had a box frame and Dubonnet suspension. Its Matford (Ford of France) V-8 was mounted in the rear, accompanied by a four-speed Cotal electrically actuated gearbox. Rear passengers entered through conventional doors; those in front used a single clam-shell akin to the post-war Isetta’s.

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The Dolphin’s front access was two decades ahead of the Isetta’s.

In 1935, Dubonnet demonstrated efficacy of the Dolphin concept to officials of the Automobile Club of France at the Montlhéry circuit just outside Paris. Compared with a 1935 Ford of similar weight and power, the Dolphin delivered a 35-percent higher top speed and 25-percent lower consumption of fuel.

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A top view of the Dolphin is particularly striking.

Shipped to the U.S. in 1936, the Dubonnet Dolphin was hailed as the car of the future. Alas, the 1934 Chrysler/Desoto Airflow had already poisoned the U.S. water of advanced aerodynamics.

In From Passion to Perfection, author Richard Adatto offers a tantalizing tidbit: “The Dolphin fell into obscurity and there are rumors that it was stolen while in the United States before World War II and remains in a garage on the East Coast.”

I conclude with several Dubonnet personal tidbits. Perhaps through his suspension dealings with GM, perhaps as part of Paris night life, André met his second wife, American Ruth Obre. It didn’t take her long to dislike a concept car named for his first wife.

On the other hand, as summarized in the Milwaukee Sentinel, December 9, 1944, Obre’s life could itself be a separate complex tale. According to the newspaper, this “Housemaid’s Daughter, as Mme. Goldbeck Vallonbrosa Dubonnet, Became One of the Gayest Hostesses of the Gayest Social Set Along the Riviera.”

In amplification, Goldbeck was a Greenwich Village artist; Vallonbrosa was a Sardinian count. The account titled “Sad Plight of the Cinderella Countess” does indeed end on a sad note: Ruth served time in a lockup after the French Liberation, “charged with being a Nazi collaborationist and a traitor.”

During the war, Dubonnet served in GCI/2, a branch of the Groupement de Chasse I (fighterplane squadron I) of the Vichy government. In 1944, his mansion in Paris was seized by the British and occupied by Air Vice Marshall Matthew George.

André Dubonnet died, age 82, in 1980. A note on his death in Time, February 4, 1980, cites a near bankruptcy late in life from investment in solar energy. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2016

5 comments on “ANDRÉ DUBONNET’S FLIGHT OF AUTOMOTIVE FANCY

  1. Mark W
    February 2, 2016

    A wild life indeed – aerodynamic styling, funky suspension, Vichy French allegations, two wives (the hardest concept!), and solar bankruptcy. Makes even my nutty life seem mundane!

  2. carmacarcounselor
    February 4, 2016

    The Dubonnet Hispano Xenia is currently one of the highlights (okay – they are ALL highlights) of the “Precious Melals” exhibit in the Bruce Meyer Gallery on the second floor of the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles.

  3. J. Howard Johnston
    February 21, 2016

    Xenia Johnston was not of Irish descent, her mother was a Baird, Scottish and her father the American John Howard Johnston. She was married previously to Count Zichy of Hungary

  4. kkollwitz
    February 21, 2016

    This reminds me of the only photo I ever saw of the French counterattacking in May 1940. A small commercial street with soldiers running past the camera; and on the wall above a painted ad:

    DU
    DUBON
    DUBONNET

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