Return from the ashes
After 45 years in hibernation, this Talbot Lago Grand Sport with bodywork of Pennock from the Netherlands has returned to its original home country. But before we could drive it there, the former owners ashes had to be blown away, as he had made some extraordinary burial wishes.
Plenty of nice cars are to be seen on the average classic car rally. Volvos, Austin-Healeys, Alfa Romeos and Porsches, all kitted out with fog lamps and roll bars and sporting an array of competition colours. It’s a beautiful sight, of course, but with all due respect they are all fairly unexceptional rally models. Tried and tested, true, but unlikely to raise much more than an eyebrow to the connoisseur. Once upon a time, however, it was different. In days gone by browsing through the starters’ lists of the Tulip Rally, for example, would turn up entries like special Allards, Ferraris, Lagondas or Talbot-Lagos, complete with the aristocratic - often double-barrelled - names of their drivers and navigators. This Talbot-Lago, specially commissioned for rallying by a wealthy Dutchman, was one of them. And after an absence of over four decades, it’s now back on Dutch soil.
Those 45 years were spent in the United States with its second owner, the last 33 of which in relative solitude. And while it’s true that a handful of insiders were privy to the fact that an exceptional collection of cars was tucked away somewhere in rural Michigan, little information about this collection was leaked to the outside world. Now in itself that is not unusual, but this collection was different. Mainly because its American owner, clearly a very wealthy man, had been dead for many years. Since his passing away in 1973 the Talbot-Lago, along with many others, had been safely ensconced in heated garages belonging to his estate. Very different from it’s original purpose. Because back in 1951, the car was delivered as a rolling chassis to the Pennock bodyworks in The Hague with the request to transform into an ultimate rally-vehicle. Coachbuilders Pennock were more than happy with its arrival, as sales had dropped drastically after the war. Before that period they had been building bodies for about all the great French motoring manufacturers, from Mors to Delahaye, but these times had gone by. At around 1950 there had been a Healey, a Skoda and an Armstrong-Siddeley in the workshops, but they were rather exception then rule. Pennock were thus proud to display the ‘Pennock-Lago’ at the Amsterdam motor show of 1952. A Lago very different to the other 38 Grand Sports built. Perhaps not so elegant as the ones that were bodied by the factory, let alone compared to a flamboyant one-off by Saoutchik or even Graber, but this had a reason, as this car was purpose built. Not a showcar, but a rally-contender, made to measure for a rich rally-enthusiast. Few people knew then who the owner was, and throughout the years his identity remained a mystery.
But its first owner wasn’t the only omission in the cars history. No one seemed to know what happened to the car until 1962. By then it was 11 years old and turned up on the other side of the world. The Amsterdam car dealer Bart Looyens often sold and shipped rare automobiles overseas, and usually to the full satisfaction of the buyers. Voita Maschek was just such a buyer. An eccentric American, he knew exactly what he wanted: only the best. He’d bought a rare Bugatti through Looyens earlier and was evidently satisfied. The Talbot-Lago was also in a class of its own, remarkable not only for its unique bodywork, but also for its rather unusual specifications. These included an aluminium rear axle and aluminium brake drums, a racing magneto and extremely high compression. It is even suspected that this car was one of the Lagos with 235 horsepower instead of the customary 190. Its special speedometer went up to 250 kp/h rather than 200. It was even conceivable that this car was a stable mate of the car that won the Le Mans 24 Hours race in 1950 for Antony Lago’s works racing team. And there are further clues that pointed to the Lago’s competitive racing pedigree. Like the tabs on the bonnet, for example, which were used in the Fifties and Sixties to seal it after the technical rally inspection had been carried out. “The more I looked at this car the clearer it became that it had been built specially for rallying,” says Tony Paalman, the Dutchman who ‘discovered’ the car in the States. “Its grille was unusually large, to facilitate cooling under difficult conditions, and its windscreen much higher than usual to afford optimum visibility.” A peek inside the car also seemed to betray its past. There are extra switches and an authentic Jaeger-stop-watch, for example.
Also inside the car, a service tag dangling from the steering column seemed to prove that Voita Maschek drove the car sparingly, to say the least. The car was due for servicing at 30,000 kilometres, but for 33 years the odometer hadn’t budged from 28,000. When Maschek died in 1973 he had decided to keep his collection of cars. It was a decision that meant the car would not see the light of day for decades, and, to all intents and purposes, would be lost to the world. Until 2006, that is, when Maschek’s daughter succumbed to a serious illness and her mother decided to sell the house and her late husband’s car collection. Paalman heard of the sale and travelled to the United States immediately, eventually arriving at the Maschek estate and its heated garages. What he found there were mainly pre-war cars, and unusual ones at that. “They were the cream of the crop,” he assures. “Bentleys, Bugattis and Hispano-Suizas, and invariably with better specifications than basic configuration.” But the car that caught his eye most was the metallic-green Grand Sport. Beneath the American rear number plate was an old Dutch one with the registration SX-17-58, issued in 1955 when the earlier provincial plates were dismissed. Paalman immediately decided that he would bring this car to its former home country.
But before the Talbot-Lago was shipped back, there was something the 86-year-old Mrs Maschek apparently needed to get off her chest. Her husband’s death in 1973 didn’t exactly come as a bolt out of the blue, she explained. Voita Maschek had already been sick for long time, long enough for him to make his burial wishes known. He wanted to be cremated and have his ashes spread over his cars. His reasoning was that if the cars were ever sold, which he considered inevitable, his spirit would go with them wherever they ended up in the world. A charming anecdote, considered Paalman, but he gave it little more thought. “No problem we’ll vacuum it,” is what he thought to himself. But once the car was back in the Netherlands, this didn’t appear to be necessary; there was no trace of any ash in the car, not even in the ashtray. However, it was rather difficult to fire the engine up again - perhaps because of its high compression? But during repeated efforts to start it up, it seemed that there was barely any suction at the intakes of the three Stromberg carburettors. “If the engine isn’t sucking air in, perhaps it’s because it cannot blow it out,” thought Paalman, who decided to poke a tube as far as possible into the car’s exhaust pipe. With a thunderous roar and an enormous cloud the next attempt to start it brought the sports car back to life again after its many years of silence. And Mister Maschek too decided to make reappearance; after having spent all those years in the car’s exhaust system.
Fortunately, the long hibernation hasn’t done harm to this unique Talbot-Lago. Mascheks garage must even have been a good resting place, as the car still appears in a lovely original condition. The most striking patina is paint that has thinned from polishing. And as Paalman has blown away the ashes abundantly in the last few months, there is no difficulty in starting the engine anymore. You just turn the little key, push the starter and the growl can be heard. Getting in is easy with big doors that open just above the sills. The chairs are big as well, but the roof still sits high up from your head. It gives the impressive all-round vision that its rally-ambitious first owner must have longed for. Overall the car looks and feels definitely bigger from the inside than you would expect from the outside. The steering wheel and the chrome embellished white-on-black dials help to give you that feel: they are massive. Revs on the right and kilometres on the left - the beautiful Jaeger-stopwatch in between them. Together with an array of smaller dials and different coloured switches and buttons, the dashboard has that exceptional atmosphere of a cosy cabin mixed with a mad scientist’s laboratory, so well known to the grand sportscars of earlier decades.
Once started, the big-bore six soon idles and runs smoothly. The gearlever on the right side of the steering wheel is placed in a quadrant marked 4, 3, 2, 1’, ‘pont mort’ (neutral) and ‘R’ (reverse). Antony Lago was known to be a big fan of the Wilson preselector gearbox, but in combination with a normal plate clutch that the Grand Sport is fitted with, it requires heavy pedal pressure as the same action works both clutch and preselector. But lift it gently once you have selected gear and the Talbot-Lago rolls away smoothly with its distinctive whine. Now push the throttle and the big car goes. Accelerating is quicker then expected, quite honestly. For as the car with its cosy wood and leather interior might give you a sense of charm known to cars like Riley’s underpowered 1.5 RM-series or a Rover P4 with four cylinder engine. But this is very different. The Lago accelerates like it is just bitten by a giant mosquito, and together with all its cosy trim the car leaps forwards. Steering feels heavy at first, but soon lightens once on your way. Again unexpected, because with about 1650 kilograms, the car is clearly overweight compared to European competitors of its day: six cilinder Alfa’s, Jaguars XK120 and Astons DB2 for example. But the Grand Sport’s in-line-six has tremendous power that compensated easily. The beefy engine benefited from Talbot-Lago’s experiences in F1-racing and feels even powerful for today’s standards. Before the war Antony Lago’s machines were already timed at 137 mph on La Sarthe’s Mulsanne straight, and this one makes you feel it is in for that kind of thing too. Changing gear can be done quickly, although it takes time to get used to the preselector gearbox and its column change.
So far the good news. The bad news is that the car is actually making speed now and the classic 18-inch Pirelli’s seem not to have been used - let alone changed - since Voita Maschek was alive decades ago. At 50 mph the big Grand Sport feels like the archetypical American car that doesn’t like cornering anymore. At 60 even wide bends are starting to feel dangerous and we don’t want to know what it feels like when driven faster in a corner. Or even at straights. The big speedometer might wink to 250 km/h (156 mph) - we are sure that kind of speed will make the car feel like running bald tyres on sheet ice. Still though, at lower speeds the car handles surprisingly well, an indication there is a lot of potential when fresh tyres will be fitted. Despite the classical transverse leaf front suspension corners can be taken precisely and the car does not feel it will easily get out of control. It can be forced in oversteer, but it doesn’t come naturally, despite its 235 bhp at the rear wheels. The hardened tyres help it into understeer now, but it seems like this doesn’t come naturally too. It is actually amazing how easy the more then 1.6 tons of steel, leather, glass and wood can be thrown into corners, which we were able to do on the country roads of the Dutch polderlands. Just step on the gas at the straights in between and away you are. Ideal to catch up time with during a hard rally-stage.
That is, obviously, what this car was meant for, so it seemed. But still, even back home no one seemed to know who it was, that had commissioned Pennock to build it all those years ago. Maschek was dead and thus unable to tell any tales and the same held true for Bart Looyens. Eventually a picture gave the answer. The car is seen in all its splendour on the starting line of the 1952 Tulip Rally. It was black back then, which means Maschek must have had it painted green, but there was no doubt it was the Pennock-Lago. A glance at the starting grid of that year revealed that it was number 150 in the rally. A Jaguar was number 149 and an Aston Martin was 151. They are both cars that can clearly be seen on the picture. The owner turned out to be a certain mister Reichmann. He was a carpet dealer from the province of Noord Holland, which also explained the provincial number plates that can be seen on the old photograph. But although Reichmann was well known in rallying circles of his time, his special Talbot-Lago didn’t bring him the luck he must have dreamt of. Of 244 competitors, the purpose-build Lago ended in the lower echelons. Just like Talbot-Lago itself. “When one of my cars wins”, Tony Lago is reported to have said, “I feel that I am paying a moral debt to the country which has permitted me to realize my life’s dream.” But whether that was France or Holland – both man’s dreams did not come true. Like Pennock, Lago’s production shrunk quickly after the war. In the early fifties it even dropped from around a thousand to under 100 in a year. In 1951 he was forced to give up his works racing team and a couple of year later Major Antony Lago passed away. Reichmann was never heard of after his 1952 rally-adventure. Some say he was put to prison, but it is also heard that he too went to America.
1951 Talbot-Lago T26 Grand Sport by Pennock
- Engine: 4482 cc, in-line six-cilinder, 2 valves per cilinder, three Stromberg carburettors
- Power: 235bhp @4600 tpm
- Transmission: Four-speed manual preselector gearbox, rear wheel drive
- Steering: Rack & Pinion
- Suspension Front: independent, double wishbones, transverse leaf springs, telescopic dampers
- Suspension Rear: live axle, semi-elliptical leaf springs, telescopic dampers
- Brakes: Hydraulic drums front and rear
- Weight: 1650 kg (3630 lbs)
- Top speed: 130 mph; 0-60: 12 sec (est)
- Fuel Consumption: 20 mpg (est)
- Cost new: 2,775,000 French francs
- Value now: 80.000 pound