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The Story of Lancia, Paulin, and John Moir

 

If Georges Paulin's father had had his way his son would have never become Marcel Pourtout's chief designer. His first love and true genius for design would have been subsumed by his father's desire to see his son become a dentist.

However, Paulin's father did not have his way and the world is the richer for it. In particular, Paulin, through a combination of luck and vision came to design some of the most gracefully constructed and aerodynamic of automobiles produced anywhere in the world, which includes the Bentley Talbot Lago and the Lancia Belna Eclipse.

This story is about the latter of these two automobiles, which, as we shall see, through the artistry and intention of its creator casts the chimera of being a much larger and grander car than it in fact is. It is an innovation of design that is in perfectly balanced proportion from sloping curve to gentle angle.

This is also a story about the car's designer and the two men who lovingly restored it some 70 years after it was built and 62 years after Paulin's tragic death.

So then, Georges Paulin...

The tragedies of war would follow Paulin throughout his life, and car design would define his later years, but his early life would be nearly consumed by dentistry, in particular, making dentures in Paris and then Nice. Despite showing an intense interest in various mechanical contraptions and an aptitude for detailed and precise drawings, Paulin's father, Henri-Arsene Paulin, apprenticed his son at the age of 15 to a dental technician.

It is hard to say now, some 90 years later, how Paulin felt about having his life co-opted in such a way, but the year was 1917, World War I was in full rage, and dentistry offered a means for the son of a Parisian stevedore to increase his lot in life.

Unfortunately, dentistry did not protect Paulin from the ravages of the war. In the same year as his apprenticeship, Paulin's father was drafted and sent to the front increasing his family's hardship. The Paulin family's travails would be greatly added to the following year when his mother was hit by a German artillery shell while crossing a street in Paris. The shell was fired from a gun with the appellation of "Big Bertha." She was killed instantly.

Paulin continued with dentistry and soon moved from Paris to Nice. However, the calling of drawing and the intellectual challenge of design was more than he could resist. His day job was dentistry, but his evenings were filled with his true passion.

Paulin's seminal moment came during a summer's thunderstorm in 1925. While sitting in his apartment in Nice watching lightning cut the sky and thunder crackle through a downpour he noticed a neighbor hurriedly trying to close the removable roof on his cabriolet. Inspired by his friend's predicament, Paulin set himself to designing a system for quickly and easily retracting hardtop roofs.

In a few years Paulin would move back to Paris where two chance encounters would propel his rather ingenious design, which he called the Eclipse, into nearly an industry standard for retractable hardtops that is still used today.

The first of these encounters was with a friend who happened to be a mechanical engineer. This friend encouraged Paulin to patent his design. Despite the complexities and expense of the French patent application process, a cash-strapped Paulin succeeded in receiving patent number 733.380 on July 5, 1932.

His next encounter came at about this time when he walked through the door of Carrosserie Pourtout and introduced his Eclipse design to custom coachbuilder Marcel Pourtout. Being a man with an eye for quality and genius, Pourtout fell for the Eclipse and its designer. In January of 1933 the opportunity to make the Eclipse design a reality came with the order for a custom designed Peugeot-built Hotchkiss Coupe chassis. Paulin and Pourtout were off and running.

Modernity...

Throughout his 80 years John Moir has had a rather sharp and mischievous sense of humor, which comes forth as clearly and easily as his admiration for his 1934 Lancia Belna Eclipse. Standing among his significant collection of antique cars (Moir has managed to accumulate more than 50 cars so far), the Belna stands out. Perhaps the eye is caught by the smooth somewhat sensual lines of the vehicle, or its bumble-bee-like colors, or even the yellow-dyed ostrich skin interior.

Moir talks easily and confidently about the Belna, often telling jokes while describing what first attracted him to the car and the process of its restoration. In one instance, while describing the interior, a grin crosses his face and he tells of one woman at a car show who asked where he found such distinctive seat covers. "Big Bird," was his reply, and a sharp laugh escapes from him.

Moir first became aware of the car when he saw it listed in the Robb Report in 1986. Intrigued, and still looking to fill out his budding and diverse collection, he called the owner, Dr. Eugene Nobles, of Memphis, Tenn. "I called to ask if it was still for sale," says Moir. "He said it was, so I flew down to Memphis from Boston in a fairly severe snowstorm to look at it.

"I really didn't know anything about Paulin at the time; I had learned some about Pourtout, and I knew there were disappearing hardtops on some of the older Peugeots. What I did know, though, from seeing it, was it is a magnificently shaped car."

Despite the rather odd coloring of the car at that time - silver on its sides and roof, and watermelon everywhere else - most everything on the Belna worked and Moir had become deeply impressed by the looks of it and the potential he saw for the car. So he bought it on the spot. The next task was to bring the car north to his home near the White Mountains of New Hampshire and restore the car to its former glory. Restoration would have to wait as other projects pulled him away. It was not until November of 2003 that Moir and Waitsfield, Vt., based antique car restorer David Steinman began work on the car.

Back to Paulin and Pourtout...

With Paulin and Pourtout working together beginning in 1933, the planets had aligned to facilitate production of some of the most distinctive custom-built cars ever. To Richard Adatto, author of "From Passion to Perfection: The Story of French Streamlined Styling 1930 - 1939," the combined talents of these two men equaled the marriage of design and business genius. "Paulin became the leading French stylist of the time," he says. "Everything he touched was designed with aerodynamics in mind. He was very conscious of fuel efficiencies and the aerodynamic efficiencies that could be created by the lines of the car. You could go faster, which meant you could put a smaller engine in the car and it could go faster even though it was a small car."

Paulin's Eclipse system only added to the depth of what he could produce on his drawing board and in the shop. "The Eclipse top was very innovative for its time," says Adatto. "The idea that it was a weatherproof top that uniquely folded into the back and that it was very good looking, very good looking, made that design quite impressive and innovative.

"It's innovative that everything was hidden behind a metal panel so stylishly. It was a very innovative thing to have done, and it is still used on Peugeots. On the 207 you can get an Eclipse roof based on the same patent that recognizes Paulin as the designer."  

With Paulin as his chief designer, Pourtout played the role of business guru and uber-salesman. Adatto continues, "He was one of France's premier custom coachbuilders. His cars were very well built, and with the success Carrosserie Pourtout and Paulin's designs people would bring their chassis to them and ask him to basically create. Pourtout would also consult with customers to help them choose a chassis and design that would meet their needs and desires. The way he would work is that he would take these customers to lunch at a very nice Parisian hotel, with champagne and so on, and they would work it all out then and there."

So then, it was in this environment that in 1934 a customer brought a Lancia Belna chassis to Pourtout. The Belna represents one step in an evolution initiated by Lancia toward producing a car that would be generally affordable to most Europeans. The first in this series was the Lambda beginning in 1921. The next was the Artena, which was followed by the Augusta, a smaller vehicle than the previous two iterations. Following the 1933 Paris motor show the Augusta became rather popular in France. So much so that Italy-based Lancia responded by establishing a French subsidiary to produce Augustas for the French market under the Belna moniker. The new name was intended to enhance the marketability of the car in France. The main difference between the two, according to Wim H.J. Oude Weernick's book "La Lancia: 70 Years of Excellence," are the Belna's Jaeger instruments, massive pressing around the crank-hole in the radiator, and different bumpers and color outlines.

Approximately 2,500 Belnas were built. Of those, 650 were bare chassis for custom coachbuilders to fit with bodies. Pourtout is credited with having built about half of the coach-built bodies. Only about five of those were fitted with the Eclipse system (there is some difference of opinion as to how many were actually given Eclipse roofs. Some believe there may have been as may as ten or fifteen, but is difficult to verify). To the best of Moir's and others' knowledge, there is only one other Lancia Belna Eclipse remaining, which is owned by a collector in the Netherlands.

Prior owners of Moir's Belna are something of a blank page. There is Dr. Nobles, who bought the car in the 1960s from David Scott-Moncrief, a British dealer who had taken it in trade on a Rolls-Royce from Jack Brown, a Rolls-Royce enthusiast from Doncaster, UK. The person who originally placed the order for the car in 1934 and how it survived World War II to end up in England remains a mystery.

The restoration...

The spark that ignited the restoration process was lit in 2003 after that year's Pebble Beach Concors d'Elegance, when, according to Moir and Steinman, the co-chair of the show, Glenn Mounger, called Steinman asking him what's coming out, what would he have for the next year's show as the hosts had planned a special class for Pourtout-built, Paulin designed cars in 2005. During their discussion it became apparent that the Belna would be the perfect car to show. So in November of 2003, with a tight deadline ahead, Moir and Steinman began the full restoration of the silver/watermelon colored car with a Naugahyde interior. They needed to have every detail completed by the next Pebble show in August of 2004.

"The wooden interior frame, the coachwork part of the body, had basically rotted away," says Steinman of the challenge he faced. "Over the years the wood, which I believe was ash, from about the bottom up to eight inches was all rotted away. There was nothing but sawdust and little screws. There essentially was nothing there and that all had to be fabricated.

"It was an interesting thing to do because it all had to be done by eye. There were no drawings so we had to create the woodwork to fit the body skin, which was the exact opposite way of what the factory had done. I'm doing reverse engineering. And it all had to work. This took about one-third of the total time to restore the car."

Steinman goes on to say that the radiator shell, dashboard layout, firewall, engine and other elements of the chassis are all original Lancia parts. The rest of the car, which includes the wooden frame and the body, were all designed by Paulin and built in Pourtout's shop. Steinman replaced some of this original body work, but only where it had been compromised by rust. This centered on the sills, sill covers, and the bottom of the door jambs. Asked if this would undermine the perception that most of the car had been touched in some way by Paulin and Pourtout, Steinman said not at all. "They would have in effect had their hands on all of it, except for bits and pieces. It is as when it left the shop.

"The door handles are absolutely original. The window cranks, which are wonderfully original in how they work, they are driven up and down by gears and all we had to replace were the rubber rollers, which does not affect the originality of the car."

The 1200 cc engine is the original eighteen-degree V4 stock engine that came with the chassis from the Lancia production plant. The condition of the engine and the car in general, says Steinman "Was nothing more than you would encounter with any restoration. In doing this you go through all of the individual components and where there is wear you have to replace it. Each component is visited for mechanical condition and appearance, so this means you are looking at brake lines, brake cylinders, the engine, the transmission, the differential, and so on.

"Things that were interesting were tires. They originally had French tires, Michelins, which are metric. We called the fellow who is in charge of antique tires for Michelin [in the U.S.] and he had three, we needed five. I ordered these things in January, I was assured I would have them in March, and in March I called and asked how we are doing on the tires? He said we have the three, so I said send them to me then I called a friend in Europe and asked if he could get me a couple of tires. He said, ‘Yes, I can.'

"We air freighted, them. Basically, we bought these things a ticket on the Concord. My European friend's tires were built in France and the three that came from the American distributor came from India. Now believe it or not, the French tires were much more beautifully made. The Indian tires were stiffer, they were heavier, they were harder to mount and weren't as cosmetically good, very subtly, but not as good. So now you have the question of where to put the two good tires."

With the issue of the tires resolved, Steinman moved on to the hubcaps. He says the car came with three decent ones, but one was marginal and the cap that held the spare tire on was marginal as well. "We went to a metal spinning house that reproduced, beautifully, the two hubcaps. It is a time consuming process that is expensive, but it is what you have to do to produce hubcaps that exactly match the originals," he says.

Asked about the restoration process Moir adds that the original carburetor, which was still in the car, was a French Zenith, but that it had cracked. However, rather than try to find or produce a new one, Steinman was able to simply glue it together.

Standing next to the open hood of the Belna and pointing toward the fuel-line, Moir smiles and says, "The fuel delivery line is copper with two loops, as you can see, but the original had only a single loop in it. David added another just because he thought it was fun and a bit more interesting to look at."

With the body and mechanical issues dealt with, Steinman and Moir could focus on restoring the Eclipse roof. "All of the parts were here," says Moir, "but not working. Dr. Nobles had saved them, but hadn't spent a lot of time getting it all to work."

Steinman adds, "The top is manual with a bungee assist. The bungees on the car now are new, we used about 20-feet in total. They run on wooden rollers that had dried out and cracked so we had some new ones made out of hardwood to match the originals."

The genius of the Eclipse's design is in its simplicity and ease of use. A turn-crank latch is located behind and between the driver's and passenger's seats. Once turned, a latch is released allowing the rear deck above where the trunk would be to spring up. The springiness comes from a set of bungees under tension when the deck is closed.

Next there are a set of latches on either side of the windscreen that must be undone to release the front of the roof. Behind and between the driver's and passenger's seats is a pull knob that releases the roof from its rear latches.

After this, all one has to do is ease the roof back and down into the space under the rear deck. It would normally be a heavy item and difficult to deal with, but there are a series of bungees connected to small hardwood wheels attached to a runner that helps guide the bungees as the roof is raised and lowered. The effect of this design is that the bungees counter-balance the weight of the roof making it easier for one person to raise and lower it. The bungees create just enough resistance on the way down and enough spring when on the way up to make maneuvering the roof a fairly quick and easy task.

The interior of the car is yellow dyed ostrich skin for the seats and two overnight bags located behind the seats. The window sills are Birdseye maple tinted yellow to match the interior and yellow of the exterior.

Moir's original vision for the exterior colors, he says, was something like a blue/black. However, Steinman came up with the idea of black/yellow, "At first I thought the Lancia was kind of ugly with the silver and watermelon, but I saw how it could look finished. Then I saw a Bugatti at Carmel at the end of the Pebble Beach tour, very similar lines, French design, coach-built car, and I said, ‘John, that's the car.'"

Moir agreed saying, "He [Steinman] has superb color sense and I have listened to him on this and other cars we have worked on together."

The result is a paint job that resembles something of the coloring of a bumble bee - yellow along the sides and black for the wheel covers as well as the hood, roof, and back deck. The coloring of the car acts to enhance the beauty of its lines.

Other elements of the car that are worth mentioning include:

  • v Art Deco, teardrop-like trafficators. These are European turn signals placed on either side of the car. They are essentially lighted bars that pop out of the side when engaged. After nine seconds they retreat into the car again. According to Moir, these can be problematic due to freezing in the winter.
  • v The freewheel device, which disengages the engine from the transmission so the car can coast easily.
  • v The gear knob is emblazoned with St. Christopher, which is from Moir's aunt's 1936 Cadillac.
  • v The gear shift is "H" shaped with reverse next to fourth gear. "Shifting is smooth, but a fairly long throw between gears," says Moir. "Also with such a relatively small engine you do a lot of shifting so it is handy that it is smooth with relatively close gear ratios.
  • v The gas pedal is a roller mounted on an arm.
  • v The front suspension is comprised of concentric vertical springs surrounding an oil filled shock absorber.
  • v Last, but not least, are the G. Paulin plates formatted in Art Deco lettering placed on both sides of the car just in front of the door-jamb. These were found by Moir and Steinman in the tool box, which is an original part of the car installed under the hood behind the engine. In the mass produced cars this would have been the location of the gas tank. In the custom chassis the tank is in the rear of the car and relies on an electric pump to send the gas forward to the engine.

In its finished state, the car is, to say the least, a beautiful car. "It's a wonderful thing," says Steinman, who is obviously proud of the results of his work. "I find it a particularly fascinating automobile. One, for the fact that it has the retractable hardtop, which makes it unique.

"The fact that it was designed by Georges Paulin, that he designed the body is even more important. He has taken this car and made it so well proportioned that if you stand 50-feet away you couldn't tell me if it was a big car or a small car. To do this the proportions have to be absolutely correct. The shape of the door handle is the shape of the fender. The shape of the rear fender matches the shape of the rest of the car. All the elements are tied together so that the car, whether the top is up or down, it's a beautiful vehicle. It's just wonderful."

Adatto agrees saying, "It is a beautifully balanced design. It embodies the best of French design because despite it being a small chassis, the proportions are just beautiful and that is what makes a small car look large. It is designs such as this that made France one of the styling centers of the world at that point in time."

Paulin and Pourtout were probably no less proud of what they had built. They were so proud, that they showed the Lancia Belna Eclipse at the Paris auto salon in 1935, where it was prominently displayed at Pourtout's exhibit.

From 1935 until the invasion of France by Germany, Paulin would design a number of cars that today are valued for their aerodynamics and beauty. As James Fack, an automotive historian and close friend to Paulin's nephew Michel-Georges, says, "Apart from the Eclipse, his great contribution is that he designed aerodynamic cars that were, above all extremely beautiful... Paulin's Delage D8-120S [for example] has been described - in print - as ‘Sublime,' ‘Fantastic,' and ‘Outrageously Beautiful.'"

As Paulin was designing and preparing to build the Delage, he and Pourtout were approached by representatives of the British car builder Rolls-Royce to produce a streamlined and aerodynamic body design on a Bentley chassis. The car - known as the Embiricos Bentley - was completed and shipped from Pourtout's shop in July of 1938. This automobile would for many people come to define the extraordinary talents of Paulin (it is interesting to note that at this time he was still a practicing dentist). Soon after Paulin was approached by representatives from Rolls-Royce and eventually offered a job as engineering consultant for the company. Finally, Paulin could quit his dentistry work as he would have been handsomely paid.

Unfortunately, life did not follow the script. World War II erupted and soon France was under the control of the Germans. Paulin could have tried to escape, but fearing for the safety of his family he opted to stay in France. Due to his talents as a designer he was approached by the Alibi network of the French resistance and asked to produce detailed drawings of various German military facilities, which would be sent back to Britain.

Luck, however, was not on his side as Paulin's activities were discovered by the Germans. In early 1942 Paulin was arrested and taken into custody by the Gestapo. After a brief trial in front of a German military tribunal, Paulin was convicted and sentenced to be executed. He was shot to death on March 21, 1942 at Mont Valerien. He, with fellow members of the resistance, is buried in Bagneux. After the war, Paulin was honored by the French government with the Medaille Militaire et Citation a l'Ordre de l'Armee. According to Adatto's book, when Paulin's wife Gabrielle received his personal effects after his death, she found a crumpled note to her in the pocket of his jacket. It said, "I love you - do not avenge me."

Asked what would have likely happened if Paulin had survived the war, Adatto says, "He would have become one of Bentley's chief designers and would have been internationally known." Though he was killed at only age 40, Paulin still managed to leave behind quite a distinguished legacy. One piece of this is Moir's lovingly restored 1934 Lancia Belna Eclipse.

James Buchanan can be reached at orchard-65@comcast.net. Buchanan would also like to acknowledge the contributions to this story by Richard Adatto and his book "From Passion to Perfection: The Story of French Streamlined Styling 1930 - 1939,"and Wim H.J. Oude Weernink's book, "La Lancia: 70 Years of Excellence."