1936 British Salmson 20/90 DHC
Extremely rare six-cylinder model; the last of only 12 made and 8 surviving; under 7,000 miles since full restoration; magazine featured; a lovely example of this fascinating fast tourer
Memorably described by Tony Dron as ‘the best car you have never heard of’, the British Salmson 20/90 was a marvellous fast touring car with real sporting pretensions. The origins of the car stretch back to Paris in 1921 when French aero engine manufacturer Salmson branched out into car production. Ably led by chief engineer Emile Petit, they specialised in small sports cars with pioneering twin-cam engines which made them formidable competitors on track.
The British connection came about in the late 1920s when sports car racer Howard Martineau built a factory in Raynes Park, London, to produce Salmson aero engines under licence. One thing led to another and although Salmson already had a UK distributor for their cars (SMS of Chiswick), Martineau was convinced that he could go one better and re-engineer the cars to make them better suited to the British market.
By this time the arrival of the MG Midget had scuppered the vogue for small French sports cars so Martineau took the Salmson S4C as his starting point, a luxury touring car with a four-cylinder 1.5-litre twin-cam engine and a Cotal electric gearbox. Renamed the 12/55, the British Salmson version ditched the Cotal box in favour of a completely new four-speed floor-change box while the engine was redesigned to use BSF rather than metric threads. Other modifications included adapting the rear axle to take Rudge Whitworth hubs and wheels and the replacement of the scuttle-mounted gravity feed fuel tank with a new rear tank and an SU electric pump.
The chassis was made by Rubery Owen, largely to the French design while bodywork (saloon or drophead) was entrusted to a select few coachbuilders: REAL of Ealing, Newns of Thames Ditton, Ranalagh of Kew, Corsica of Cricklewood and Whittingham & Mitchel of Fulham. At £395 for the saloon and £415 for the DHC, the 12/55 was about £50 more than a 12hp Lea Francis or a Riley Kestrel but it got glowing reviews and 240 were sold before it was replaced by a 14hp model based on the Salmson S4D, another 48 of these also finding buyers.
While all this was going on, British Salmson were also hard at work developing a larger 2.6-litre six-cylinder version of the S4D. Introduced in late 1935, the 20/90 (or S6D) developed 90bhp at 4,500rpm and had a strengthened four-speed box with synchromesh on third and top which gave it a top speed of 90mph. It also had niceties like rack-and-pinion steering, independent front suspension, Luvax rear dampers, Lockheed 12” hydraulic brakes, Jordan centre-lock wheels, a built-in jacking system and reversing lights.
The two-seater open coachwork was by REAL or Whittingham & Mitchel and it cost £645 – twice the price of an SS100 and on a par with Aston Martin and Talbot. The excellence of the 20/90 was soon evident in contemporary road tests and it also enjoyed some success in competition, a 20/90 driven by Count Dorndorf at the 1936 Brooklands High Speed Trials coming third behind RD Gregory’s Bentley 4.5 in second place and Prince Bira’s winning MG Magnette. Dorothy Patten, who owned the first 20/90 (chassis 101), campaigned it extensively, feeding back useful information to the factory at Raynes Park. She came second in the ladies sprint at the 1936 Brighton Speed Trials, her time of 34.8 seconds being pipped by Kay Petre in her Frazer Nash at 34.25 seconds.
However, the high price of the car and the aircraft quality standards of manufacture put it out of reach of all but the wealthy few and only 12 were made before war broke out in 1939.
The 20/90 you see here (chassis 112) is the last of the 12 made and is believed to be one of the two cars that were exhibited at the 1938 London Motor Show. Although it has no coachbuilder’s plaque, the body is characteristic of REAL. Originally registered AAA 6, it has a known ownership history from new, the registration changing to 4949 E in 1954 when it was acquired by its third owner, a Mr Twentyman of Wolverhampton. It then had three further owners before being acquired by Jim Burr of Surrey in 1987. He set about a major restoration including renewing the ash frame, remaking the rear body panels in aluminium and rebuilding the engine, sleeving it to 72mm so new MG pistons could be fitted which reduced the capacity to 2,400cc.
Sadly, Jim died before the work was completed and the car was bought from his widow by our vendor in June 2002. The Chairman of the British Salmson Owners’ Club, he was well placed to finish the job and aimed to get it back on the road in time for the Club’s 50th Anniversary celebrations in Easter 2003. As is invariably the case with such projects, things did not go quite as smoothly as planned and although he received unstinting help from fellow club members and from enthustiastic local craftsmen, he ended up overshooting the deadline by a couple of months.
The full extent of the restoration is too detailed to cover in full here but is amply documented by many photos and invoices on file. Highlights include: new front wings in aluminium; aluminium door skins repaired; brightwork rechromed; radiator recored; new wiring; electric water pump fitted; interior retrimmed in red leather; Blumels steering wheel refurbished; instruments rebuilt; new three-position hood and frame which fits very snugly indeed.
Since the restoration was completed, the car has covered some 7,000 largely trouble-free miles and, although it no longer needs one, it has an MOT until May 2022 with no advisories recorded. Well-known on the show circuit and featured in The Automobile magazine in 2004, it comes with a large and interesting history file plus two sets of keys. It also has VSCC papers issued in 2009.
Eight of these six-cylinder British Salmsons survive, an exceptional percentage rate for any pre-war car. A thriving club scene exists to look after the cars, including the British Salmson Owners Club in the UK and the Amicale Salmson in France, both of which organise events and international rallies. In 2014 Salmson was the featured marque at Vintage Montlhéry. Salmson is also one of the 'Grand Marques' of France and eligible for the 'Rally de Grand Marques'.
Apart from being able to participate in all major pre-war events, the new owner will enjoy one of the very best pre-war drivers' cars, boasting many technically advanced features. Examples are seldom offered for sale, and there are very few comparable twin-overhead-camshaft engined cars available, the nearest comparison being the Alfa Romeo 6C which had a similar power output – and we all know how much they cost these days!
Starting promptly and running beautifully as we have moved it around on site, with good 50psi oil pressure when warm, this rare and fascinating fast tourer would sit well in any collection.
For more information contact James on 07970 309907 or email email@example.com
Reg No: 4949E
Chassis Number: A6ZS112
Engine Number: A6ZS112
Engine Size: 2400cc
Docs: V5C; MOT May 2022 with no advisories; 12 old MOTs; VSCC papers; invoices; photos; correspondence; magazine features; technical literature etc.
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