1938 Peugeot 402 Darl'Mat Legere Special Sport Roadster

With a rich history of technical innovation, Peugeot's 402 cars have become some of the most respected Peugeots that France ever produced. But even more impressive than the cars themselves were the people behind the curvaceous vehicles. World War II was swinging closer when the 402 was released in 1935, and by the end of the car's production run in 1940 the world had already fallen into one of the most devastating and atrocious struggles that humanity had ever known. Key individuals involved with the development of the 402, particularly with the stunning 402 Darl'mat, were dangerously intertwined with the growing war effort. The personal difficulties faced by these few key men helped make the Peugeot 402's story transcend the realm of automotive history and become a troubling example of the long-reaching effects of war.

The most intriguing story of the 402's past was the tale surrounding the creation of the 402 Darl'mat. Automotive journalist and historian Jim Donnelly wrote a colorful and detailed history of the car in the September, 2005 issue of Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car magazine. In his article, Donnelly mentions three men in particular as being responsible for the creation of the special 402. These men were Emile Darl'mat, Georges Paulin, and Marcel Pourtout.

Darl'mat, whose name made it onto a series of special Peugeot 402 models, was a renowned Peugeot dealer. Darl'mat was an avid and passionate auto enthusiast, and was constantly working in the garage at his dealership to improve his own cars with careful modifications. He became well-known to a few Peugeot lovers as the man to see about high-quality improvements.

Paulin was a stylistic genius with a functional flair who had developed the first retractable hardtop (forget everything you've heard about the Ford Fairlane), which he called the Eclipse roof system. Paulin received a patent for his novel idea, which landed him a partnership with Pourtout.

Pourtout was a French coachbuilder and longtime friend of Darl'mat. Though Pourtout was skilled, his works initially lacked the high style and creative originality that Paulin would later provide. When Pourtout needed a chassis on which to display Paulin's Eclipse roof design, Darl'mat was contacted and subsequently became involved with the development of the Peugeots to bare his name.

After the three men decided to build cars together, Peugeot would send 402 chassis to Darl'mat's garage. There, Cotal MK-25 electromechanical transmissions were mated to the 402 engines in the fashion of Darl'mat's superb modifications. The advanced transmissions were four-speeds, with no dedicated reverse gear. Instead, any gear could be used for reversing, with Cotal suggesting the selection of second gear whenever moving backwards was required.

After they were finished receiving the new gearboxes, 402 chassis were sent from Darl'mat to Pourtout. At Pourtout's coachbuilding facility, hand-shaped aluminum bodies were fitted to ash wood frames that were then attached to the waiting chassis. The attractive and aerodynamic bodies were designed by Paulin, and affixed to the ash frames simply by nails. Production of the 402 Darl'mat cars lasted from 1937 to 1938, with 106 produced.

Though Paulin's greatest accomplishments were in the area of design, he was actually trained as a dentist. His dentistry skills had little to do with his aesthetic genius, but they did help him land a job as a French spy working under Charles de Gaulle at the outset of World War II. Fearlessly, Paulin made detailed drawings of German equipment and bases. He passed these German secrets on to a posing dental patient who was actually a French railroad worker. His skills as a dentist, designer, and patriot all helped him successfully deliver important information to France. If espionage seems an unlikely livelihood for a gifted designer, consider the men with whom Paulin worked. Joseph Figoni and Jacques Kellner, both highly skilled coachbuilders, were essential spies that dealt closely with Paulin.

It became known that Paulin and his co-spies were on the verge of being discovered, and Paulin was offered the chance to be quickly removed to safety by the British. The man whom Paulin and the rest were working for was a double agent who had been supplying information to French Vichys and German Nazis. Paulin knew that if he left, Kellner and Figoni would be caught and killed. Paulin bravely remained in France, where he was soon arrested by Vichy mercenaries along with Figoni and Kellner. In 1942, Kellner and the Paulin were shot and killed by firing squad. Only Figoni managed to survive, thanks to a Gestapo officer who had been on the Mercedes-Benz racing team recognizing him.

Paulin's was a devastating loss to France and to the world of automotive design. Though Pourtout would resume production after the war, he was never as successful as he had been with the skilled Paulin working by his side. Darl'mat continued the postwar operation of his garage, but never ventured into auto production again after Paulin's tragic death. The last car produced by Darl'mat, in 1939, was designed by Paulin.

The cars of the 402 series earned the nickname 'Sochaux rockets.' Peugeot's primary assembly plant was located in Sochaux, and the aerodynamic streamliners had an advanced, rocket-like look to their bodies that garnered respect and praise. Many different models were built on the 402 chassis. There were 4-doors, 2-doors, cabriolets, roadsters, and the important retractable hardtop models with Paulin-designed Eclipse tops. The first of the 402 models were powered by a 1,991cc four with overhead cam that produced about 70hp, a respectable figure for such a small engine in the 1930's. Later models, using the 402B designation, were fitted with 2,142cc mills. Peugeot's business was going well during the time of the 402, with annual production reaching 50,000 units by 1938. In June of that same year, a 402 Darl'mat took first place in the 1,500cc to 2,000cc class at Le Mans.

All 402 bodies were carefully streamlined. On models with the Eclipse retractable hardtop, the roof lowered as a single, unbroken piece into a tapered trunk area. Top up or down, even the Eclipse-equipped vehicles looked distinctively aerodynamic. Though the 402 Darl'mat bodies had headlights mounted low and flanking the grille, other 402 models had headlights mounted within the grille. This gave the cars a unique look and provided the wind with one less obstacle as it flowed seamlessly over the slippery bodies. The 402 Andreau, designed by Jean Andreau, had the most radical styling of the closed, 4-door 402 bodies. The Andreau had a split rear window with an enormous dorsal fin running between the glass.

The 402 and its advanced forms bettered Peugeot's prewar image as a fine automaker. Mechanically the 402 chassis was not particularly impressive, but the voluptuous sheathings fitted over those chassis were remarkable. The team of Paulin, Pourtout, and Darl'mat was gifted at producing its own version the 402, and had Paulin not fallen to the terrors of an apocalyptic war the history of French design surely would have grown even more intriguing.

Descriptions & pictures bonhams & other

Production Start 1938
Country of origin France