What this is about is the pre-war Grand Prix experience in an attainable, moderately bomb-proof and reliable package

The Talbot-Lago T26 Grand Prix took its double barreled name from an ex-military major who in France was known as Antoine, in England as Tony, but in his native Venice, Italy, had been christened Antonio Lago. Major Tony Lago had spent most of his professional life in the motor industry. In the 1920s he had produced "LAP" overhead valve conversions in London.

He then moved on to the Wilson Self-Changing Gear Company, which manufactured semi-automatic pre-
selector gearboxes, before becoming an executive of the Franco-British Sunbeam-Talbot-Darraq (S-T-D) combine. When this very large and diverse motor manufacturing group collapsed in the post-depression aftermath of 1935, it was Major Lago who organized funding to set up SA Automobiles Talbot in the extensive old S-T-D factories.

He was a keen proponent of racing to promote Talbot's up-market cars. With the company's long-serving ex-Fiat engineer Walter Becchia, he directed design of a 4-liter, 6-cylinder overhead-valve sports car, which in 1937 won the French, Tunis, and Marseilles Grand Prix races and which also dominated the British RAC Tourist Trophy at Donington Park. Immensely encouraged by such success, Major Lago then launched a two-pronged attack upon Grand Prix racing, briefing engineer Becchia to design both a supercharged 3-liter, V16 racing engine and to develop an alternative unsupercharged 4.5-liter power unit from the company's now-proven high-performance sports car line.

Although the ambitious and undoubtedly hugely costly V16 program would wither on the vine, for 1939 he authorized construction of three entirely new single-seat Grand Prix cars using the 4.5-liter, 6-cylinder engines. These cars made their debuts during 1939, and after WWII they reappeared, one winning four times in 1947. This much-publicized success immediately prompted the ever-enthusiastic Major Lago to authorize production of no fewer than 20 Formula One Talbot-Lago T26Cs for customer sale. Power was provided by further developed twin-camshaft versions of the now-well proven, powerful, and above all reliable 6-cylinder engine.

SCM Analysis


Vehicle:1949 Talbot-Lago T26 Grand Prix
Number Produced:20
Original List Price:Unknown
Tune Up Cost:$500
Distributor Caps:$250
Chassis Number Location:Plaque on firewall
Engine Number Location:Left side of block under rocker cover
Club Info:Vintage Sports Car Club of America c/o Tony Carroll 170 Wetherhill Rd. Garden City, NY 11530

This 1949 Talbot-Lago T26 Grand Prix sold for $557,000, including buyer’s premium, at the Bonhams & Butterfields Quail Lodge auction in Carmel Valley, California, on August 14, 2009.

I recall a wonderful old line that a 1960s Rolls-Royce was the ultimate example of what spare-no-expense engineering and exquisite workmanship could do to a 1938 Packard. In many ways, the Talbot-Lago GP car is a similar story. Even in its glory days it was an antique, a spectacular representation of a completely outdated concept. Allow me to elaborate.

In the 1920s, there was no single organized championship in racing; a country or venue would stage its “Grand Prize” (Grand Prix) event and set its own rules for what was eligible. If you won that race you had won it, but little more. In 1931, the predecessor to our FIA (called AIACR-don’t ask) organized a points system leading to the “European Driver’s Championship” and standardized the eligibility rules. The first few years were formula libre, but in 1934, what was called the “750 kg Formula” was established. This formula basically said that you had to weigh 1,650 lb (750 kg) and have wheels on four corners, but little more.

Only the Germans had a chance

The Third Reich quickly saw the opportunity to show its dominance and spawned what we know now as the “Titan Cars” of the mid-1930s-the Mercedes W125 and Auto Unions-which have become the icons of that era. They were intimidating cars with enormous supercharged engines and huge wheels surrounding large cigar-shaped bodies, with a driver almost lost inside. Mercedes managed to generate over 600 hp, a stupefying amount in those days. Nobody other than the state-supported German teams had a serious chance, and it was a terribly dangerous sport.

Faced with this reality, the AIACR changed the rules for 1938 to limit engine size to 3 liters supercharged or 4.5 liters normally aspirated. The Germans responded with the Mercedes W154 and the Auto Union D-type, fundamentally the same cars as before, but with more sophistication and 3-liter engines making almost as much power. Though Alfa Romeo and Maserati made some attempts to compete, the “big-bore” championship was more or less ceded to the Germans and became a show as much as a race.

We all know how the war turned out, but we sometimes forget that while industrial England and Germany were effectively destroyed in the fight, France and Italy suffered far less catastrophic damage to their manufacturing bases. As a result, when the war was over and thoughts turned gently back to auto racing, the French and Italians were in a position to do something about it.

Competition just after WWII was minimal

There were no resources for innovation, though; they all went back to building what they had before the war. The Italians built Voiturettes (Alfa’s Type 158 Alfetta, Maserati’s 4CLT) and Talbot-Lago built their Titan clone, the T26C. If you wanted to race in the early post-war years, those were your options, other than finding a pre-war car to run. The competition in those years was, to be charitable, minimal; just showing up and finishing often guaranteed a good result, even in the big races. As the only big-bore cars in the field, this was Talbot-Lago’s glory time, and for a few years they were the cars to beat. They were still a heavy, clumsy, pre-war concept that depended on horsepower and endurance, though, and as soon as the light, quick competition started to get its act together, the T26Cs were relegated to also-ran status.

So what are we to take from this 60 years down the line? As a piece of mobile sculpture, the Talbots are fabulous. As a romantic, nostalgic daydream, they’re great. As an evocation of history and past greatness, they’re wonderful. As a driving experience, they’re, well, they’re an experience not easily forgotten. First, get in. You sit way down inside a cavern, with your feet higher than your bottom, your knees straddling the transmission, the huge (7:00×19) rear tires inches away from your shoulders, the steering wheel looming large and high in front of you.

Start it up and don’t forget the earplugs-this thing thunders! Somehow it’s more than noise; it’s a rumbling that shakes your entire body and soul, threatening unbridled power and frightening performance.

Now, take a deep breath, put it in gear, drop the hammer, and, and. well, it’s just not that fast. This thing weighs 2,100 lb, has 260 hp at 4,500 rpm, and has tires your old Ford 4×4 would be embarrassed to use. It accelerates pretty well in a straight line, but with four huge rubber gyroscopes on the corners, it really doesn’t want to change direction easily or stop in a hurry. By later expectations, it drives like a truck; a decently prepared Lotus Eleven will drive circles around it on anything but the fastest tracks.

Absolute performance isn’t the point here, though. What this is about is the pre-war Talbot-Lago Grand Prix experience in an attainable, moderately bomb-proof and reliable package. If the engine has been properly built and isn’t abused, it will last forever; the Wilson pre-select gearbox was originally built for London buses, for heaven’s sake; you think this can hurt it? There’s nothing on this car that can be described as delicate (or probably even subtle), but its attraction is undeniable.

It’s not really a ’30s Grand Prix bolide, but it’s bloody close, and it is something ordinary mortals can own and drive. That counts for a lot.Talbot-Lago T26 Grand Prix have generally traded in the $600k-$850k range in recent years, a fraction of what a “real” 1930s GP racer would cost.

This 1949 Talbot-Lago T26 sold for less than I would have expected for such an apparently well-restored example, but auctioning cars like this is always a gamble. Unless the price reflected something I don’t know of, this time I’d say the buyer prevailed. Well bought.

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