Today we think that very few would know of the French manufacturer Gobron-Brille, and when it was at the peak of it manufacturing, it was always known its performance rather than the excellence of its construction. Those that do know of the marque are more than likely aware that it was a Gobron-Brillie racer that was the first car to exceed 100 mph.
The Systeme Gobron
Like all the cars to leave the company's works at 13, quai de Boulougne, Boulougne-sur-Seine, near Paris, the racer had an opposed-piston engine of distinctive design. The Gobron-Brillie engine usually had its cylinders cast in pairs, with the two lower pistons acting on a common crank throw; at 180 degrees - to this were two secondary throws linked by long, thin connecting rods to a crosshead above the cylinders.
The second pair of cylinders was mounted on the cross-head, their stroke being slightly shorter than that of the lower pair to compensate for the extra weight of the linkage. The valves and spark plugs were located halfway down the cylinders, with the explosion taking place between the pistons. Inlet valves were initially automatic, then mechanically operated, with inlet on one side of the bore, exhaust
on the other (which called for the use of two camshafts).
Finally both sets of valves were lined up neatly on the same side of the cylinders. This design feature meant that only one camshaft was necessary. So why the duplicated piston arrangement? A French journalist summed it up in 1903: 'For the same swept volume, the system of bringing the pistons together to act by pushing one against the other, results in a stronger compression. Without this method, it would be essential to allow for extreme stresses in the cylinder bore'.
And, as Gobron owners were to testify, the Systeme Gobron also resulted in a smoothness of running that was rare in veteran days. It is easy to see that the stroke of the engine was obtained by combining the distances travelled by both pistons. In the UK the British taxation authorities believed that the whole was greater than the sum of the parts, and devised a complex method for calculating the taxable horsepower rating of opposed-piston cars.
Pure Alcohol, Benzene, Gin, Brandy or Whisky
Another distinctive feature of the early Gobrons was a revolving petrol distribution device which replaced the carburettor. The quantity of fuel passing into this apparatus could be regulated by a drip-feed device, so that the Gobron-Brillie cars could run on a wide variety of fuels apart from petrol. Even, claimed the company, pure alcohol, benzene, or any good spirit, such as gin, brandy or whisky. The first Gobron-Brillie cars, which appeared in 1898, had the engine mounted at the rear in a triangulated tubular chassis which was typical of the make. This arrangement, it was claimed, gave parallel drive and an engine that was easy to get at from all sides.
Phaeton, char-a-banc, wagonette or due-tonneau bodies were available on this 8 hp twin Gobron although, by 1901, it was being supplanted by a front-engined model with three-speed epicyclic transmission with, apparently, equal speeds both forwards and backwards, though what purpose could be served by reversing at 55 kph in top gear was not explained. Chassis price was Fr 7000. The front-engined cars were available with twin-cylinder engines of 8, 12, 14 or 16hp; these could be doubled up to four cylinders if extra power was required. Gobron-Brillies were also built under licence in France as La Nanceenne, and in Belgium as the Gobron-Nagant.
1898 Gobron Brillie with double phaeton bodywork.
On the 17th July, 1904, M. Rigolly driving a 15 litre Gobron Brillie racer took part in the Ostende Automobile Week, averaging 103.56 mph over the flying kilometre. This was the first time that the magic 1000 miles per hour had been reached, thus ensuring the Gobron-Brillie a permanent place in the history of motoring.
Gobrons and Nanceennes ran in the 1901 Paris-Berlin race, while in the Circuit du Nord alcohol-fuel contest that year, Rigolly's Gobron took third place. The next year, he won his class in the Chateau-Thierry hill climb and the Circuit des Ardennes, again using alcohol. It was a prelude to the most famous Gobron-Brillies of all, a team of three cars built for the Paris-Madrid race, all with 13.5-litre four-cylinder engines. The bore was 140 mm and the two pistons had unequal travels of 108 and 112 mm, resulting in an aggregate stroke of 220 mm. The cars, driven by Rigolly, Duray and Koechlin, did not fare particularly well in the Paris-Madrid (which was, in any case, halted by Government edict at Bordeaux because of the many accidents en route), but subsequently, in speed hill-climbs and sprints, the cars proved near invincible.
The Flying Kilometre
There were victories at the Castlewellan hill-climb held in conjunction with the 1903 Gordon-Bennett, at the Ostende speed meeting, at Grenoble, Laffrey, Chateau-Thierry and Dourdan. 'The marque which from one day to the next has confirmed itself queen of speed can be legitimately proud of these triumphant results', eulogised Georges Lefevre, recording Duray's 136 kph victory at Dourdan. 'They do not know any more what it is to be beaten: everywhere they take the first place'. On 17 July 1904, Rigolly, whose car had been over-bored to 15 litres, took part in the Ostende Automobile Week, averaging 103.56 mph over the flying kilometre, the first time that 100 mph had been exceeded. Rigolly and Duray, incidentally, had become the first men to breach the 150 kph barrier four months previously.
Nor was this epoch-making piece of ton-up-manship the end of the Gobron racer's history, for it also ran in the 1906 and 1907 French Grands Prix, and was only barred from the 1908 event by a change in the formula governing racing that year. Meanwhile, at the end of 1903, Eugene Brillie and Gustave Gobron had parted company, Brillie joining the Ateliers Schneider at Le. Havre to build cars and commercial vehicles of more conventional design. Gobron continued with the opposed-piston design for touring vehicles, although by 1904 the fuel distributor had been supplanted by a more conventional carburettor as the result of Duray and Rigolly's work in tuning the racers for maximum speed, and chassis were now pressed steel.
The archetypal Gobron-Brillies were big, powerful, chain-driven touring cars - in 1906, the company listed a four-cylinder 24/35 hp, a 7·6-litre 40/60 hp four and a monstrous 60/75 hp six, with over 11 litres under the bonnet. In the UK this cost £1320 as a bare chassis, and the other models were proportionately expensive and just as well made. In the spring of 1907, a small fleet of the new 40/60s was put into service by the Westminster Bridge Garage, operating a London-Paris run from the Ritz in London to the Ritz in Paris in 15 minutes under 12 hours, going out on the Friday to return on the Monday. The trial run was recorded for posterity by a bioscope operator; the total cost of the round trip was 12 guineas.
The big Gobrons had an ingenious double-cone clutch to ease the load on the transmission; first, a small, metal-to-metal cone began to take up the drive, then a massive fabric-lined cone bit home. There were also twin foot-brakes with separate pedals, acting on drums either side of the four-speed transmission housing. While engaging, the starting handle automatically slid a half-compression device into operation, thus easing the load of the labouring chassis faced with swinging all those pistons into life. For 1908, Gobron announced a 15/20 four, with shaft drive; the big six had now become a 70/90. However, an automatic starter was now part of the equipment.
A couple of years later, there was a 12/16 hp twin, although the last of the giant Gobrons was produced in 1910 and thereafter the marque seems to have gone into a gentle decline, more markedly so after World War 1 in a new factory at Levallois-Perret. The last of the opposed-piston cars appeared in 1922: this was the 25hp, which seems to have been intended as an exercise in sheer perversity, as it combined the two-piston-per-cylinder layout with sleeve valves, camshaft braking and triple carburettors. Hardly surprising, it was in production for less than a year, and thereafter all was convention, with a 1·5-litre engine supplied by Chapuis-Dornier. It sold badly, and even an attempt to disguise it as a Stabilia failed to save it.
The last of the Gobrons was a supercharged 1·5-litre side valve sports car, which won the 1500cc class in the Six Hours of Burgundy race, driven by its designer, Chabreiron. It also won its class in the 1930 Circuit des Routes Paoees, but the victory was also an epitaph, as in 1930, Automobiles Gobron ceased production.
Also see: 1903 Land Speed Record - Gobron-Brillie driven by Arthur Duray
| 1904 Land Speed Record - Gobron-Brillie driven by Louis Rigolly