Piccard, Pictet - The History of the Pic-Pic

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Piccard, Pictet - The History of the Pic-Pic

Piccard Pictet

 1906 - 1924


The Piccard-Pictet was arguably the finest vehicle to be produced by the tiny (by world standards) motor industry of Switzerland, whose products were restricted on their home ground by antiquated traffic. Piccard-Pictet et Cie, of Charmilles, near Geneva, were a well established firm of hydraulic engineers, specialising in turbines, who had already built a monstrous 12.75-litre straight-eight racer for the brothers Frederic and Charles Dufaux (it was intended for, but never appeared in, the 1904 Gordon Bennett) when they were approached by a group of four local businessmen calling themselves the Societe des Automobiles a Geneve, who had bought manufacturing rights to the Hispano-Suiza designs of their compatriot Marc Birkigt.

Even though Hispano-Suiza had only been formed in June 1904, Piccard-Pictet were approached the following December, when the output of Barcelona-based Hispano-Suiza totalled just 27 cars. In 1906, the first SAGs appeared: four-cylinder side-valve 20/24CV and 35/40CV models which followed the design of the contemporary Hispano-Suiza right down to the radiator shape. At the 1907 Paris Salon, the marque launched its first six-cylinder model, the 28/40, with a 5655cc engine. The same year, the smaller four-cylinder model (3770cc) was launched on the British market by Donne & Williams Limited, of 29a Gillingham Street, London SW1, who also sold Rochet-Schneiders from their Belgravia address.

1908 Scottish Reliability Trial

While in its native land, the marque was still known as the SAG, while in Britain it was known from the first as 'Piccard-Pictet' (or, more familiarly, 'Pic-Pic'). Donne & Williams were keen on promoting Piccard-Pictet in competitions, and the marque did well enough in the 1908 Scottish Reliability Trials for a special type of coachwork to be named after this event (the Scottish Reliability Trials Type Double Phaeton cost £670-complete with hood and windscreen. Doubtless, the hood was the ingenious Kopalapso 'one-man' device for which Donne & Williams were also agents). By now, the Piccard-Pictet had acquired a handsome and distinctive design of radiator shell, rather like a rounded version of the Mors cooler, with 'shoulders' to the header tank, and the marque had adopted the words 'Pie-Pie' enclosed by a circle as its logotype.

A lone Piccard-Pictet was entered for the 'Four-Inch' Race on the Isle of Man on 4 September 1908 (the event's curious name came from the fact that it was restricted to cars with a maximum RAC rating of 64hp, which for four-cylinder cars meant a bore of 4in diameter or less). Driven by Debuissey, the Piccard-Pictet completed only six out of nine laps, being placed r Sth in the final results, with an average speed of only 30.8 mph, compared with the winning Hutton's 50.3 mph average. This, however, was not the end. of the Four-Inch Pie-Pie's racing career, for it subsequently appeared at Brooklands driven by Sir Stewart Gore-Brown, who was a friend of Morgan Donne's, and therefore enjoyed a certain amount of 'works support'.

When the car was retired in 1910 after a moderately successful track career, it was fitted with a vast scuttle cowl and a set of mudguards, and used on the road by Gore-Brown, whose impressive stable also included examples of Rochet-Schneider, Itala and Lancia sporting cars. As long as the policies of Piccard-Pictet were decided by the SAG, the Hispano-Suiza-based cars were produced. In January 1910, though, the consortium was dissolved, and Piccard-Pictet could dictate its own affairs. The SAG licences were acquired, but a new monobloc 2413cc light-four of original design was the first new car to emanate from the revitalised Pie-Pie factory, in 1910. The following year, the company made a momentous decision to adopt the sleeve-valve engine, which had become a sine qua non of such "luxury cars as the Daimler and the Minerva. Pie-Pie, however, eschewed the double-sleeve-valve Knight engine used on these cars, and took out a licence from the Scottish firm of Argyll, whose single-sleeve-valve engines had been designed by Bailie P. Burt.

Pie-Pie Tourers

A sectioned example of the Piccard-Pictet Valveless Engine (licenced under the McCollum-Burt-Argyll Patents) was shown at the 1911 Olympia Exhibition by Donne & Williams, whose stand was otherwise occupied by examples of the conventional poppet-valve Pic-Pics-a 14hp torpedo, an r Shp Limousine-Landaulette equipped with electric head and side lights and a 22/30hp Cabriolet-Limousine which was fitted with the more conservative acetylene lights all round. A new racing Pie-Pie appeared in 1912, this time in the guise of a narrow, streamlined single-seater with which Tournier carried off several continental speed events, notably at Limonest, Mayennes and Sille-le-Guillaume.

1912 Pic-Pic
A Pic-Pic being dis-assembled in 1917 by British soldiers at Vevey, Switzerland. The soldiers had escaped to Switzerland during the war and were taught engineering there. The example they are working on is a 1912 model Pic-Pic.

Pic-Pic 2 seater runabout
Pic-Pic 2 seater runabout.

1919 Pic-Pic R2
1919 Pic-Pic R2.
During the same period, Pie-Pie tourers carried off the Coupe de la Gruyere reliability trial two years in succession, while, on the far side of the Atlantic, a Pie-Pie won the One-Hour Championship at Buenos Aires, in 1912. Two sleeve-valve models were available in 1913: the 2951cc 16/20hp model and the 4712cc 30/40hp, both four-cylindered. The smaller model retailed in the UK for £480 in chassis form, the larger at £660 in similar guise. Alongside them were offered the poppet-valve 16/20 which, just to confuse matters, had a 2815cc engine and the poppet valve 20/30, of 4326cc.

Bosch Electric Lighting

Why the conventionally engined models should have had identical model designations to the sleeve-valve vehicles ('which', according to Donne & Williams, 'are incomparable') is difficult to understand. Among the options available for the 1914 season were Bosch electric lighting and a power-driven tyre inflator; detachable Rudge-Whitworth wheels were standard. Hitherto, the Pie-Pie's competition career had been, apart from the Four-Inch fiasco, confined to events of little more than local interest. Now the company decided to participate in the premier event of the sporting calendar, the French Grand Prix.

Two 4434cc cars, based on the sleeve-valve 30/40 with the bore reduced by 3mm to bring them within the 4·5-litre capacity limit, were entered and to be driven by Tournier and a young Englishman, Thomas Clarke. The marque's contacts with Argyll had brought them more than sleeve valves, as the racers were equipped with front-wheel braking of the Perrot type, which had been designed and patented by Argyll's chief engineer, Henri Perrot. Delage, Peugeot and Fiat also used four-wheel brakes. Obviously because of their touring-car origins, the Pie-Pies had some difficulty in meeting the event's maximum weight limit of 1100kg but, after some petrol had been let out of the tanks, they weighed-in at 1095kg and 1090kg respectively.

Thomas Clarke

Young Thomas Clarke's inexperience was all too obvious. Starting 25th, he at once began to head consistently towards the back of the field, managing only to keep in front of two Vauxhalls which were collapsing with engine trouble. When these had both dropped out, by the end of the third lap, Clarke was back-marker, a position he maintained until he, too, retired on the ninth lap. Tournier, who had the benefit of some competition experience, had a better day on the track, settling down in 24th position at the end of the first lap and thereafter maintaining a similar slot - well down the field, but never quite last - almost throughout the race, lasting until the 19th and penultimate lap before mechanical troubles caused his Pie-Pie to retire from the race. He was, in any case, lying two hours behind the leader, Lautenschlager's Mercedes, at the time.

Although Switzerland was neutral during the World War 1, the Pic-Pic factory hummed with activity, producing vehicles for the Swiss Army; the workforce rose to a maximum strength of 7500. Even before 1914, demand for Pie-Pies had risen so fast that the factory had needed expansion. Pie-Pie's boom went bust almost overnight, though. At the end of 1918, it was recorded that the balance sheet was recording an alarming deficit. This was nothing to the 1919 results, however, which showed debts totalling 24,000,000 Swiss francs.

In 1920, Piccard-Pictet was wound up. In March 1921, however, the factory was taken over by les Ateliers de Charmilles SA, who continued pretty much as their predecessors had done, concentrating on hydraulic turbines, but building two cars a day, which sold at 20,000 Swiss francs in 4 seater tourer form. Another consortium came on the scene in 1922, who paid off Pie-Pie's indebtedness with a view to becoming big-time car producers, but there had been too much collateral damage, and the magnificent 3-litre sleeve-valve V8 exhibited at the 1924 Geneva Salon was the last car to leave the Charmilles works.
A Pic-Pic Racer, circa 1914
A Pic-Pic Racer, circa 1914.
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