Jean Pierre Wimille, race car driver, air force pilot, underground hero and pioneer, one of the heroes in France’s recent heritage. A man with an irresistible mission.
In 1930 Jean Pierre Wimille makes his debut in de Grand Prix of France at only 22 years of age. At the wheel of a Bugatti T37A he lays a solid base for a racing career that will span almost two decades. Grand Prix victories in Europe and far beyond, two times winner of the Le Mans 24 hours, Jean Pierre Wimille is one of the great. On Bugatti before the war, in the infamous Alfa Romeo 308 post war, he is the hero that manages to keep up the honour for France.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that a fearless man like Wimille does not only thrive in the cockpit of his racing car. His career as an air force pilot is cut short, when France capitulates to the German agressor in 1940. Wimille and his companions shift to the underground resistance. They smuggle arms and intelligence for the resistance and the allied forces. As by miracle Jean Pierre Wimille is the sole escapee of a Gestapo raid. Hidden bij the waterfront he sees how his fellows are taken away. None of them will survive the war.
In daylight, Wimille and his men are developing the future. In 1942 they reveal a working prototype of an electric car. Lack of funding and resources lead to a rapid demise of this promising project. Wimille doesn’t stop dreaming, he encounters on creating his car of the future. Lightweight, streamlined and fast. A first prototype shows exactly what he has in mind. Mid-engined, ample space for two passengers seated on both sides of the equally central positioned driver, a lightweight tubular frame with a drop shaped body presenting a drag coefficient of just 0.23 and a panoramic wind screen that knows no peers throughout the world at that very moment. Any similarity to the design of a Formula One car is completely deliberate. At the Salon de l’Automobile of 1946, the Chapron built prototype is a complete success with press and audience. Post War Paris can do with some bright future.
Ford France is enthusiastic about Wimille’s modernist project and does him an offer he can’t refuse. Especially for Wimille, Ford creates the ‘Voitures Spéciales’ division, where a second prototype is created. This time a V8 engine from the Ford Vedette is used, as are the front and rear suspension units. An electrically operated Cotal gearbox joins the engine to the rear axle. Young stylist Philippe Charbonneaux redesigns Wimille’s original drawings and coach builder Faget-Farnet is issued to build the new Wimille GT. That’s when fate kicks in. At the wheel of a Simca-Gordini, Jean Pierre Wimille crashes during practice of the Argentinian Grand Prix. He will not reach the hospital alive.
The sudden end to Wimille’s life and dreams are the sure demise for his car of the future. A third prototype is conceived, but Ford France isn’t pleased with the look of its single central head light. The cyclops isn’t well received by the public either. There is a final version built, sporting a more conventional look, but without the inspiration of Wimille, the modernist spirit is gone. In June 1949 Detroit pulls the plug, Ford France is withdrawing from the project. The prototypes are transferred to Wimille’s team. The dream is over.
Today, almost 70 years after the dream ended, three of the four prototypes are still around. Number 1 was rescued from the scrapper in the seventies by Philippe Charbonneaux and is currently at the Musée de Reims. Number 2 has been part of the Musée de Malartre collection in Lyon and is rarely displayed. Number 3, the cyclops, crashed during test trials and ended at the iron mongers. Number 4 has long time been used as a daily driver by Francois Wimille, son of Jean Pierre. Through Philippe Charbonneaux it ended up at the Musée the Reims and currently it is part of the collection at the Cité de l’Automobile at Mulhouse. Visitors to the recent Rétromobile Fair in Paris might have witnessed the unique reunion of the three remaining prototypes of the Wimille GT. Part of the ultimate tribute to the career of an extraordinarily irresistible man, Jean Pierre Wimille.
Marc GF Zaan