What Was a Ford Model T Doing at the First 24 Hours of Le Mans? – Daniel Strohl @Hemmings

What Was a Ford Model T Doing at the First 24 Hours of Le Mans? – Daniel Strohl @Hemmings


And how did it manage a 14th place finish?

Among the Bugattis, the Bentley, the Chenard-Walckers, the Excelsiors, and many other continental Europe racing standbys of the interwar era that had lined up for the inaugural 24 Hours of Le Mans sat a lone Ford Model T. It wasn’t described as such on the entry list and it sported a number of modifications that almost made it unrecognizable as a Model T, but a Ford it was nevertheless, making it the first one to race at Le Mans, long before the GT40s that ran in the Sixties and the Mustang that Ford wants to enter there next year. So how did a Model T get there?

Charles Montier is hardly a household name these days, particularly here in the United States, but in a way, the Frenchman was an analogue to Carroll Shelby, Colin Chapman, or Sydney Allard, all of them adept at transforming common cars or their components into sports cars that could compete on the marketplace as well as on the racetrack. While Henri Depasse had staked a claim as the first Ford agent in France and leveraged his success to build a factory for assembling Fords at Bordeaux, Montier took on Ford’s second French franchise around 1911 not necessarily to sell to the masses but to sell to the sporting set.

Who Was Charles Montier?

As Chris Martin wrote in his book chronicling Montier’s exploits, Montier was a gifted mechanic who built a steam car with his father before the turn of the century and who “acquired the nickname of ‘Le Sorcier’ (‘The Sorcerer’) long before that name was revived later for the better known Amedee Gordini, for his similar ability to extract performance from equally ordinary Renaults.”

First based in Tours then later in Paris, Montier appeared to take great inspiration from the catalogs full of American speed parts for the Model T, Martin suggested. “The Fordia magazine circulated to all Ford agents published a list of accessories that APCO Manufacturing Company located in Kansas could supply: Ruckstell axles, Ricardo or Diablo pistons, special camshafts, high compression Milwaukee cylinder heads, and above all modifications to lower the chassis and front axle,” Martin wrote.

Rather than buy the parts from APCO, however, Montier decided to engineer and manufacture his own, starting with a complete system for lowering the front and rear of a Model T by six to seven inches. The system, which consisted of a spring-behind-axle conversion in front and Z’d frame rails in rear, even earned him a patent in 1921, about a decade and a half before Ford did something similar by moving the axle behind the spring rather than underneath it. Another modification he made – a taller radiator for increased cooling capacity – also made its way into production Model Ts not long after he introduced it.

Around the same time he decided to prove his modifications by entering cars equipped with them in hillclimbs and other competition events. He won the first race he entered, at Boulogne-sur-Mer, in June of 1921, with an average speed of about 80 MPH. By the next year, he’d developed a model specifically for conforming to the Touring Car class and its requirement for four seats which he called the Gaillon. Not just lower, it also produced more power thanks to an overhead-valve head similar to Louis Chevrolet’s Frontenac heads, larger valves, aluminum pistons, a sidedraft carburetor, and a tubular exhaust manifold. Montier even swapped out the Ford planetary transmission and Ford axle for a Sinpar three-speed gearbox and Ruckstell. He upgraded the brakes first with larger rear drums then later with drums at all four corners

Montier and Ouriou at Le Mans, 1923

Photo via Chris Martin

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