Classic Sports Car
BROTHERS IN ARMS
Jean Gessalin recalls life in the family firm that made France’s CG sports cars – and much else besides
Jon Pressnell talks to Jean Gessalin about life in the family coachbuilding business
Plunder your memory banks and the name Chappe might conceivably register – if it registers at all – as the company behind the shortlived CG marque. Even so, chances are that you won’t be aware of the key role that this emphatically family-run business played in the creation of many other limited-production models. More than that, Chappe Frères & Gessalin, to give the firm its full name, was truly an innovator, in that it pioneered the viable production of glassfibre bodies in France.
Having set up as a wheelwright and cartmaker in St Maur des Fossés, just south-east of Paris, by 1939 Jean Chappe was running a successful bodyshop making van and lorry bodies, not least for Delahaye. After his death in 1945 the company was operated by his three sons and his son-in-law. The expertise of Louis Chappe was in working aluminium and in upholstery; brother Abel’s strengths lay in the mechanicals and paint, but also – in the early days – wooden framing; the third sibling, Albert, meanwhile, concentrated on bodywork but increasingly became the company’s manager. The fourth member of the team was Amédée Gessalin, who had married Jean Chappe’s daughter. In 1947 his son, born in 1933 and also called Jean, joined the firm as an apprentice, and he would eventually become technical director.
In the early post-war years the business had about 10 staff, and as well as building lorry bodies it carried out general repair work, including converting older passenger cars into commercial vehicles. By the beginning of the 1950s, the odd more exotic project had found its way into the workshops at St Maur: bodying cars such as the Renault-based Pons-rédélé racer for the 1953 Le Mans 24 Hours, along with a Talbot for future Ferrari/maserati agent Charles Pozzi, and the mid-engined, Renault 4Cv-based Bosvin-michel-spéciale.
In truth the small firm was struggling. “There was only the repair side that was working – and repairing cattle trucks wasn’t exactly interesting,” says Gessalin. “There was no more bodybuilding, after an order with Simca – a major concessionnaire in Paris who ordered some vans. We also did a few ‘woodie’ estates based on the Simca Huit. They looked good.”
Glassfibre-reinforced plastic, or GRP, would prove to be Chappe’s salvation. Its entry into this field came in 1953 when it was asked to help complete a glassfibre-bodied roadster called the Stera, which had been devised by motoring journalist Jean Bernardet. “In the beginning
my uncles didn’t know about GRP,” Gessalin recalls. “Like for many firms in France, it came as something of a discovery. But I got around a bit, and I’d seen an American car with a GRP body at a chemicals exhibition.”
After this exercise, the company plunged into series production of glassfibre panels, in the form of nosecones for DB’S Monomill racers. It was a steep learning curve: “The resin came from the USA. It was dreadfully expensive and we had no information about how to use the hardener you put in to accelerate curing. Every Sunday we saw the results, after the accidents of the Saturday’s racing. As soon as there was a biff, the nosecone exploded. It shattered like glass. Having studied the problem, we added a flexible resin. We made our own mix, because these things didn’t exist at the time. The brothers then discovered that the lay-up was separating too easily, because the glassfibre weave was too dense and the resin wasn’t penetrating it, so they developed a more open weave – which was known as ‘Chappe cloth’ for a long while.”
At around the same time DB was putting its glassfibre-bodied HBR5 coupé into production, with a shell made by an offshoot of body and radiator specialist Chausson. Everyone was learning as they went along, and the Chappes were generous in sharing their newfound knowledge: “We swapped notes. As far as we were concerned, our doors were open. Chausson sent some engineers to see how we did the lay-up for the Monomille nosecones.”
The first complete vehicle built in glassfibre by the company was what became the Alpine A106. Frequently presented as being the idea of Alpine founder Jean Rédélé, it was in fact created off his own bat by Jean Gessalin and upon its completion it was taken up not by Rédélé, but by his father-in-law, Charles Escoffier, who had a Renault concession in Paris.
“The Renault people called it ‘Escoffier’s car’,” says Gessalin. “That didn’t last long. Rédélé persuaded his father-in-law to let him take over the car. I never understood why he claimed this model, which he supposedly didn’t like, as his own. He said he found it ugly. But that didn’t stop him from claiming paternity for it. Why, if it was that awful? It’s not a bad little thing, even if it is a bit dumpy…”
The A106 had been initiated when Gessalin’s uncles suggested that he design his own car as an apprenticeship project: “Before I left for military service in 1954, the car had been drawn up and the wooden body buck had been made, mounted on a Renault 4CV platform. When I came back on leave in March 1955 the car had been bodied, in steel, and was a runner. But because it was of such interest to Charles Escoffier, we had to find a solution to put it into production. As we had worked with glassfibre, that was the answer.
“It was as if a magic wand had been waved. I’d felt a bit frustrated, because I hadn’t been involved in completing the car. But then Escoffier said that if we were capable of making it in numbers, he’d buy them. He ordered 25 cars, which was incredible for the time. That really got us started.”
Chappe provided painted and trimmed shells, attached to 4CV platforms furnished by Renault along with the wheelarches, the boot pressings and anything else that could be used: “We had a metalworker who would cut metal away or bend back edges. It wasn’t very complicated. Then the body was dropped on and attached, and it left the works missing just the engine and transmission.”
In 1956 Gessalin designed a convertible for Escoffier, the car being displayed at that year’s Paris motor show but never entering production. “Relations between Jean Rédélé and Charles Escoffier were quite tense, I think,” he ponders. “Escoffier commissioned the car partly in response to Rédélé’s plans to do a convertible in Italy. He didn’t want to abandon us, and I designed this little cabriolet over a fortnight, when I was on leave. It was a bit Americanised – with fins, and that sort of thing – but that was what Escoffier asked for.”
Building the A106 became Chappe’s main activity for a while. By that stage the firm had a reputation as the go-to address for glasssfibre bodies, and in 1957 it was approached by UMAP, the Usine Moderne de l’application Plastique. Making, among other things, thermoplastic injection-moulded fridge interiors, UMAP wanted to diversify by producing a plasticbodied coupé on the Citroën 2CV platform. “I designed a body to UMAP’S specification,” recalls Gessalin. “I wasn’t too happy with it, because it looked a bit like a Salmson that had been shrunk in the wash. But in terms of its road behaviour it was a surprise. It didn’t half go, because it had EPAF tuning gear. The bodies were made by UMAP, but we did the moulds, and two of the Chappe brothers stayed five or six months with them to help start up production.”
A rather more prestigious customer of the time was Simca, which in 1957 commissioned Chappe to build an Aronde-based cabriolet: “Simca boss Pigozzi was at odds with his design office, which he thought wasn’t working fast enough. We had a friend who was a Simca agent. He said we ought to show Pigozzi something, so we did a fifthscale model of a coupé and a cabriolet. We fixed up an appointment, and I went off with my uncle, each of us with a model under our arm.
“The Simca people asked us to build a prototype of the cabriolet, make moulds, and then three further cars in plastic. We made a prototype in steel and then three cars in glassfibre. Then Fiat, which part-owned Simca, brought out its 1500 Cabriolet and Simca didn’t want anything more to do with our car, although it was supposed to be independent. It could have really developed into something.”
Another project running at the same time was to help Parisian Panhard agent Raymond Gaillard with his Pl17-based Arista Passy, for which Chappe made the moulds and probably one or two bodies, although Gessalin can’t vouch for this. The company also provided the mouldings for DB’S new model launched in 1959, the Le Mans – a handy contract because production of the A106 ended in 1960, after roughly 400 had been made.
Meanwhile Rédélé had begun manufacture of his Michelotti-styled convertible at a new facility in Dieppe. The Chappes were in the process of being sidelined, an exercise that would gather pace with the introduction of the Dieppe-built Berlinette. As a consolation prize the company was commissioned to design a new 2+2 model – and a chassis to take the Renault running gear.
Made by Chappe & Gessalin, the tubular backbone chassis was adopted by Alpine for all of
“My uncles didn’t know about glassfibre, but I got around a bit and I’d seen an American car with it at a chemicals exhibition”
its subsequent models, and laid the template for that of the CG, in due course. Both body and chassis were the work of Gessalin: “The chassis wasn’t an innovation – I’d seen tubular backbone frames before. One doesn’t copy, one seeks inspiration.” Less fortunate, he admits, was the styling of the new model, with its long tail and truncated glasshouse: “I didn’t know how to finish it. To do a 2+2 with the wheelbase we had was difficult. It was no masterpiece. But on the other hand the chassis was good.”
In late 1962 the 2+2 gave way to the more elegant GT4, again designed by Gessalin: “We lengthened the chassis and modified the rear to allow the seats to be set lower. As a result, the GT4 has two decent rear seats – whereas those on the 2+2 were really only suitable for threeyear-olds. It was almost a saloon.”
The GT4 would continue to be built in limited numbers until 1969. Meanwhile, though, the Chappe works had relocated a little further south to Brie-comte-robert from 1961 and was becoming involved with two contrasting competition-bred small coupés, following the split between DB’S two partners, Charles Deutsch and René Bonnet.
The first to arrive was Deutsch’s Panhard-cd, for which Chappe would build the steel prototype, the four subsequent glassfibre-bodied cars for 1962’s Le Mans, and the production bodyshells – plus a few complete cars. Matters became complicated in January 1962, when René Bonnet commissioned Chappe to build the prototypes of his new mid-engined, Renaultbased car, to become the Djet and intended, like the CD, to be ready for that year’s Le Mans. Two rival vehicles were thus being simultaneously developed in the same place. “It was quite funny, but it worked out fine,” comments Gessalin, whose project the Djet became. “We just made sure the two men weren’t there at the same time.
“I was provided with a tenth-scale silhouette drawing and a windscreen. I think it came from something Zagato-bodied – perhaps an Alfa. That was the important thing, and after that it was for me to sort things out. I had a sketch of the chassis – the drawing wasn’t exactly detailed.
The styling wasn’t my responsibility, although I think I probably modified it at the rear because I found it a bit narrow. At the beginning I was all alone on the project – the metalworkers and everyone else were working on the CD. Because of that, I made my first ‘master’ in wood – to save time. Before then, the metalworkers would make an entire steel body – a significant operation. The Djet was a case of a good job quickly done. We put the hours in, even on Sundays.”
Such ventures were all very well, but, with the Alpine contract having shrunk, the CD stumbling to an end and the Djet being taken under the wing of Matra, the 20-strong firm needed to strike out in new directions. In 1965 it decided to use its accumulated expertise to produce a car under its own name. The resultant CG would have a successful seven-year career – but that’s a story for another time.
Talking to Jean Gessalin makes it clear that there was a chemistry to this modest family business that allowed it to punch well above its weight, and to survive on the fringes of a French motor industry that over the years has rarely nurtured small, specialist companies.
“It was a bloc – it was very special. The brothers knew how to do everything. They were real artists,” says Gessalin. “It worked very well. The future Matra engineer Bernard Boyer, who joined us when we were building the first CD, said that when there was a problem the lot of them got together to deal with it, and – bingo! A synthesis was arrived at, and off everyone went.
“We worked with Jean-albert Grégoire on his electric van, and he later wrote that he didn’t understand how we actually functioned. For him it seemed like an indescribable disorder, with cars scattered all around the workshop. But it wasn’t complete chaos – it was a self-controlling system. There was no animosity, no jealousy. When everyone gets on well, these things work. We didn’t have too many disasters.”