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History Hits: Peugeot 402 Darl’Mat 1938 by Paulin

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Look at it. Keep looking. Soaked it in? If the above car doesn’t tickle some part of your car-loving soul; move on, for this article is not for you. Its okay, as I imagine everyone is still here because the above car—the 1938 Peugeot 402 Darl’Mat by Paulin—features so many timeless design elements as to be almost universally desirable in some way. These range from the all-encompassing grill, the massively exaggerated wheel arches, and the generally swoopy lines, merely to name a few. The allure of this Peugeot happens to exist more than merely skin-deep, as the history of this model is rich enough—and has enough people involved— as to increase the draw to automotive aficionados.

While Peugeot now merely dabbles in motorsport compared to other brands, for the first two decades of the company’s existence, the task of racing their cars was a much higher priority. While several successful and striking designs resulted from these efforts, none encompass the full spectrum of their experimentation and innovation like the 1938 402-based Darl’Mat by Paulin. Like with many things, delving into the history of this automobile starts with the name; and it sure is a doozie of a name. The patronage of this amazingly-designed vehicle can be deduced from dissecting the name: with 1938 Peugeot 402 being the easiest to interpret. This, as normal, denotes the year, make, and model of the car.

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Very 1930’s/40’s French-style.

As the above image shows, the more-pedestrian 402, while striking in its own right, is not the Darl’Mat. The rest of the name represents the extensive customization that the car underwent to transform from the family hauler pictured above to the striking racer that is the more famous of siblings. The remainder of the name—Darl’Mat by Paulin—signifies the producer and the engineer of these specialized variants, respectively. Emile Darl’Mat was a close associate of the Peugeot motor group early in its life, assuming the role of a dealer/designer/producer much in the same vein as Steve Saleen has taken with Ford and its Mustang. Rather than try his own hand at designing the cars he wanted to build, M. Darl’Mat instead chose to surround himself with the most talented people he could find. In this effort, M. Darl’Mat employed French coachbuilder Marcel Pourtout to both design the bodies of his cars, as well as produce them.

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The Delahaye 135M Cabriolet by Pourtout is a representation of his earlier coachbuilding work, with neither Darl’Mat or Peugeot.

While having the means to produce and design his own cars—which he and M. Pourtout did in the preceding years to 1938—M. Darl’Mat’s true passion lay in the direction of motor racing. With Peugeot’s hiring of Georges Paulin—the last part of the name—ensured that Darl’Mat could achieve these dreams. M. Paulin almost instantly began collaboration with the Darl’Mat company and their racing projects, bringing a modicum of factory support to the table. Initially starting with a chassis from the 302, the release of the 402 in 1937 brought a more appropriate platform to the project. Aided by Peugeot’s Director of Mechanical Studies, Alfred Geauque, Paulin specified that the 1.99L 4-cylinder engine was modified for race duty, while the chassis was both widened and shortened, to result in a wheelbase of 113.4 inches.

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While a dual-carb system, these are not the racing Memini units.

While a nearly-2.0L engine sounds pitiful by today’s standards—or maybe not considering Formula 1 these days—the engine powered the Peugeot into a competitive machine. Modifications to the engine were essentially limited to the addition of a dual-carburetor setup, featuring fairly complicated (and fragile) Memini carburetors, resulting in a stout 70bhp. This power was routed through a Cotal gearbox, which is an odd style of gearbox known as a pre-selector gearbox.

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The interior of the 402 by Darl’Mat. The French must have been built smaller than I am back then, because I would not fit.

Using dash-mounted levers and buttons, the Cotal gearbox was somewhat similar to normal slush-box manual modes of today, such as Chrysler’s PowerStik, in that it allowed you to choose your gear with no clutch, although with a few key differences. Pre-selector gearboxes were operated via the driver choosing the gear ratio they desired in the future. A separate pedal, lever, or button was used to engage the already-selected gear, giving rise to the name pre-selector gearbox. The Cotal in this application had four forward gear ratios.

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A line up of Darl’Mat racing cars.

The most famous result of these racing efforts was the 1938 24 Hours of Le’Mans, where three Darl’Mat entries started on the line. While two of these cars were forced to throw in the towel, the remaining car went on to attain a David vs. Goliath-esque reputation from the race. 1938 was a time of growth in the racing world, with engines raising from an average of 2.0L of displacement to almost 3.6L’s across the board. Despite this, the 402’s entered by Darl’Mat still retained their not-quite-2.0L engines. With this, the sole remaining racer won 4th overall, and taking first in the 2.0L range. On top of that, the finishing entry was also rewarded the coveted Le’Mans Index of Performance.

To capitalize upon this success, Darl’Mat released a “street” version of the car. While the racers maintained their competitiveness with hand-beaten aluminum bodies affixed to wooden frames, the models produced for civilian sale featured a body formed of steel. Despite this key difference, the rest of the car remained the same, including the racing engine and gearbox—in a more reliable state of tune.

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A Darl’Mat pictured in the 70’s, with leather hood-straps. I love hood-straps.

The majesty of the vehicle remained intact through the production of the car, although there were more body styles offered than the Roadster-style of the racing effort. As the result of this, about 105 and were made, numbering 53 roadsters, 20 coupes, and 32 soft-top cabriolets. The keen-eyed readers will have noticed the innovative—and hugely stylistically-impactful—retractable windshield that the racing and roadster versions of the Darl’Mat design featured.

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The retractable windshield ensures a dramatic-looking automobile.

This ensures that the designers clean, aerodynamic, beautiful lines can be preserved, while drivers have the obvious utility that a windshield provides. To me, this is similar to putting a “stanced” car on airbags today, which allows drivers to park their car with the stance—or lines in the case of the retractable windshield—that the designers/drivers want, while having the utility of a fully functioning car the rest of the time. All of that is beside the point that having a retractable windshield may just be the coolest thing ever designed for a street car.

The Darl’Mat racing 402 did not last long, as the sub-2.0L engine simply was no longer competitive overall. Despite that, the modest racing success, as well as the undeniably striking design, ensured that the car would remain a collectible. Further enhancing this collectability, the Second World War scattered the meager Darl’Mat 402’s—civilian and racing versions alike. The situation was such that soldiers could find racing Darl’Mat’s—still in livery—in little French garages scattered throughout the countryside (an account of one of these soldiers can be found HERE). As with any national treasure, the War took its toll on the Darl’Mat stock. This has ensured that prices remain high, reflecting the desirability. Recently, lightly restored examples are trading at over $600,000USD, a high-sum by almost any measure.

While the prices may now be high, there is no denying that the 1938 Peugeot 402 Darl’Mat 1938 by Paulin is a striking automobile, with a still-innovative, beautiful design. Disagree with everything I just said (or even a small thing)? Comment down below and let me know! If you liked the article, remember to hit the like button and share it with your friends!

Stephen Hyden View All

I recently recieved a degree in History from the University of Nevada, Reno.

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