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 1904 - 1931

Francois and Emile Pilain

Emile Pilain came from a family which could justly claim to have assisted at the birth of the French motor industry, as his uncle Francois was working as a designer at Serpollet before 1890. By 1898 Francois Pilain, having just spent four years as a manufacturer in his own right, was presiding over the new horseless-carriage department of the Vermorel company at Villefrance-sur-Saone; the firm was a well established manufacturer of wine-making equipment.


As his assistant, Francois took young Emile, whom he had trained as a draughtsman and engineer. Vermorel were a long time getting the new venture started-indeed, serious production was not to begin until 1908-and uncle Francois resigned, to set up for himself again, at Lyon. Emile stayed at Vermorel another year, then he, too, left to start his own business, in partnership with one Rolland who provided the financial backing.

Limousine de Grand Tourisme

Production started in 1904 with a 20 hp four-cylinder model, with the cylinders cast in a mono bloc. By 1907 the range had grown to three models, a 12/16 hp (available with the charmingly titled 'petite limousine' coachwork), the 20/28 hp and a 35/45 hp, shown at the 1907 Paris Salon as a 'Limousine de Grand Tourisme'. By this time the factory and offices were located at 129 Rue Victor-Hugo at Tours, and the company could run to a Paris office at 24 bis Boulevard de Courcelles, just off the Boulevard Malesherbes.

The following year saw Rolland-Plain's first venture into competition, with a team of three 1½-liter cars with four-speed overdrive gearboxes for the Voiturette Grand Prix of the Automobile Club de France; none of them finished anywhere near the leaders, yet Rolland-Pilain proudly displayed one of these unsuccessful racers on their stand at the Paris Salon that year. Also on the stand was a 12/16 hp, a 20/30 limousine and a 35/45 hp sports car with four bucket seats, as well as an example of the latest model, an 8/10 hp four-cylinder.

By 1910 the Rolland-Pilain range had been expanded to include nine different models: a light four of 1460 cc, a 2413cc four and a bored-out 2724cc version of the same model, a 3921cc sleeve-valve six, all four models having shaft drive, plus five four-cylinder models of 5195cc, 5702cc, 6872cc, 8760cc and 14,335cc, which were available with chain or shaft final drive to choice. Prices ranged from 5800 Francs for the smallest model to 25,000 Francs for the largest, which boasted a stroke of more than ten inches.

Le Grand Prix des Vieux Tacots

In 1911 the firm made an unnecessary venture into motor racing, building a team of 6.1-liter ohc four-cylinder models for the sham Grand Prix of France, 'Le Grand Prix des Vieux Tacots' (Old Crocks' GP), which attracted a motley assortment of pensioned-off old racing cars - which still proved more than a match for the brand-new Rolland-Pilains, which were no more successful in the 'official' French GP the following year, even with a larger engine. Indeed, the marque seemed to have over-reached itself, as the range was cut back sharply in the period 1912-1914, and only 1.9-liter and 4-liter side-valve fours were listed in the last year of peace.

Rolland-Pilain pictured at the start of the 1908 Voiturette Grand Prix of the Automobile Club de France
Rolland-Pilain pictured at the start of the 1908 Voiturette Grand Prix of the Automobile Club de France. A team of three 18 liter cars were entered by the company for this race. All three cars were fitted with overdrive four-speed gearboxes.

1911 Rolland-Pilain 6.1 liter 4-cylinder at the Grand Prix de France
1911 Rolland-Pilain 6.1 liter 4-cylinder at the Grand Prix de France, which was soon known as the 'Old Crocks GP.

1918 Rolland-Pilain RP5, which was fitted with a 1928cc four-cylinder engine
1918 Rolland-Pilain RP5, which was fitted with a 1928cc four-cylinder engine.

1923 Rolland-Pilain Grand Prix Racer
1923 Rolland-Pilain Grand Prix Racer. Perhaps more so because of the color, it looks to us very much like a Bugatti. It was fitted with a straight-eight fed by four carburetors and had a top speed of 120mph. Two cars entered the French GP of 1923, and both broke down during the race.

The Rolland-Pilain 2-Liter Straight-Eights

These two models, mildly modernised, continued in production long after the Armistice: old documentation from the UK indicates that at the 1921 Olympia Motor Show the 1924cc 12/16hp tourer cost UK£625; as a bare chassis it was priced at exactly UK£500. The 3969cc 20/25 cabriolet at Olympia cost UK£1400, of which the chassis price represented just over 50 per cent. There was, however, a new post-war model, shown at the 1919 Paris Salon: this was a 2146cc six-cylinder with twin carburetors. It was followed by a 2.2-liter model, the 14/16hp, in 1921; this car had overhead valves and four-wheel brakes on the curious Rolland-Pilain system, in which the front axle had hydraulic brakes and the rear axle mechanical braking.

This system was used on the remarkable 2-liter straight-eights built for the 1922 French Grand Prix; as designed, these power units had twin overhead camshafts with desmodrornic operation of the valves - that is, the cams both opened and closed the valves positively. However, this feature could not be made to work reliability, and the cars were raced with conventional valve operation. Twin carburetors were fitted, each feeding four cylinders through a complex induction manifold; swept volume of the power unit was 1980cc, the crankshaft ran in ball-bearings, and one casing held engine, clutch and gearbox.

The Geriatric Racers

The cars were to be driven at Strasbourg by Guyot Wagner and Hernery, all of them famous racing drivers who might perhaps have been unkindly described as being on the sport's geriatric list, as all had been active in front-line competition for 20 years. Yet it was not the age of the drivers so much as the mechanical fragility of the cars which proved their downfall: insufficient time had been given to testing (though the French magazine TresSport devoted eight pages to a pictorial display of their development) and the cars had consequently been driven beyond their mechanical limit. The whole venture seemed dogged by bad-luck: 'During practice,' reported The Autocar, 'Guyot's car caught fire and had to be scrapped, and Wagner's car was lost on the railway between Tours and Strasbourg for a couple of days'.

Despite these pre-race problems, there were three Rolland-Pilains at the start, presumably by reason of substitution or repair, but their efforts were doomed. Albert Guyot made an excellent start, and during the first two laps was lying third behind Nazzaro's Fiat and Friedrich's Bugatti; but storming into the Entzheim hairpin on the third lap, the crankshaft broke, and Guyot was forced to freewheel straight on down the escape road and abandon the race. Not long after, Wagner put a rod through the side of his crankcase, and retired. 'This contretemps left only one Rolland-Pilain, driven by Hemery, in the race,' wrote the Autocar's correspondent, 'but a few laps later an official announcement was made that this car had been completely destroyed by fire. When, nearly an hour later, Hemery drove past the grandstands with his car apparently in an undamaged condition, the spectators good-naturedly chaffed the authorities.'

Keeping The Drivers 'Busy and Alert'

We are not so sure Hernery, a former seaman, actually 'chaffed good-naturedly' when a piston collapsed and caused his car to be withdrawn. Added to his woes, the odd half-hydraulic braking system had not proven very effective, to judge from reports which imply that the cars became unstable when the brakes were applied, and you make up your own mind, when considering the Autocar's bland comment that: 'All three Rolland-Pilains kept their drivers busy and alert ... '

Ernest Henry and Schmid

There was, however, a catalogue version of this car, priced at a mere 90,000 Francs; and in 1923 Rolland-Pilain and their designer, M. Grillot, tried again, as this year the Grand Prix was right on their doorstep at Tours. Two of the cars had the straight-eight power units as before, but the third had a new 'valveless' engine, the work of Ernest Henry and one Schmid. This was a cuff-valve engine-a 'cuff' being a short sleeve valve - but it failed to reach the starting line. Nor did the more conventional cars enjoy better luck, as both broke down during the race. In fact, the only racing success for the straight-eight Rolland-Pilain was in the insignificant San Sebastian Grand Prix in August 1923, where Guyot and Delalande took the first two places, but as their opposition was limited to two marques, Ballot and Bignan-Sport, it was not a particularly famous victory.

In 1924 there was a team of two cuff-valve sixes, now with superchargers to complicate complication still further, driven by Goux and Foresti, but now running under the Schmid name. They remained true to form by retiring in the French and Spanish Grand Prix, but surprisingly managed to stay the distance at Monza, taking fifth and sixth places in the Italian GP, which must have surprised both constructors and drivers. Rolland-Pilain had entered the first 24 Heures du Mans with a team of 2-liter four-cylinder sports cars, which, with the Bentley-like radiator which characterised the marque's products, were extremely handsome (and potent) machines. They qualified, but failed to finish in the money.

Rolland-Pilain Model C23 and B25

The company entered for the three subsequent Le Mans events, their best performance being a sixth placing in the 1924 meeting. At the 1925 Motor Show, Rolland-Pilain exhibited a sporting 2008cc 11hp (model C23) and a B25, which was a somewhat cheaper 1924cc sports model, and for 1927 the company produced a 1.5-liter machine, but after that, like so many Continental marques, Rolland-Pilain became bedazzled by American influence. They went all up-market Detroit with luxury models powered by side-valve Continental engines, a 3-liter six and a 4-liter eight, which appeared in 1929; a year later Rolland-Pilain was reduced to sharing a Salon stand with another ailing company, Bollack, Netter et Compagnie. A year after that, the Rolland-Pilain was but another motoring memory.
1909 Rolland-Pilain two-seater runabout, which was fitted with a 2100cc four-cylinder engine
1909 Rolland-Pilain two-seater runabout, which was fitted with a 2100cc four-cylinder engine.
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