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Hotchkiss vehicles


Hotchkiss V   (1908)

Benjamin Berkeley Hotchkiss was born in Watertown, Connecticut in 1826. He became a skilled designer in the family's engineering business with a passion for weapons but having failed to interest the US Government in his designs he moved to France where he set up the Hotchkiss Company in 1867. His first factory was located at Route de Gonesse in Saint-Denis which is close to Paris and there he began producing weapons and explosives for the French Government. Hotchkiss died in 1885 but the company continued with his personal ambition to develop a truly automatic machine-gun.

The first working model was produced by 1892 and in 1897 it was adopted by the French Army. A series of modifications and improvements followed resulting in the definitive 'Hotchkiss gun' by 1914. The weapon became one of the standard gas-operated heavy machine gun designs to be adopted for use by Britain, France and Japan. It could even be used as an anti-aircraft weapon (shown opposite). At the turn of the century the company also diversified into making components for motor cars and then vehicles. Hotchkiss was growing fast and about to become one of the largest and most important mechanical engineering companies in France..

1903 saw the production of the first of a series of motor vehicles, a 20 horsepower four-cylinder car, though a major fire in the factory nearly ended production for good. The badge for the 'Automobiles Hotchkiss' marque consisted of a pair of crossed cannons - in reference to the company's origin (see top of page). In 1909 the Hotchkiss Company produced its first military vehicle, an armoured car equipped with a machine gun located on the rear. The 'Automitrailleuse' is shown opposite and, ironically, having been ordered by the Sultan of Turkey the vehicles were captured by his enemies during the delivery process and ended up being used to depose him.


Hotchkiss AM 80   (1931)

During the 1930's Hotchkiss grew to became a well established and successful motor car manufacturer. The French Army, like most others at the time were interested in experimenting with the use of cars as light weight military vehicles. The photograph (left) shows Hotchkiss AM80 cars being for desert patrol work in the Syrian desert in 1929 - 1936. These had a six cylinder OHV 3-litre engine and oversize tyres compared with the normal production model.

More powerful sports versions of the AM80 were developed to compete in the Monte-Carlo Rally where Hotchkiss gained victories over, rival French manufacturer Delahaye by winning in 1932, 1933, 1934, and 1939. (Two further victories were achieved after the war in 1949 & 1950). Hotchkiss also became a sufficiently successful and prestigious manufacturer to have a racing team that competed regularly at international venues like the famous Brooklyns Circuit. The 1930's also saw a range of multi-wheel drive military vehicles produced in conjunction with the Laffly Company.

These included cars, ambulances, tankers, carriers, and prime movers. Laffly-Hotchkiss vehicles were more often than not designed by Laffly but incorporated Hotchkiss engines and were often manufactured by both companies. Almost all the larger military vehicles featured the additional set of small front wheels to help the vehicle overcome obstacles. The vehicle shown on the left is a 1939 Hotchkiss R15R Command & Reconnaissance 4x4 which was both designed and built by Hotchkiss rather than one of the more numerous collaborative Laffly-Hotchkiss products.

Hotchkiss 412  concept (1933)

In 1936 to meet the French Army's vehicle requirements for the light armoured division (Divisions Légere Mécanique) Hotchkiss also produced the H35 tank with a 37mm gun and 75 horsepower engine. The design then evolved through the H38 with its larger engine (120 hp) and the H39 with larger engine and a longer gun barrel. Tanks were also being produced by other manufacturers like Renault but the Hotchkiss was probably the best of the French designs though it did have a few problems. When France fell to the Germans in 1940 a total of about 1188 Hotchkiss tanks had been in service. About 600 of these ended up being captured by the advancing army who put them straight back into service, mainly with second line units.

Cars designed for the civilian market like the Hotchkiss 680 sedan (left) were also adopted for military use in the lead up to W.W.II. The 680 had a 6 cylinder, 3 litre engine and was known as a 'Voiture de liaison de plus de 15 CV'. Henry Ainsworth, Managing Director of Hotchkiss, managed to escape to London at the beginning of the war where his knowledge of vehicle and tank manufacture was put to good use by the Allies. Part of this work involved liaison with Willys-Overland, a factor that was to shape post-war Hotchkiss activities.


Hotchkiss Gregoire  concept (1950)

After the war Henry Ainsworth (above) returned to France to re-establish Hotchkiss as a motor manufacturer. Initially the 686, a pre-war model, was reintroduced to be joined in 1949 by a new 13 horsepower four cylinder model. (photo: 1950 'Anjou') The company also became involved through a series of subsidiaries with the distribution of spares, including manufacturing under licence, for Ferguson Tractors and Willys jeeps. However, while Hotchkiss concentrated on distributing spares for the large number of jeeps in Europe, including those acquired to re-equip the French Army, its old rival, the Delahaye Company, was working on a contract from the military to develop a more sophisticated vehicle to replace the W.W.II. jeep.

The Delahaye jeep (shown opposite) or VLR-D (Voiture Légere de Reconnaissance Delahaye) first appeared for testing and evaluation in 1949. Whilst similar in overall appearance it was much more technically advanced. The design included an OHV alloy engine with dry sump, a four speed synchromesh main gearbox, lockable differential, independent torsion bar suspension, and 24 volt electric's. Like the Austin Champ developed in Britain it was basically a 'Super Jeep'. The Delahaye was adopted by the French Army to replace the MB /GPW jeeps in 1950/51 but it's technical sophistication proved to be a major downfall both in terms of specialised maintenance requirements and the potentially disastrous effects of putting it in the hands of inexperienced army drivers.

Hotchkiss were also interested in manufacturing jeeps and in June 1952 SOFIA (la Société Financière Industrie et Automobile - a Hotchkiss subsidiary) gained a licence from Willys in the U.S.A. to manufacture both spares and jeeps as Willys Overland France (WOF). The main intention was to make civilian jeeps based on the Willys CJ2A/3A design. However, reaching a final agreement with Willys (owned by the Kaiser Corporation) took until 1954 by which time it eventually became based on the later CJ-3B.

Hotchkiss 20 50  concept (1950)

While Delahaye continued to work at ironing out problems with their sophisticated jeep, the French Army took the opportunity offered by the Willys Licence to order some new MB jeeps from Hotchkiss to meet its growing need for more vehicles. Production capacity was small but the assembly of MB jeeps was under way before the end of the year, initially using parts imported from the U.S.A.. Gradually more and more parts were manufactured under licence as tooling was moved to France. E.g. at first the bodies came from the Central Body Corporation until press tools were obtained and production taken over by Tolerie du Centre, Paris.

Like the Licence MB, CJ-3B civilian jeeps produced in 1954 had to be assembled from imported parts and it was not until 1955 that the first truly French built JH-101 version appeared from the same factory at Boulevard Ornano, Carrefour Pleyel, St-Denis (see picture above). Production of both civilian and military jeeps was later transferred to the Stains factory (see picture opposite). Unlike the American CJ-3B, the French JH-101 was supplied 'as standard' with the Go-Devil engine that was being fitted to the MB Licence jeep. In practice, the later 'F-Head' engine could be supplied as an option on the civilian jeep and became the more popular customer choice.

Hotchkiss' manufacturing capacity had also been growing in other areas. La Société Standard-Hotchkiss was formed in 1953 in co-operation with the Standard Company of England to manufacture Ferguson tractors under licence in France. Production was also based at the St-Denis where it continued until the factory closed in 1960. Meanwhile, Delahaye continued to attempt to sort out the problems with the VLRD and had developed a new model, the 'COB' for the army to test by the end of 1953.

Hotchkiss Gregoire Coach concept (1950)

Delahaye had, by now, built 9,623 VLRDs for both army and civilian use but was in financial difficulties. In early 1954, while the army were still evaluating the new COB, Delahaye had to be rescued by Hotchkiss in the form of a take-over which created another new subsidiary, la Société Hotchkiss-Delahaye. Ironically, having gained a final victory over Delahaye, motor car manufacture was then dropped completely in favour of commercial and military vehicles by the end of the same year. However, the army's growing feeling that over-sophisticated vehicles were not necessarily the most suitable for its requirements meant the end of the road for the VLRD which was now in Hotchkiss' hands. It also meant another VLR being developed by Peugeot, with whom Hotchkiss had briefly merged before the Delahaye take-over, was unlikely to be adopted despite its technical superiority over even the Delahaye jeep.

This was confirmed in 1955 when the army decided that it would be better to stick with the simple and well tested MB design for which it already had a large quantity of spares. In 1956 Hotchkiss merged with Brandt to create Hotchkiss-Brandt and it was from the Brandt factory in Stains on the Northern outskirts of Paris (not the St-Denis plant) that the majority of the 27,628 Hotchkiss M201 jeeps based on the original MB design were produced for the French Government between 1957 and 1966.


Hotchkiss Castor HB 40 concept (1967)

A range of other military vehicles bearing the Hotchkiss marque were also designed and built for the French Army during the 50's and 60's. However, in 1966 Hotchkiss-Brandt merged with Compagnie Française Thomson-Houston and the production of all jeeps, including the civilian jeeps JH-102 and HWL, was stopped by the end of the year. This was hardly surprising as the designs were by now technologically very much out of date. In the same year (1966) a collaborative project began between France, W. Germany, and Italy to develop a new amphibious 'Europa-Jeep' for their armies. This was to be Hotchkiss's final involvement with jeeps working in collaboration with Büssing & Lancia to develop a prototype VCL (vehicle de commandment et de liaison). In 1970 Hotchkiss ceased producing vehicles all together, by 1972 the company was simply known as Thomson-Brandt SA, and in 1976 the VCL project was cancelled. Like so many other famous motor vehicle manufacturers, the Hotchkiss marque had finally disappeared. Thomson-Brandt was nationalised in 1982 to form the giant Thomson. Management passed from ex-army officers to civilian directors and the company became much less dependant on military contracts by moving into the domestic electronics market.

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