For a man who once ran the fourth biggest car company in France, behind Citroën, Renault and Peugeot, an automobile manufacturer who produced motorcars designed by Ettore Bugatti and others in partnership with Henry Ford, Emile Mathis is relatively unknown today. Though he made many thousands of cars, ironically he’s better known today because of a car of his that never got to production.
Born in the Alsace region of German nationality in 1880, Emile Mathis was said to have built his first automobile by the turn of the 20th century. Having been formally trained in business, with his interest in cars it was probably natural for him to become a car dealer. The Auto-Mathis-Palace in Strasbourg sold, among others, brands like Fiat, De Dietrich, and Panhard-Levassor, making it one of the leading dealerships in the city. By 1904, he was manufacturing cars under the Hermes brand, building two models designed by Ettore Bugatti. He also had automobiles built with a license from Stoewer.
The first car that he sold under his own brand name, the 8/20 PS, went on sale in 1910 and by the start of World War One two small Mathis cars, the 1.3 liter Baby and the even smaller 1.1 liter Babylette had achieved some measure of success. It was after the war, though, that Mathis started making and selling cars in quantity. By 1927 Mathis was making more than 20,000 cars a year, making the firm the 4th largest automaker in France.
It seems that Emile Mathis was attracted to the United States and American cars. Though sales were strong through the end of the 1920s, with the start of the Depression they started to decline and Mathis looked west. Today, joint ventures between car companies on different continents are commonplace, but then it was a fairly novel idea.
In 1930 Mathis made his first attempt to forge an alliance with an American automaker. He and William C. Durant made plans to form a partnership. By then Durant had been forced out at General Motors and had started building cars under his own brand. Mathis wanted the American entrepreneur to build cars for the European market in Durant’s Lansing, Michigan factory. They thought they’d be able to sell up to 100,000 cars a year but Durant couldn’t get the project funded and went out of business the following year.
Staying in France, Mathis expanded his own firm’s lineup. 1932’s Mathis EMY 8 Deauville was a large, eight cylinder car that was likely modeled after the American Packards. In 1934, he introduced the EMY 4, a 1,445cc-powered car with a synchromesh transmission, hydraulic brakes and eventually fully independent suspension, giving him three different car lines and four different trucks. Though Mathis introduced advanced features like those on the EMY lines before his competitors, sales continued to deteriorate.
Not giving up on his plan of a partnership with an American car company, in 1934 Mathis seemingly hit the jackpot when he negotiated an agreement with Henry Ford. Ford Motor Company wanted to expand production of the Ford Model Y designed for the European market and Mathis’ Strasbourg factory was underutilized. The joint venture with Ford was called SA Française Matford Strasbourg. Ford owned 60% and Mathis the rest. Ford invested a substantial amount of money in the plant which at first produced copies of British and American Fords but by 1936 it was assembling localized vehicles under the Matford Alsace brand. While Matfords are obviously mid to late 1930s Fords, they did have features that distinguished them from non-French Fords, including Mathis’ independent front suspension on some models.
Matfords were produced until 1939, but Mathis was both disappointed by lower than expected sales and not comfortable being second in the relationship to Henry Ford so in 1938 he sold his shares in the joint venture. Most of Henry Ford’s business associates eventually parted ways with him. To my knowledge, only a handful of high level Ford employees stayed with the man and his company for their entire careers. Few people maintained relationships with Henry Ford for very long. Mathis was no different.
Again looking to America, after leaving Matford, Emile Mathis moved to the United States and started making marine engines using the Matam brand. After World War II broke out, he stayed in the U.S. for the duration of the war.
Before the outbreak of hostilities, Emile Mathis had reasserted control of his factory in Strasbourg but as war approached the region was likely to be contested so he stayed an absentee landlord. Also, as a German Alsatian, Mathis had been drafted in the German army during WWI, but in 1916, while on a mission to Switzerland to buy truck, he deserted, taking the cash he was given for the trucks’ purchase. He also enlisted in the French army. Once Germany overran France in 1940, his return from America was mooted, and in any case since the Germans considered him to be a traitor and embezzler and had him on a wanted list he wasn’t going back to France under the Vichy government.
In 1946, Mathis returned to France to find his factory in Strasbourg had been mostly destroyed by Allied bombing as it was used by the Germans to make munitions and engines for military vehicles. Well, actually it wasn’t much of a surprise since he had supplied the Allies with the plans to the plants so they could more accurately bomb the production facilities. Before he could build cars he needed to rebuild the factory, which took two years and a substantial amount of money. Once his factory was rebuilt, he tried rebuilding his car company but he ended up being stymied by post war French governmental policies. A book should be written on how trying to structure the French automobile industry per the wishes of politicians and bureaucrats ended up killing off many French car companies. Those policies may also have indirectly led to the death of Emile Mathis himself.
In addition to dealing with the policies enacted under what became known as the Pons Plan, Mathis had been out of the country for 7 years and had few connections with holdovers from the Vichy regime and other bureaucrats in positions of power when he returned to France. You can go over to Wikipedia and read about the Pons Plan (named after Paul Marie Pons, a senior French bureaucrat) in more detail but briefly, starting in 1946 the French government basically decided which of the 22 car and 28 truck manufacturers would survive. Since the government controlled permits and, more importantly, which companies got access to raw materials like steel that were in high demand in the postwar reconstruction period, even companies that didn’t go along with the Pons Plan had to comply with it. The net result in the French car industry was that the large manufacturers, Citroën, Renault, Peugeot and Simca were favored while the second tier and luxury car makers were starved of supplies. Engine displacement based taxes also negatively impacted French coachbuilders and luxury marques.
Getting back to Mathis, with his factory rebuilt he needed a car to build in it, something suitable for a continent rebuilding after war. What he came up with was quite advanced from an engineering standpoint, and while it never got beyond prototype stage, with only 10 examples being built, it was novel enough to give Mathis a place in automotive history that his more successful pre-war endeavors have not quite secured. Considered the first all-aluminum car, it’s also, in a number of ways, very similar to a modern car planned by a new automotive startup.
What Mathis came up with was the VEL 333. The name stood for Voiture Economique Légere, a light economical vehicle, that consumed three liters of fuel for every 100 kilometers (78.41 mpg), with three wheels and three seats. It had unibody architecture, with the aluminum monocoque being electrically welded. Though steel was in very short supply in 1946, aluminum was abundant. Demand for the metal from the aircraft industry had declined with the end of the war, plus there was ample surplus from planes being taken out of commission, and scrap from planes shot down in combat.
The two door body was designed by noted aerodynamicist and designer Jean Andreau. Andreau also was an exponent of adding lightness, known for his slogan, “weight is the biggest enemy”. The three wheels were laid out in reverse trike fashion with two wheels up front and one in the back, packaged in a sporty looking and very modern envelope body. Passengers also sat two in the front with the rear passenger sitting sidesaddle. Power was supplied to the front wheels by a water cooled 707 cc horizontally opposed twin putting out 15 horsepower. It appears that the entire drivetrain and front suspension mounted to a subframe that bolted to the unibody. Top speed was said to be 70 mph, aided by the car’s aerodynamics. Total weight was only 386 kilograms (851 lbs) with the body itself weighing only 78 kg (172 lbs). The VEL 333 also had a novel twin radiator setup, with each cylinder having its own radiator (it’s not clear if each cylinder had its own water pump).
Though he was unable to persuade the French government to let him produce the VEL 333, Mathis didn’t give up. In 1947 he introduced the Mathis 666, this time standing for six cylinders, six seats and a six-speed transmission, which may have been another first and in any case was an early application of such a multi-speed gear box. The engine was again a flat, horizontally opposed motor, displacing 2.2 liters and again Mathis used front wheel drive. It’s possible that the Mathis 666 was the first FWD car with a flat six, decades before Subaru would build one. The 666 had angular styling that still looks almost contemporary, and it featured a wraparound windscreen. Panoramic windshields were a big thing on show cars in the late ’40s and early 1950s. Fully independent suspension, which the 666 also featured, was less common then. A year later Mathis increased displacement to 2.8 liters and the car was shown at the Paris Auto Salon of 1949 but it was to no avail. It’s not clear how many 666 cars were made by Mathis, but a prototype has survived and has been exhibited at the big French old car show, Retromobile.
For the 1949-1950 model year, Mathis published a 16 page sales brochure that reiterated Emile Mathis’ affection for the United States: “Fast, economical and silent! The Mathis six cyl. car combines the American qualities of endurance and acceleration with the French features of economy and elegance.” That brochure included three alternate body styles of the 666 that likely never got beyond the designers’ sketches, a berline sedan, a roadster with a body by Saoutchik, and the Mathis Dandy, a landau roofed open car by Henri Chapron.
Emile Mathis’ final car was a Jeep-like vehicle that used the 2.8 liter engine from the 666, introduced in 1951 but just three were built. Emile Mathis kept his factory going by making engines for light aircraft and components for Renault but in 1954 he sold the Strasbourg factory to Citroën. In 1956 Mathis died after a fall from a hotel window. While some have suspected suicide motivated by desperation over not being able to revise his car company, by then he was 76 years old and elderly people do have falls. His death is still unexplained.
Starting next year, Elio Motors says that it will start making and selling a reverse trike with an aerodynamic enclosed body and a sub 1.0 liter engine powering the front wheels that will get 84 mpg. In the case of the Elio, it’s a tandem two-seater with a steel tube space frame, not a three seater with an aluminum unibody, still, the specifications aren’t too far apart from the VEL 333. I’m sure that the folks at Elio hope to have more success with their three-wheeler than Mathis did with their own.
Though his postwar efforts to revive his car company did not end in success, Emile Mathis had an important role in the development of the French auto industry. Perhaps even more important was his role as a pioneer in how cars are made on a global scale. His cars were technologically advanced for their eras and his efforts to forge alliances with American automakers presaged the many international joint ventures in the car industry today.
Emile Mathis was a car guy you should know about.
Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS