Streamlined cars have always provided a bit of an interesting footnote in automotive history. While aerodynamics plays a role in everything from racecars to minivans, there is an entire sub-category of teardrop designs that went to extremes to cheat the wind. There are some more famous pieces like Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion cars or the Porsche-designed Auto Union Type C racers, but an interesting one that rarely gets mentioned is the Dubonnet Dolphin.
While it may appear that Andrè Dubonnet was drunk on the sweet wines of his family namesake when he developed the Dolphin, this playboy turned engineer knew what he was doing. After becoming a WWI flying ace, Dubonnet took up other daredevil activities, including a successful stint as an amateur racecar driver for Bugatti and Hispano-Suiza. He used one of the latter cars to develop a form of independent suspension that would be utilized by General Motors, Fiat, and other manufacturers in the time before WWII. But Dubonnet was not done reinventing the car.
In 1935 he had an idea for a new suspension system that would create a well-balanced vehicle ideal for the rough and curvy roads of Europe. The chassis ran down the center of the car and split like a tuning fork for a place to cradle the engine. Similar to the “double-Y” chassis Colin Chapman would develop at Lotus, it was designed to carry French Matford 3.7-liter V8 (the French version of Ford’s V8) in a mid-engine position located behind the passengers. Dubonnet had the firm of Hibbard & Darrin design the streamlined body for the aerodynamic-conscious pilot. The firm of Fernandez & Darrin then turned it into metal (the common denominator of Darrin in the design is the same Howard “Dutch” Darrin that later created such icons as the Kaiser-Darrin sports car.)
In the era before jet aircraft inspired the tailfin, it is easy to see how the teardrop body with the its huge rear stabilizing dorsal got its Dolphin name. The sedan had conventional doors in the rear, but the driver and passenger entrances were hinged hinged at the nose. These aircraft-style windows on the front doors also acted as the windshield.
Although an unconventional design, it was quite efficient in its slipstream. Dubonnet took the car out on the France’s Montlhery race track in 1935 for high speed testing. He found that the 72 hp in his Ford-inspired V8 could set a top speed of 108 mph. What was even more impressive was a standard Ford sedan with a 80 hp V8 ran the track at a maximum of 82 mph. The Dolphin also achieved 22 mpg during this run where the Ford sedan only got 15 mpg.
Buoyed by the success of his tests, Dubonnet shipped the Dolphin to Detroit to show Ford and GM. Unfortunately he found no takers. The unconventional design, and likely the already failure of Fuller’s Dymaxion car, meant the Dubonnet Dolphin would always be a one-off.
Still, the car did not go completely unnoticed in the motor city. “For 1936 this was a most remarkable automobile,” said Philip Egan. He was a teenager when he saw the Dolphin on the streets of Detroit. Egan would later have a successful industrial design career that started with the Tucker Torpedo. The Dubonnet Dolphin’s unconventional appearance was an early influence on him. “It was quite different, yet at the same time, it appeared to be very logical,” Egan concluded.
Like many designs that took too long to appreciate, the Dubonnet Dolphin went unloved. The car disappeared not long after its time in Detroit, and its fate is unknown.
Dubonnet went back to commissioning streamlined bodies on prestigious chassis, and he is possibly now best known for his 1938 Hispano-Suiza H6C. The Saoutchik-built enclosed bodied car was named “Xenia” after Dubonnet’s wife, and it is currently in the hands of the Peter Mullin Automotive Museum Foundation. The car was last seen at this year’s Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance.