For years, the Germans had the fastest cars on the planet thanks to the likes of Mercedes and Auto Union, both of which were backed by the Nazis. However, in 1936, the French government, along with the Automobile Club of France established the Million Franc Prize.
Hitler was mowing down records left and right, collecting them for his Master race. The French, and rightly so, wanted to take the goose-stepping lunatic down a few pegs and beat him and his state backed racers.
Yet, the goal was not only to beat the Germans, but also the Italians and the Alfa Romeo P3 that currently held the record for the fastest car ever built.
The goal was set at 146.508 kilometers per hour, which was accomplished in 1934 by Alfa Romeo. In 1936, the French launched the Million Franc Prize to get a French company into the record books, and back then a million Francs was a hell of a lot of money.
Accounting for inflation, that prize would be worth somewhere in the range of $18 million today. Additionally, there was a deadline of no later than August 31st, 1937.
Two of the most world-renowned French companies competed for the prize money, Delahaye and Bugatti. While you’d expect the French to whip up a triple supercharged, 7.0L V16 with 700 horsepower, for the competition, the manufacturers were limited to the rules and regulations that governed Grand Prix racing. This meant that Bugatti and Delahaye had to use either a 3.5-liter supercharged engine, or a 4.5-liter un-supercharged engine.
Delahaye, in a stroke of pure genius, designed a completely new triple overhead cam 4.5-liter V12 engine accompanied by three Weber downdraft carburetors. This in combination with a brand new slippery body of the Type 145, meant that it would have incredible performance. But would it be able to take the prize.
On August 26th, just five days before the deadline, Delahaye brought the Type 145 to Autodrome de Montlhéry racetrack, the same infamous racetrack that took the life of the famed racing driver, Antonio Ascari. The Delahaye had to complete 16 laps and the average speed would be taken.
On the day of, the Delahaye was mired in various mechanical problems and wore the specially created Dunlop tires down to the threads. At the end of the day though, the Delahaye Type 145 had beaten the Germans and Italians with an average speed of 146.654, just a one-hundredth of a second faster. However, the contest wasn’t over.
Five days later, on the day of the deadline, Bugatti showed up to the circuit aiming to beat the Delahaye speed record in the company’s Type 59. After a few runs, the Bugatti broke down with a piston grenading the engine. This gave the win to Delahaye and accordingly, to the French people.
After winning the prize, the Delahaye Type 145 went on to beat the Germans and Italians additionally in the Grand Prix at Pau, and the Mille Miglia. Delahaye also took two of the Type 145s to Le Mans, but had to drop out due to reliability issues. With that said, one of the most interesting aspects about the car was yet to be told.
In 1940, Germany invaded France, and one of the goals set forth by the German high command was to seize the Million Franc Delahaye.
The French learned of the plot, disassembled the car and then buried it in a hillside so that no German could find it. There it sat until the end of the war, where it was later reassembled.
Although the body could not be saved, Chapron built identical ones for the car.
The car now sits in the Mullin Automotive Museum, although as highlighted in the video above, Peter Mullin, the man responsible for bringing the car back from the dead, does drive it. And drives it as it was meant to, fast.