Collection in action – Le Zèbre

An alphabetical series of short driving impressions of some of the museum’s car collection. This month we reach the end of the line with a little and rare French charmer that sadly lost its stripes…Le Zèbre

Among the automotive world’s pioneering countries, France was in the forefront of burgeoning manufacturers, one of which was Le Zèbre, founded in October 1909 by Julius Solomon and Jacques Bizet. Solomon was a young graduate of the School of Commerce and Industry in Bordeaux, and began his career at Rouart Brothers, who were engine makers. Bizet, the son of famed composer Georges, was a car dealer and is said to have provided financial backing to the business. They met while both were working for Georges Richard, a French racing driver and automobile industry pioneer.

Le Zèbre, unsurprisingly, means zebra, but why a French company would name itself after an African member of the horse family is a surprise. But according to the make’s historian Philip Schram, the reason is that Solomon and Bizet opted to not give their names to the car but rather adopted the nickname of a clerk who they both once worked with. Now why he was called Le Zèbre is not known…

The first Le Zèbre, the Type A, was a light car built on a chassis supplied by S.U.P. who also provided the engine, the exact capacity of which is in some doubt as it is variously given as 530, 603 and 616 cm3. Power rating was 5 hp (3,7 kW) at 1 200 r/min. Front-mounted, the water-cooled single-cylinder vertical engine was mated with a two-speed gearbox with shaft drive to the rear wheels. In 1912, the engine size was increased to 645 cm3 – raising power to 6 hp (4,5 kW) – and a third ratio added to the gearbox.

Records state that the first 50 Type As were built at the Unic factory before the company established its own facility in Puteaux in the western suburbs of Paris. Selling for Ff3 000, the car was cheaper than its competition and was a sales success, staying in production until 1917 by which time 1 772 had been sold. But in July that year, Solomon joined his compatriot Andrè Citroën full-time and two years later Citroën was founded as a motor manufacturer in its own right. Le Zèbre had lost its jockey.

The forerunner to FMM, the Heidelberg Transport Museum, acquired this car from the Patrick Chapman collection in the mid-1970s. I approached driving this more than a century old car with a sense of wonderment and just looking at its petite stance – its wheelbase is 1 803 mm, which is shorter than I am tall – gave me a slight feeling of apprehension. So simple yet somehow elegant, the Le Zèbre shone in the hot summer sun, its gleaming red paintwork and abundance of brass fittings sparkling in the brightness of the day. Stepping up onto the winged and button-tufted leather dual seat merely heightened the prospect, the remarkably small thick-rim wooden steering wheel superb to hold. Once FMM’s workshop technician Donny Tarentaal had primed the oil feed and fuel supply, a half-turn of the starting handle was enough to bring the single-pot into life.

Another surprise was to find the pedal layout to be as we know it today, but the accelerator is bent slightly off to the right, close to the edge of the floorboard, which was going to require care once on the move. At this point, the purpose of a fourth ‘pedal’, rigidly fixed to the floor above and to the left of the accelerator, was unclear…

According to this car’s engine plate, the naturally-aspirated vertical engine is the early 5 hp unit, yet the gearbox is a three-speed first introduced with the 6 hp motor, so how this pairing came about is a mystery. Gears are selected by an outboard lever working through a straight, notched gate that, on this car, had understandably become a bit loose after more than a century of use. But once a slight jerk indicated engagement via the leather clutch, the Le Zèbre pulls away with more zest than single-digit horsepower suggests. First is naturally low but once on the move, gentle shoves on the lever brings the two other gears into action and the car surges – er, make that quickens – forward with new-found strength.

It is light – 350 kg kerb weight – and top speed was said to be 30 mph (48 km/h), which in context is quite a heady velocity. Soft, all-round semi-elliptic springs provide a comfortable ride and the steering is direct and far from heavy, riding on 26×3-inch tyres mounted on artillery wheels. The mechanical rear drum brakes do their job without having to apply excessive force.

Once settled into top gear, phut-phutting along leaving a faint trail of smoke in its wake, driving the Le Zèbre proved to be a real joy. Care had to be taken to not knock the gear lever out of position as the lever provides a natural rest for the right leg as a result of the accelerator position. That fourth pedal? Back at the workshop discussing the drive, Donny had a light bulb moment: placing the ball of the foot on the fixed pedal, you can operate the accelerator with your heel. Not exactly instinctive, but the prospect puts a fresh take on heeling ’n toeing…

And to clear up another oddity, the brass badge on the radiator has caused some confusion. The stylised wording says simply ‘Zèbra’. When compared with the company’s official badge, the ‘Le’ is missing, and the name should be ‘Zèbre’. But some cars were sold in England under the name Zebra, and badged accordingly. A famous AC dealer in London, F B Goodchild Ltd, was the UK agent from, apparently, 1914, and it is fair to assume this car was imported from England with its Runabout body and must be a rare remaining example badged as a Zebra. Its registration number, A2180, is original and confirms the car being first registered in London.

Coincident with the Type A’s mechanical upgrade, at the 1912 Paris Salon the company introduced two four-cylinder models, and more than 1 000 Le Zèbres were sold that year. During WWI, the company supplied 40 cars per month and various military parts to the Ministry of War once peace was restored, Le Zèbre became an endangered species as market leadership was quickly diminished as the demand for cheap small cars rose rapidly, leading to the creation of a plethora of other manufacturers keen to get in on the act. Despite the introduction of more new models, the fate of Le Zèbre was doomed and despite an appearance at the 1931 Paris Salon, later in the year the factory was forced to close.

Sadly, this four-wheeled equid had not only lost its stripes; it became extinct. MM