2023 Detroit Concours Best of Show is this 1939 Delahaye 135 MS Figoni et Falaschi Cabriolet
When the silver Delahaye owned by Ted and Mary Stahl purred across the stage of the 2023 Detroit Concours d’Elegance, it was hard to imagine a more delightful day. Only the wispiest of clouds appeared in the September sky above the Detroit Institute of Arts, serving for the second time as the backdrop for a prestigious celebration of automotive excellence. Around 100 years ago, Joseph Figoni founded the firm that would become, three years later, Figoni et Falaschi, the original makers of the curvaceous bodywork adorning the one-of-five 1939 Cabriolet crowned Best of Show this year.
Last year’s big winner was also a Delahaye, the “Grand Luxe” 135M Roadster Cabriolet.
To be eligible for Detroit Concours d’Elegance’s highest honor, a vehicle has to be named best in its class. The Stahls’ Delahaye competed in the European Pre-War group against a 1924 Rolls-Royce Twenty and a 1925 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost. The French beauty, a 135MS “Speciale” four-seat cabriolet bodied by Figoni et Falaschi, beat out two other finalists—a 1928 Auburn 8-115 Speedster and a 1963 Ferrari 250 GT California Spyder—to capture the blue-green trophy for Best of Show.
Behind the wheel of the Delahaye was Seamus Hnat, lead mechanic of the Stahls’ collection, which is based in Chesterfield, Michigan, about 35 miles northeast of the Motor City. Dressed in appropriate vintage clothing, he and Terri Coppens, the general manager of the Stahl Automotive Foundation, formed a lovely picture with the Delahaye. After the official pictures were taken, the fur-clad Coppens broke the 1930s spell to pull out her phone, fingers tapping away excitedly to tell the Stahls, who weren’t able to attend, that their car was champion.
As anyone who frequents top-flight concours events knows, it takes more than a well-restored car to win a competition like the Detroit Concours d’Elegance. A car must be an exceptional, exhaustively documented example of a historically significant model—and the Stahls’ Delahaye certainly qualifies.
Together with Delage, the Delahaye brand represents a high point of art deco design in the automotive world. As a 135MS, the Detroit Concours winner is the sportiest variant of Delahaye’s sportiest car. The Stahls’ car, chassis number 60173, is believed to be the only four-passenger roadster 135MS roadster bodied by Figoni et Falaschi that survives today—and only five were made to begin with, between 1935 and 1954.
It is powered by an overhead-valve, inline-six-cylinder engine topped with three carburetors and making 160 hp. While other cars of the 1930s posted higher horsepower figures, the Delahaye’s technological boast was its transmission: a Cotal pre-selector four-speed gearbox. If you aren’t well versed in the finer engineering details of double clutching (also called double declutching), it helps to think of the Cotal as we might think of a sequential gearbox today—technology more common in race cars than in street-legal vehicles.
The Delahaye boasts more than a trick transmission, though. Coachbuilders Figoni et Falaschi, who also created bodies for Bugattis, went to great pains to develop the sleekest possible system for hiding the folding top underneath the rear panel of a car. The company eventually won a patent for its “disappearing top” design, in which the top tucks beneath the trunk lid, which opens “backward” to accept it.
The story of chassis 60173 begins, unexpectedly, at a humble flower stall in Paris, France. Luciene Suzanne Vreurick, from Reims, was working the stall per usual when a fashion designer approached her with an offer to model for his brand. From modeling she went to singing, adopting the name of Le Mome Moineau (“the kid sparrow”). One day, when in New York, she met and married a hugely successful architect and engineer from Puerto Rico. His name was Felix Benetiz Rexach, and he and Luciene would marry three years later. She found that the high life suited her well and, in addition to a yacht and a plane, she commissioned this Delahaye 135MS Roadster. After “Madame Rexach” sold the Delahaye to another equally fabulous socialite, it was featured in a 1950 film (Le Château de Verre, or The Glass House).
The Figoni et Falaschi-bodied 1939 Delahaye 135MS Cabriolet, as it stood in front of the DIA in 2023, wears a 2012 restoration by Auto Classique Touriane that reversed a prior two-tone repaint to the original silver-over-navy-blue scheme in which Madame Rexach originally ordered it.
Could the flower seller from Reims have imagined that her Delahaye would cross the ocean and, 84 years later, be honored by as automotive royalty in America’s Motor City? Perhaps not, but we’d like to think of Le Mome Moineau smiling at the thought.