August 11, 2023
Almost 50 years after it left Australia as a partly-restored wreck, the rare French racer that won the 1949 Leyburn Australian Grand Prix has been traced to a prestigious American museum - and it is likely worth millions.
John Crouch drove the 1936 Delahaye 135 CS (Compétition Spéciale) to an historic victory on the Leyburn airfield circuit on 18 September 1949, in Queensland’s first postwar grand prix. The event is commemorated in the annual Historic Leyburn Sprints, which will be run for the 27th time on 19-20 August.
The 200 kmh Delahaye, painted in traditional French blue, has been owned since 1999 by American collector Peter Mullin and resides in the Mullin Automotive Museum in Oxnard, California.
Since leaving the factory in Paris in 1936, the car has had at least eight owners and several crashes or misfortunes, the worst of which burnt it out while being transported from a race in 1951.
Engineer Ian Polson bought the wreck, undertook some restoration, then took it with him when he moved to England in 1974. Polson sold it in 1994 and completed a full restoration for the new owner before it was sold again, to the Mullin museum.
“The Delahaye was off the Australian motor-racing scene after the fire in 1951 and then it went overseas. When we followed its trail to the Mullin museum it appears it has effectively been hiding in plain sight,” said Historic Leyburn Sprints President Tricia Chant.
“It is an enormously important find for us, especially on the eve of the festival that commemorates the grand prix that put the little town of Leyburn on the map. One of the roads leading to the old circuit is even named Delahaye Drive.”
Various historical records of the Delahaye are not consistent, but it is known it won the Marseilles Grand Prix in France in 1936. The Mullin museum states it won the 1938 Le Mans 24 Hours, but others do not mention this.
Australian John Snow brought the car to Australia in 1939 and by 1946 it was being raced by John Crouch at Mount Panorama, Bathurst. Dick Bland was the owner when it caught fire on its transporter on the way home from the 1951 Australian Grand Prix in Western Australia, where it had finished second.
Only 14 of the specially-designed 135 CS model were built in Paris and it’s said seven survive. Few appear on the market, but a 135 CS sold at auction in 2014 for more than $A1.65 million and the model is likely to be worth considerably more today.
Mullin describes his car as a work of art. Its 3.6 litre, six-cylinder engine produces 160 horsepower and drives it to a claimed 200 kmh.
“French automobiles are works of art and the Delahaye is an incredible example of the fine craftsmanship of this era. The racing provenance of this Delahaye Type 135 CS makes it a wonderful and unique addition to our collection and I have enjoyed piloting it at a number of vintage car events over the years,” Mullin said when the car’s provenance was confirmed with the Historic Leyburn Sprints recently.
“This car joined our collection in 1999 after incredible success on the track and some unfortunate on- and off-track incidents. It was beautifully restored by Ian Polson, a British car collector, and we are honoured to have it in our museum."
Sprints President Tricia Chant said the organisers were thrilled to have traced the 1949 winner after so many years out of the limelight.
“It’s a magnificent car, a true sporting thoroughbred of its era, and we’re incredibly pleased to track it down and learn its full story. We have been fortunate to have other survivors of that 1949 race compete at the Sprints, but I doubt the whereabouts of many other early Australian Grand Prix winners are known,” she said.
“John Crouch, of course, is a hero to us and were delighted that he attended the Sprints, complete with the grand prix trophy under his arm, as guest of honour in 2002, two years before he passed away at the age of 84.
“Finding his winning Delahaye completes a wonderful story in time for our 27th Historic Leyburn Sprints.”
This year’s Historic Leyburn Sprints will feature more than 220 historic, classic and performance cars in time trials on a 1.0 km closed-street course. Vintage caravans, more than 100 cars and motorcycles in the Shannons Show ‘n’ Shine, racing car rides, markets, a charity auction, fun run and other activities are extra attractions. Motor-racing champion Colin Bond will be guest-of-honour.
Competition starts at 8am on Saturday and Sunday. Adult tickets are available on-line or at the gate for $25 a day or $35 for the weekend, with children under 14 free. On-street parking is free.