Swaying Superstar - 1956 Guidobaldi Guidomobile F1 Prototype
In 1910, 22 year old French cycling champion Francois Guidobaldi dove into the wonderful world of mechanical engineering. Guidobaldi filed many a patent over the years, and eventually specialized in the design and manufacture of marine engines, and became an importer of American Chris Craft boats.
By 1939, his constant thirst for innovation had brought him to a very different avenue. Inspired by a 1937 patent filed by compatriot Paul Furet, Guidobaldi started work on a groundbreaking automotive design. Furet's patent described a car that would counteract cornering forces by leaning into the turn, much like a motorcycle.
Furet's idea sparked Guidobaldi's interest, and lead to him developing his own unique system from his atelier in Antibes, near Cannes. His concept saw the chassis attached to an independent suspension setup at two points, effectively hanging the car from its suspension like a hammock.
Instead of the common leaf springs, the car would use an accordion-like construct made up of rubber and metal components to act as both a spring and a damper. With these in place, the car would be able to corner heavily without swinging about uncontrollably.
However, the outbreak of World War II prevented Guidobaldi from producing the futuristic design. Determined to see the project through, he resumed work on the design as soon as he could.
Guidobaldi modeled every single part of the car himself in his little workshop, having retired from the marine business to focus his attention on the wonder car. Post-war shortages made life difficult however, consigning him to fashioning most parts out of wood and clay before the right materials arrived.
His biggest concern was finding an engine which wouldn't interfere with the car's innovative suspension system. It needed to be as low, light and compact as possible to avoid creating too much of a pendulum effect as the car swung around under its suspension.
Since nothing readily available matched his demands, Guidobaldi opted to craft the engine himself. Taking inspiration from the aviation industry, he settled on a two-stroke, dual ignition, twin supercharged, air-cooled, 8-cylinder radial engine.
At 1.5L (91 ci) capacity, the little motor adhered neatly to the concurrent Grand Prix regulations, which allowed either 4.5L naturally aspirated or 1.5L supercharged engines. Because of this, the car would be eligible for Grand Prix racing, should Francois wish to put the car in competition. Helped by the double Roots-superchargers sourced from a Bugatti, the little star was able to produce 180 horsepower at 6500 rpm.
The ingenious powerplant was then mounted in the middle of a steel ladder chassis to ensure near-perfect weight distribution. The motor was then mated to a specially-designed 3-speed manual transmission, which lived right under the rear suspension. As laid out in his original 1939 design brief, the entire car hung from two suspension mountings at each end.
When the car entered a corner, the chassis would remain remarkably level, while the wheels leaned into the turn, essentially moving around the car, providing perfect stability under all conditions. Large, finned aluminium drum brakes ensured the car came to a stop after neatly negotiating a fast curve.
Francois Guidobaldi (hat in hand) presenting the Guidomobile chassis, 1956 Nice Automobile Exposition.
Guidobaldi unveiled the bare chassis of what he called the "Guidomobile" at the 1956 Exposition Automobile de Nice, to much fanfare. After the big show was over, he returned to his workshop, and started converting the chassis into an actual car.
The car was clad in aluminium body panels, styled similarly to the famous Auto Union Grand Prix racers of the late 1930's. Large intakes in the sides provided the radial with much-needed cool air, while the sloping tail section revealed the intricate suspension mountings.
At the front, the car still featured a large traditional radiator grille, despite lacking a radiator. In a bid to improve the car's weight distribution, the driver was surrounded by the fuel tank, making the notion of an accident slightly concerning.
Two additional scoops were mounted higher up on the engine cowling, allowing the engine to breathe even better. Additionally, a series of vents helped extract heat away from the cylinder heads and the exhaust system.
Because the radial's exhaust ports were in the center of the engine, the car sported four pipes on either side, running parallel to the ground before curving upward into two stacks of four. Coupled to the swooping rear, insectoid rear, these stacks made the car's link to Auto Union's prewar monsters even stronger.
When the car was finally finished, Francois Guidobaldi personally undertook the first test drive. Because there was no test track in the vicinity, and nobody was likely to complain, the shakedown took place on sleepy mountain roads in the Maritime Alps.
While powering along the Alpine roads, Guidobaldi noticed his system worked very well indeed. However, he was also keen on further fine-tuning and modifying his concept. In the end, he wanted to construct an ordinary family car based on the Guidomobile's design principles. This vehicle would have to be capable of transporting four or five people at high speeds in ultimate comfort.
Guidobaldi kept testing the car in the mountains of Southern France, scaring many a bumbling 2CV-driving peasant while blasting by in his marvelous machine. Media coverage of the Guidomobile reached its zenith around this time, with a full feature in Motor Trend's Sportscar Graphic magazine in March 1960.
Aside from giving a full technical write-up of the spectacular vehicle, the article mentioned visits of delegates from various British and German manufacturers to Guidobaldi's shop. The most interested of these parties was Mercedes-Benz.
The Germans were impressed with the French inventor's suspension system, but weren't big fans of the unusual radial engine. Mercedes officials subsequently tried to buy the design from Guidobaldi for further study, but asked him to take out the wacky radial. Negotiations eventually broke down over this issue, with Francois perhaps motivated by patriotism or pride.
After the Mercedes deal bounced off, Francois Guidobaldi found himself without the budget to bring his technology to market. A campaign in Formula One was out of the question as well, leading to a quiet cancellation of the ambitious project.
The radial roar frequently heard in the hills and valleys around Antibes fell silent, and the car faded into obscurity. Francois Guidobaldi passed away on the 6th of August 1971, and the car was left to its devices in a dusty corner of the garage.
In 1980, the car was acquired by collector Antoine Raffaelli, who tracked down Guidobaldi's brother Virgile. Raffaelli held on to the car for four years, until he sold it on to collector Andrien Maeght. The car was then displayed unrestored in Maeght's automobile museum in Mougins, a mere 15 minute drive from the old Guidobaldi workshop.
The museum was home to the car until 2009, when wealthy pilot and car enthusiast David Humbert picked it up for his private collection. After sitting for decades untouched, Humber ordered a full restoration of the car, undertaken by specialist Luc Franza.
At long last, the Guidomobile was painstakingly restored, including a completely new set of aluminium body panels to replace the battered original pieces. Unfortunately, Franza was unable to locate the exotic dual Roots-supercharger setup, and reverted to using a single smaller unit. The car was finished in March of 2010, and quickly found its way to the auto show circuit.
David Humbert managed to track down Francois Guidobaldi's daughter Louisette later that year, discovering she lived just a few miles from his home. Louisette was able to provide Humbert with most of her father's original design drawings and patent applications, helping to complete the car's history. Finally, the plagued car had found its way back home.
The Guidomobile eventually took the top honors in the Technologie category at the Concours d'Elegance du Monaco Motor Legend, finally crowning Francois Guidobaldi's life's work. Looking back, it's hard to tell if and how his design would have revolutionized motorsport and the automotive industry in general.
Though his idea was groundbreaking, Guidobaldi lacked the means to put it on the market, or even a racetrack. Since the concept has in effect been lost to time, we can only marvel at his creativity, ingenuity, skill and willingness to think outside the box. In an era where so much about the motor car was yet to be discovered, he had the opportunity to write the next line. Sadly, his pen ran out of ink far too soon.