The fate of Nicholas II’s favourite motorcar

PHOTO: Tsesarevich Alexei Nikolaevich posing at the wheel of the Delaunay Belleville 40CV

Russia’s last emperor and tsar Nicholas II was the first (and, alas, the last) Russian monarch to have appreciated and enjoyed the use of the motorcar. The first motorcar in the Imperial Family, however, belonged to his mother – Empress Maria Feodorovna (1847-1928) – a phaeton with an electric motor of the American company Columbia – a gift from her sister – Queen Alexandra of Great Britain.

Thanks to his aide-de-camp, Prince Vladimir Nikolayevich Orlov (1868-1927), it was he who introduced the Emperor to this new mode of transport which was sweeping across Britain and Europe. An avid motorist himself, Orlov often drove the Tsar in his personal Delaunay Belleville. Nicholas II, impressed by the capabilities of this new technology, decided to exchange the horse and carriage for a motorcar.

In the fall of 1905, he ordered Orlov to buy him “two or three cars,” leaving the choice of models to the discretion of his trusted aide-de-camp. Orlov, without hesitation, ordered the Tsar a Delaunay Belleville:  a 40CV, six-seater phaeton with a convertible top was purchased for 13,416 rubles (about 20 million rubles in today’s money).

PHOTO: Emperor Nicholas II seated on horseback at at the side of his first “motor” – the Delaunay Belleville 40CV triple phaeton. In the back seat are the Montenegrin princesses Milica and Stana, in front of the car is Prince V.N. Orlov (in white) and chauffeur Adolphe Kégresse. Krasnoe Selo, Summer 1908

Today the name Delaunay Belleville is known only to auto enthusiasts. But at the beginning of the 20th century, it was a well-known name among those who could afford luxury. Initially, the French company produced ship steam boilers. Having become rich on orders from the British Admiralty, the owner of the company, Louis Belleville, decided to try his hand in the automotive business.

In 1903, he enlisted the services of the designer Maurice Barbara. He was only 28 years old, and already had experience in the Benz & Cie and Lorraine-Dietrich automobile companies. Maurice’s talent and diligence, coupled with solid start-up capital, quickly paid off.

The Delaunay Belleville debuted at the Paris Motor Show in December 1904 and became an instant sensation. Solid, well-built motorcars featured with a number of new innovations – for example, lubrication of camshafts under pressure and liquid-cooling brakes!

Almost instantly the steam boiler manufactory acquired a solid clientele, with Prince Orlov among the first buyers.

PHOTO: the arrival of Emperor Nicholas II in his Delaunay Belleville 70CV, at the Fourth
International Automobile Exhibition, held at the Mikhailovsky Manege. St. Petersburg, 1913

After the four-cylinder 40CV, Orlov ordered the more powerful six-cylinder Delaunay Belleville-70CV for His Imperial Majesty’s Own Garage. This motorcar, which is often called the SMT – Sa Majeste le Tsar, meaning “His Majesty the Tsar”, was ordered in 1909.

The Delaunay Belleville-70CV was one of the most sophisticated motorcars of its time. The level of its equipment was impressive. For example, the optional system for starting the engine was from the driver’s seat – without the driver having to make use of the handle of the curve starter. For this, an electric starter was not used, but a cunning pneumatic system. Starting off did not require ignition – the pistons and, accordingly, the crankshaft rotated under the action of compressed air, which was supplied directly to the engine. Once the motorcar had picked up speed, it was necessary to turn off the pneumatics, and activate the ignition and fuel supply. The Delaunay was now running on gasoline like that of a traditional internal combustion engine.

The pneumatic device – a clear reference to the steam past of the company – also provided remote pumping of the wheels, the operation of the pneumatic jack, as well as the engine braking function when decelerating. A miracle of technology!

The interior decoration of the Delaunay Belleville-70CV was a merit of Cologner & Sons. The French body shop craftsmen decorated the salon with rosewood, provided a locker for a travel kit, installed a glass roof and a double floor that completely eliminated vibrations from the exhaust system. The roof was so high that Nicholas II could stand inside at full height. Fortunately, he was not tall – according to various sources, he stood 170 cm (5′ 6″) to 174 cm (5′ 7″) in height.

While the Emperor’s first Delaunay Belleville 40CV cost a relatively modest 13.5 thousand rubles, the  Delaunay Belleville 70CV cost over 20 thousand rubles(more than 30 million rubles today). And this is not counting the modifications which were made during operation: dual tires were installed on the rear wheels, acetylene headlights were replaced with brighter electric ones from Bosch-Licht.


PHOTO: In addition to his Delaunay Belleville 40CV, the Emperor also had a Delaunay Belleville 70CV (SMT) with a Landaulet body. This photo was taken in Krasnoe Selo in 1909. Driving is Prince V.N. Orlov, next to him – Adolphe Kégresse (1879-1943).

The Tsar was very pleased with his Delaunay Belleville. Although he never felt the urge to master the intricacies of driving – with nine pedals, the motorcar was too difficult to handle – therefore, Nicholas II preferred to ride as a passenger, always occuping the rear left seat.

According to some reports, the Delaunay Belleville 70CV (SMT), could accelerate to 120 km / h. In the event of an emergency, such as a threat to the Tsar’s life, the motorcar would thus prove to be an effective getaway car.

There were other motorcars in His Imperial Majesty’s Own Garage. Among the French models were German brands, such as the Mercedes-Simplex and the Daimler Motoren Gesellschaft. The garage also housed a Russo-Balt C 24/40 (seen below), a unique all-terrain vehicle, designed by Adolphe Kégresse, while working for Nicholas II between 1906 and 1916. He applied it to several cars in the imperial garage at Tsarskoye Selo, including Rolls-Royce cars and Packard trucks. 

PHOTO: Emperor Nicholas II (in the back seat), riding in a semi-tracked vehicle
Russo-Balt C 24/40. Adolphe Kégresse – the inventor, is the driver. 1915

After the February Revolution of 1917, the Tsar’s motorcars were seized, and transferred to the garage of the Provisional Government. After the tragic events of July 1918, and the murder of the Emperor and his family, Nicholas II’s motorcars ended up on the balance sheet of the “Automobile base of the workers ‘and peasants’ government.”

The structurally complex Delaunay Belleville’s required regular professional maintenance and high-quality spare parts, something which the Soviet government could ill afford at the time. In the early 1920s, the luxurious French motorcars which once transported the Tsar and his family around the Imperial capital sat idle, becoming a burden for the “government” garage. In 1928, the decision was made to scrap “His Majesty the Tsar SMT” favourite motorcar.

The fate of the Delaunay Belleville firm is also unfortunate. After a meteoric rise at the turn of the 20th century, the company faced an equally rapid decline after World War I. By the mid-1920s, only memories of Delaunay’s status as one of the most prestigious brands in the world remained. Based in Saint-Denis, France, the firm switched to the production of trucks and military equipment.

© Paul Gilbert. 3 February 2021