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Hotchkiss history

Benjamin Berkeley Hotchkiss was born in Watertown, Connecticut in 1826. He became a skilled designer in the family's engineering business with a passion for weapons but having failed to interest the US Government in his designs he moved to France where he set up the Hotchkiss Company in 1867. His first factory was located at Route de Gonesse in Saint-Denis which is close to Paris and there he began producing weapons and explosives for the French Government. Hotchkiss died in 1885 but the company continued with his personal ambition to develop a truly automatic machine-gun.

The first working model was produced by 1892 and in 1897 it was adopted by the French Army. A series of modifications and improvements followed resulting in the definitive 'Hotchkiss gun' by 1914. The weapon became one of the standard gas-operated heavy machine gun designs to be adopted for use by Britain, France and Japan. It could even be used as an anti-aircraft weapon (shown opposite). At the turn of the century the company also diversified into making components for motor cars and then vehicles. Hotchkiss was growing fast and about to become one of the largest and most important mechanical engineering companies in France.

1903 saw the production of the first of a series of motor vehicles, a 20 horsepower four-cylinder car, though a major fire in the factory nearly ended production for good. The badge for the 'Automobiles Hotchkiss' marque consisted of a pair of crossed cannons - in reference to the company's origin (see top of page). In 1909 the Hotchkiss Company produced its first military vehicle, an armoured car equipped with a machine gun located on the rear. The 'Automitrailleuse' is shown opposite and, ironically, having been ordered by the Sultan of Turkey the vehicles were captured by his enemies during the delivery process and ended up being used to depose him.

  

During the 1930's Hotchkiss grew to became a well established and successful motor car manufacturer. The French Army, like most others at the time were interested in experimenting with the use of cars as light weight military vehicles. The photograph (left) shows Hotchkiss AM80 cars being for desert patrol work in the Syrian desert in 1929 - 1936. These had a six cylinder OHV 3-litre engine and oversize tyres compared with the normal production model.

More powerful sports versions of the AM80 were developed to compete in the Monte-Carlo Rally where Hotchkiss gained victories over, rival French manufacturer Delahaye by winning in 1932, 1933, 1934, and 1939. (Two further victories were achieved after the war in 1949 & 1950). Hotchkiss also became a sufficiently successful and prestigious manufacturer to have a racing team that competed regularly at international venues like the famous Brooklyns Circuit. The 1930's also saw a range of multi-wheel drive military vehicles produced in conjunction with the Laffly Company.

These included cars, ambulances, tankers, carriers, and prime movers. Laffly-Hotchkiss vehicles were more often than not designed by Laffly but incorporated Hotchkiss engines and were often manufactured by both companies. Almost all the larger military vehicles featured the additional set of small front wheels to help the vehicle overcome obstacles. The vehicle shown on the left is a 1939 Hotchkiss R15R Command & Reconnaissance 4x4 which was both designed and built by Hotchkiss rather than one of the more numerous collaborative Laffly-Hotchkiss products.

In 1936 to meet the French Army's vehicle requirements for the light armoured division (Divisions Légere Mécanique) Hotchkiss also produced the H35 tank with a 37mm gun and 75 horsepower engine. The design then evolved through the H38 with its larger engine (120 hp) and the H39 with larger engine and a longer gun barrel. Tanks were also being produced by other manufacturers like Renault but the Hotchkiss was probably the best of the French designs though it did have a few problems. When France fell to the Germans in 1940 a total of about 1188 Hotchkiss tanks had been in service. About 600 of these ended up being captured by the advancing army who put them straight back into service, mainly with second line units.

Cars designed for the civilian market like the Hotchkiss 680 sedan (left) were also adopted for military use in the lead up to W.W.II. The 680 had a 6 cylinder, 3 litre engine and was known as a 'Voiture de liaison de plus de 15 CV'. Henry Ainsworth, Managing Director of Hotchkiss, managed to escape to London at the beginning of the war where his knowledge of vehicle and tank manufacture was put to good use by the Allies. Part of this work involved liaison with Willys-Overland, a factor that was to shape post-war Hotchkiss activities.

Hotchkiss merged with several other companies. In 1956 with Brandt forming Hotchkiss-Brandt and the last time, in 1966 with Thomson-Houston, led to the end of the Hotchkiss name in 1972.