I want to believe this story for many reasons: first, it’s a jumping car. A French jumping car from before WWI. Second, this was sent to me by Jeff Lane, the man behind my favorite motor museum. And third, it’s a French jumping car. I think I believe the story; I’m just not sure I think it’s actually true. Get me?
This is the story of George Gauthier and his remarkable 1913 invention, the Gauthier Jumping Car. According to the very limited information available online, Gauthier built this very crude-looking vehicle and demonstrated it to the French army.
In these demonstrations, he supposedly managed to jump the vehicle five feet in the air, and for a distance of over 23 feet. It’s also said that he took a colonel from the French army on a jump that spanned over 26 feet and scared the crap out of the colonel so completely that no more test jumps were undertaken.
Aside from this one report and that amazing but suspect looking photo up there, that seems to be all the evidence to support the existence of the jumping car.
Now, it’s not like there isn’t a good level of plausibility to the story. George Gauthier was a real person, and a pioneer in motor vehicles. Gauthier developed a small, cheap vehicle called the Auto-Fauteuil, or Auto-Chair: a step-through motorized cycle with a nice, fancy little chair with arms instead of the usual motorcycle saddle.
The Auto-Chair was, essentially, the first motor scooter, the ancestor of all those Vespas and Lambrettas still seen in the crotchal areas of urban Italians and American hepcats today. It even used the same sort of center-mounted kickstand as most scooters still use today. Gauthier built the little 3 or so HP scooters from about 1902 to 1920, and they became fairly popular, especially among skirt-wearing people like women and clergymen.
So, it would seem that Gauthier would have had the technical know-how and manufacturing resources to produce a jumping-car like the one in that photo, and the very lean, cyclecar-like construction of it seems within the reach of what his factory was able to produce.
So, that part is at least plausible.
Also lending some credence to the jumping car idea is the when and why: in 1913, when the jumping car is said to have been built, tensions in Europe and the Balkans were rising. This would be right on the eve of World War I, a war that would be fought according to the prevailing methods of the era, in trenches.
Getting over and past trenches would, of course, be a huge advantage for trench warfare. It was for this very purpose that tanks were originally developed, and it was clear that a car that could bound over trenches would be a huge advantage.
So, the parts of the story that make a lot of sense are who is said to have developed it, and what it was developed for. I can absolutely see the need for a trench-jumping car, and I can buy that a guy like Gauthier would have built one.
I’m just not sure I believe that first picture, and I’m puzzled why there aren’t more accounts of the thing existing or jumping or crashing or, really, anything. The heavily-retouched look of that photo was leading me to think this may just be some old hoax, but I happened to find two different pictures of the same car, also in mid-jump, and I’m now thinking that maybe this crazy-ass thing actually existed? Maybe.
The guy in the first photo, the retouched-seeming one, does resemble Gauthier, but the other two photos seem to have a different driver. The retouched photo appears to be based on the one of the newspaper photos, retouched to change the driver. Here, look:
See? It’s the same car, in the same position mid-air, but the driver has been changed. Why? To put Gauthier (or someone who looked more like Gauthier) in the car? Was this actually his car? Was it his, but someone else drove the car?
The other photo from the newspaper shows a different angle of the car, and seems to offer a little more detail. It’s possible this is another example of photo-retouching, since the cars from the two photos, while they’re pitched at different angles, seem to have the same roll angle. Look, here’s what happens if I adjust the pitch angle of the car from one photo and over-lay it on the other:
While it’s possible some pre-Photoshop photochopper literally may have made a ‘chop here, taking one image of a car that was perhaps aloft from a bump in the road, and made it look like two jumping-car photos, now that I see these overlayed, there does seem to be a slight change in the roll angle of the two images.
So, these may in fact be two totally different images of a car aloft; whether that car was aloft from being capable of jumping or just catching some air off a bump in the road, I have no idea.
The car itself is very strange. It seems to have a radiator (or radiator-like object) up front, but no engine behind it. The large amount of bodywork at the rear certainly could be enclosing an engine, and perhaps Gauthier is using a similar rear-engine/chain drive setup like he used on his Auto-Chairs. That would make sense, and would justify the look of the design.
How the car ‘jumps’ is not clear at all. Is it just launching off a ramp, and using a combination of light weight and a heavy rear weight bias to put it into a sort of controlled leap, with the front end up and the heavier rear low?
Is there an actual mechanism to launch the car upwards? Some spring-loaded system? Lowriders have been using hydraulics to get their big-ass Monte Carlos to jump for decades; could Gauthier have developed an early version of something similar?
Visually, it’s hard to tell. The front axle seems pretty spare and simple. Perhaps what looks like a radiator is in fact a springing mechanism? The site dedicated to Gauthier’s inventions (run by perhaps a relative, Steve Gauthier) makes references to a “propulsive suspension” system or a “propellant suspension” system, depending on how it gets translated.
That does seem like the sort of thing that would allow for jumping, but I suspect it may be closer to an early version of a system like Citroën’s hydropneumatic suspension.
I’m attempting to reach out to Steve Gauthier to see if he has any more input, or at least more information about the newspapers where he found those two pictures. I’ll update if I hear anything back.
As it is right now, I’m very conflicted. Maybe Gauthier did develop some sort of jumping car, but these pictures feel pretty suspect to me. At least one of the pictures floating around I can clearly say has been manipulated, and I have my suspicions about the other two.
So, when it comes to the WWI-era jumping car, I think the best I can say right now is that yes, I want to believe.