From my regular series of Design Icons written for ABC RN Blueprint. You can find others on my Blueprint and Podcasts pages.
Georges Paulin was broadcast on 18th September 2021. You can listen to the audio here.
Georges Paulin was the dentist who followed his dream. The story goes that in the 1920s, he was bored in his surgery and noticed a man on the rainy Parisian street outside struggling to pull up the canvas roof of his car. He thought there must be a simpler way and wondered if it were possible that a metal roof could swing up or down instead. And so he designed a mechanism that would do just that, patenting the concept in 1931. A Parisian car dealer, Emile Darl’mat, thought it was a brilliant idea and he put Paulin in touch with the coachbuilder Marcel Pourtout, and together they transformed an ordinary Peugeot into a car whose metal roof could swing into the boot. They sold a few hundred, impressing Peugeot so much that they bought the invention from Paulin. In 1935 the company launched the world’s first factory-built convertible car with a retractable metal roof, the 402 Eclipse. This version used an electric motor so that the roof would swing back into the elongated boot at the touch of a button, still one of the great sights of automotive history.
Paulin chucked in his job as a dentist and became chief designer for the coachbuilder Pourtout, exploring his interest in aerodynamics, something that was in its infancy at that time. Towards the end the 1930s, he was hired by Rolls Royce Bentley and came up with arguably the most ravishing car ever created, the Bentley Corniche Embiricos, a swooping Art Deco beauty as streamlined as an airliner.
Had the war not intervened, it’s likely that Paulin would have gone on to even greater things but when the Nazis occupied France in 1940, he worked as a spy for the British, handing over whatever mechanical secrets he came across. Arrested in 1941 and unwilling to give up the names of his compatriots, he was executed in 1942.
His retractable roof design lived on. In 1957, Ford in America used it in the Fairlane Skyliner, which they advertised as ‘the world’s only hide-away hardtop’. It wasn’t a commercial success, especially with its vast boot needed to house the huge roof. But the idea resurfaced from thereon, becoming popular at the beginning of this century with carmakers like Ford and Mercedes using roofs that now folded into two or three pieces before sliding into the boot. The only niggle was that the rigidity of the metal roof and the flexibility of car bodies often meant the folding mechanism began to fail after time, leading to leaks and creaks. Today, the retractable roof is found mainly in hand-built luxury supercars.
It’s surprising that Paulin’s amazing journey from dental surgery to national hero by way of inspired engineering has never been made into a film. In the meantime, we are left with some of the world’s most beautiful car designs and an invention that always seems to bring out the sun.