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The Unfortunate Death of M. Deperdussin...

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The Unfortunate Death of Armand Deperdessin

The following is (for the most part), word-for-word from "The Speed Seekers", 1974


The story of the SPAD-Deperdussin Racers had an improbable beginning in 1909 with a middle-aged silk merchant, originally from Lyon, who had come to Paris from a Brussels silk firm at the turn of the century and in the intervening years, with great charm and persuasiveness, amassed a fortune. Success only made him audacious and he expanded his interests into other enterprises, always on the look-out for novel promotional innovations. It occurred to him that to exhibit an aeroplane-in those days a distinct curiosity-at the Bon Marche' Store might help draw large crowds to his window displays. But how to get one? They were scarcely an off-the-shelf item.


He visited engineer Louis Bechereau, then twenty-nine, at his small firm only recently co-founded with the nephew of Clement Ader, bearing the name Societe' de Construction d'Appareils Aeriens. For Bechereau, the visit of the flamboyant merchant brought a gust of heady excitement. Deperdussin wanted his airplane fast: the deadline was Christmas. This took some doing, but when Christmas arrived, the first of Deperdussin's fabulous racers was ensconced among the Christmas toys. Bechereau, who had acquired a lifelong interest in speed, and had a few novel ideas of his own, found the unlimited financial backing of Deperdussin a godsend.


Their next plane was built at Bethany, near Rheims, where the firm had been re-organized in 1910 as Societe' pour le Appareils Deperdussin-or simply, SPAD. In 1912, at about the time Bechereau was perfecting a technically giant monocoque form of construction, a young engineering graduate name Andre' Herbemont was hired as Chief Carpenter.


M. Deperdussin, meanwhile, had purchased the airfields at Etampes, Villacoublay and Rheims, and was busy as a benefactor to the classic Gordon Bennett aeroplane races. It was for these races that Bechereau, together with the Dutch designer Fritz Koolhoven, fashioned a series of speed planes destined to stand as the most important pre-war types. The man who translated Bechereau's ideas into beautiful hardware was Spad's long-time unsung shop foreman, a man named M.Papa.


A Deperdussin produced by this team won handily in 1912 and M. Deperdussin was awarded the Legion d'honneur. The following year, Bechereau assigned young Herbemont his first major task: to design a set of smaller wings for the 1913 Deperdussin racer. But, the wings turned out so small that Becereau decided against using them. On a brisk, clear September morning, young Herbemont clocked the rival Ponnier monoplane which seemed to be faster than the Deperdussin. Suddenly alarmed, and acting on his own initiative, he quickly fitted the smaller set of wings to the F.1 racer. The result was an impressive victory, marking the first time in history that a person had exceeded two miles per minute. In addition, this climaxed a series of ten consecutive World's Speed Records that lifted the bar from 90.14, to 126.59 mph, set by Deperdussin. (1913)


The flavor of triumph, however, had a sour taste. A few days previously, M. Deperdussin had been arrested on the shattering revelation of swindles involving 28,000,000 francs. (at the time over $6,000,000) The great Deperdussin racers had been financed with stolen money and 'le bon patron' received his Gordon Bennett victory congratulations in prison.


It seems he had developed expensive tastes, and, in addition to funding competitions such as the Gordon Bennett Cup, he entertained lavishly. The trading arm of the Comptoir Industrial et Colonial Bank claimed that he funded this by fraudulently borrowing from them using forged receipts from his silk business as security. He remained incarcerated for four years until he was brought to trial in 1917. Although it was claimed that he used much of the money to develop France's aviation expertise, he was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison, but as a concession for first offenders he was reprieved ("sursis") and released immediately, but it ruined him completely. His company went into liquidation, his fortune turned to ashes, and on June 11, 1924, in a dingy hotel on the Rue St. Lazare in Paris, Armand Deperdussin shot himself.

Deperdussin Racer.jpg


Edited by Hauksbee

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Yup, it's an interesting story that might have been taken from today's headlines. The splash of Deperdussin's fall cast wide ripples throughout the French aviation industry, too. Thanks for posting.

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The splash of Deperdussin's fall cast wide ripples throughout the French aviation industry, too.

Sort of the Bernie Madoff of his day. Still, it paved the way for Louis Bleriot to buy the remains of the company and create the SPAD of WWI.

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