Extra wheels notwithstanding, makers of internal combustion-powered autos had enough on their hands—so much so, that one seldom thinks of quality control in those early years. Yet, such makes as Pierce-Arrow, Cadillac and Rolls-Royce had already established the upper reaches of finish and soundness of construction. While such popular songs as ‘He’ll Have to Get Under/ Get Out and Under/ To Fix Up His Automobile’ related the woes met by the owner of the average car of the time, most such autos were simply temperamental, and a few minutes of soiling one’s shirt under the car would get the vehicle rolling again.
However, the make knows as Le Zèbre was, in its own humble way, a portable disaster. That this pitiable little car greatly resembled the idiosyncratic 1924 Amilcar driven by Jacques Tati’s Monsieur Hulot in Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday is no surprise. The two cars had a designer in common—Jules Salomon, who should have excluded small cars from his otherwise successful design portfolio.
To begin with, Le Zèbre had an inadvantageous drive train design: the engine, clutch housing and gearbox were cast in one unit. All too often, engine oil ran back through the clutch to the gearbox, and the unit had to be drained every 50 miles (80 km).
That in itself would be unfortunate, but not insurmountable. Le Zèbre also tended to lose its wheel nuts in transit. Besides the obvious shock of having one or several of the car’s wheels fly off on a public thoroughfare, there was the danger of personal injury; injury to an innocent bystander or a fellow motorist; and property damage suits resulting from destruction caused by the errant wheel or wheels—not to mention the automobile itself, as it careened out of control.
Le Zèbre did have its odd dependability, however. Its axle shafts broke regularly every 200 miles (322 km). Altogether, this innocuous and sprightly-seeming little car was not for the light of spirit—unless such a person were seeking the depths of depression.
Perhaps its name was an allusion to the frequent occasions of darkness that punctuated the ‘light’ periods when it hadn’t caused an accident. For the record, the first Le Zèbre had a 37.5-cubic-inch (616 cc) single-cylinder, water-cooled engine developing six hp. This was mated to a two-speed transmission. The first body style offered was a two-seater, and a four-seater was added to the line the following year. These early cars weighed 770 pound (350 kg) and could attain 28 mph (45 kph).
These were followed by the similar Model C. This car developed six hp with a 47.9-cubic-inch (785 cc) four-cylinder engine. It was the smallest production four-cylinder car. It is said that the make’s ‘classic’ period began in 1916.
The last Le Zèbres , designed in 1919 for model year 1920, featured a 99-inch (2.5-meter) wheelbase, with both one-seater torpedo (narrow and rounded at both ends) and two-seater, deluxe, body styles. Power was provided by a 7.5-horsepower four-cylinder engine of 61 cubic inches (one liter) capacity, attached to a four-speed gearbox.
Le Zèbre cars were cheap, and therefore, they sold despite their flaws. Even at that, the market dropped off, and the Le Zèbre Company decided that size, not quality control, was the answer to their plunging profit margin. In 1920, the company dropped its small-car line and opted to build larger cars that apparently sold well enough to keep the business going until 1930.