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Adolphe Kegresse and The Half Track.


1. Adolphe Kegresse at the wheel of one of the Tsar's "Benz's".

2. Tsar Nicholas II of Russia.

3. A Kegresse test "mule" in Russia.

4. From left to right: The Three Musketeers; André Citroën, Adolphe Kégresse and Jacques Hinstin

5. A Kegresse Track Assembly.

6. A Kegresse modified Citroen P. 17 Truck.

7. A Citroen P17 Half Track of the 1930's

8. The M-3 Half Track as used by the American to liberate France from the evil Boche.

French Engineer Adolphe Kegresse was born in Héricourt, Haute – Saône in the French Alps, near the Swiss border. The snowy conditions of his home gave him a unique appreciation for the problems of traction and handling on slick surfaces. After an education at Montbeliard nearby, he joined the military where he served as an engineer. In 1905 Kegresse moved to St. Petersburg, Russia to become personal chauffeur to Tsar Nicholas II and later head of the Mechanical Department of the Russian Imperial Garage at Tsarskoye Selo, near St. Petersburg.[1]

It was in 1911 while in the employ of the Tsar that Kegresse made his first and most famous invention – the half-track. The tracked assembly comprised a bogie fitted to the rear axle with a larger drive wheel at the front end and an idler wheel at the rear with several smaller wheels in between. A reinforced flexible belt ran over the assembly and included rubber or metal treads for traction. Contrary to conventional metal tracks which would first be put to use in the first tanks during WW1, Kegresse’s use of rubber gave more grip on snow and ice. If desired, small skis could be fitted to the front wheels of the car turning it into a sled.[2]

Tsar Nicholas II was an avid car aficionado and collector. During Kegresse's tenure, his fleet numbered 21 vehicles. There was one driver for each motorcar, and a budget of 126,000 roubles ($1,260,000 today) to maintain the garage for the year. As the Tsar's automotive obsession became more and more costly and complaints from all corners of government increased, management of the fleet was attacked continuously by fault-finding commissions. Increasingly frustrated, Kegresse repeatedly asked to retire.[3]But he was begged to stay on by the Tsar’s Aide de Camp Crown Prince Vladimir Nikolayevich Orlov who opined in a letter to his sovereign,

“... I consider Kegresse, an irreplaceable worker and I am afraid his leaving will be a great loss for the garage. Your Highness knows, of course, how much His Majesty appreciates Kegresse."[4]

Kegresse hung on until after the Russian Revolution when he returned to his homeland and the employ of Citroën. His track system however lived on in Russia on the army’s Austin-Putilov armored cars used in the First World War and the Russian Civil War. Furthermore, the system was installed on Lenin’s Rolls Royce Silver Ghost by the Putilov (Later Kirov) Plant.[5]The industrial complex was famous for riots that set in motion the 1917 February Revolution and later for the production of KV-1 Tanks during WW II.[6]

Meanwhile back in France, Kegresse together with Jacques Hinstin adapted the track system to various Citroën vehicles including the Citroën P17 truck.[7]As an opportunity to showcase the capabilities of Kegresse’s innovation and the toughness of Citroën vehicles in general, André Citroën decided to undertake several grueling cross-country expeditions in Africa, Asia, and Canada called Crosière Noire, Crosière Jaune, and Crosière Blanche respectively. [8]

The Crosière Noire was initially to start on January 6, 1924, in Colomb - Béchar in Algeria and ​ultimately reach Timbuktu. Media attention was high as World War I hero and General Philippe Petain, King Albert I of Belgium as well as Mr. Théodore Steeg, the governor of Algeria, were to take part in the expedition alongside Mr. and Mrs. André Citroën. But on January 2nd, Citoën abruptly announced that the undertaking was canceled. The military authorities had let him know that due to a high risk of armed insurrection in southern Algeria the security of the participants could not be guaranteed. Citroën was forced to liquidate a company specially founded for the undertaking and to sell off the specially prepared Citroën Kegresse Half-Tracks.

Increasingly however Citroën doubted the security concerns put forward by the military. Travelers coming back from southern Algeria mentioned no hint of rebellion and Citroën began to suspect that his old rival Louis Renault had concocted the whole thing. Renault too had mounted a trans-Africa expedition with Renault built 6x6 trucks called the Second Gradis Mission which had left the Foreign Legion Fort at Colomb - Bechar that past November. It seems he paid off some contacts in the government to nix Citroën’s effort in fear that the Kegresse Half-Tracks would out-perform his trucks. (In fact, it is possible that Renault knew the Citroen Half Tracks were superior as they had already been used by Jean Batiste Eugène Estienne in the First Gradis Mission underwritten by Gaston Gradis and his Compagnie Générale Transaharienne in 1923)

Ever undaunted and now determined to beat Louis Renault, Citroën envisioned an even more ambitious project. Instead of just going from Colomb - Béchar to Timbuktu, a mere 2316.3 km, the expedition would now traverse the whole African continent from north to south and then continue over to Madagascar. Eight half-tracks converted by Kegresse and Jacques Hinstin covered the 20,000 km to complete the voyage. The cooling system was reinforced to stand up to the tropical heat with an evaporator tank over the radiator as well as additional radiator cores placed laterally below the body of the car. A six-speed transmission replaced the standard three-speed, and a locking mechanism was added to the center differential. Finally, the ground clearance was increased by around two centimeters.

The Citroën Half-Tracks did very well in the Sahara, but as they entered central Africa things got more complicated. The expedition had to cut its way through the jungle with machetes and navigate hostile regions populated by the Mursi, famous for lip plates[9]and the Aniotas in the Belgian Congo known at “Leopard Men” suspected of cannibalism.[10]

Finally, after nearly 9,000 km and five months on the road, they reached Stanleyville where they spent eleven days resting. From there they continued to Kampala, at which point the expedition split into four groups. Each one had two cars with the aim to reach the Indian Ocean at Antananarivo on Madagascar. According to English authorities, it was this last stage of the journey that was the most dangerous but on June 26, 1925, after 28,000 km all members of the expedition made it to Madagascar each by different routes.[11]

As could have been expected from a French expedition, André Citroën, and Georges - Marie Haardt knew from experience how important a proper “chuck wagon” would be to the smooth running of the undertaking. Under the expert direction of head chef Yves Gauffreteau, a steady stream of delicacies was offered, taking into account the local food culture although fresh foodstuffs were often unavailable.[12]

The members of the expedition returned to Paris in fall of 1925 and were welcomed as heroes. The half-track vehicles were shown in various expositions, most notably at the Louvre. On a scientific level, the expedition was an immense success with 300 botanical specimens, 15 binders containing samples and sketches of more than 300 mammals, 800 birds, and 1,500 insects mostly never before recorded.[13]

The French Geography Society had supported the expedition from the beginning and had encouraged the scientists to document their voyage via photography and videography. Specifically, they hoped to record different cultures and their customs. By the end of the expedition, 27 kilometers of film and 6,000 photos had been produced. Leon Poirier compiled a seventy-minute documentary film from those reels that premiered on March 2, 1926 and was hailed as a way for the people to discover the beauties of the French Empire.[14]

The 100,000 pounds it had cost André Citroën to put the whole adventure together were returned ten if not one- hundred-fold in Citroën sales. Eager for more adventure, Citroën mounted two similar expeditions in Asia and Canada in the 1930s called Croisière Jaune[15]and Croisière Blanche[16]respectively. The first was an attempt by George-Marie Haardt to open the Silk Road to car travel and covered 13,000 kilometers from Beirut to Beijing. One team lead by Haardt would start from Beirut and the other from Tianjin in China. Both would meet in Xinjiang and continue to Beijing together. After multiple mishaps including a revolution in Afghanistan and civil war in China both groups finally reached Peking on February 12, 1932.[17]

Despite the travails of the journey Haardt, Louis Audouin-Dubreuil and Victor Point were eager to continue to Shanghai, and eventually Haiphong and Hong Kong. However, on March 3, 1932, Georges Marie Haardt began to complain of ill health and expedition doctor Delastre diagnosed him with a slight cold. This was not overly surprising to Haardt as he had been susceptible to bronchial problems since childhood and had suffered terribly while crossing China in winter. However, on the group’s arrival in Hong Kong on March 12th, Haardt was bedridden and the local government doctor Professor Gerrard diagnosed him with heavy flu and advised three weeks of bed rest. By Tuesday, March 15th, however, Haardt’s situation had deteriorated to Pneumonia. On March 16 the at 3h40 the leader of the expedition died.[18]

The Canadian expedition Croisière Blanche started full of hope after the successes of the African and Asian excursions. Charles Bedaux had taken over as the leader from the deceased Georges - Marie Haardt departed from Edmonton with seventeen people including his wife and his mistress. But, alas, even the Citroën Half-tracks were no match for the Canadian mud and the whole undertaking was abandoned on August 16, 1934. The somewhat dejected “ménage à trois” and their entourage returned to Edmonton on October 24th, 1934 on horseback and by train.[19]

There would be no more expeditions, but much of what was learned on the three Croisières benefited the French scientific community immensely. For André Citroën however they were a two-edged sword. On the one hand, they served as a great advertising vehicle for the company and increased sales exponentially, but they also instigated a wave of innovations that would ultimately bankrupt the company. By 1935 Citoën was forced to cede his beloved factory on the Quai De Javel to his largest creditor; Michelin.[20]

Kegresse passed away in 1943 but not before seeing the US military license his invention for the M-3 Half Track; an armored personnel carrier that would soon help liberate his home country from the evil Boche.[21]

In the mid-thirties Kegresse patented another invention that may by now have become more ubiquitous than the half-track. It can be heard on modern city streets every day. Many German cars of late have taken to emitting a slightly flatulent sound from their exhausts while shifting gears under power. The "fartiness" is due to a millisecond hesitation in the fuel flow to give the automated transmission time to shift. Not necessary on a regular automatic with a torque converted where shifts happen at a much more leisurely pace, they are however crucial to the workings of a Direct Shift Transmission. Called PDK by Porsche and DSG by the cousins in Ingolstadt and Wolfsburg, few people know the innovation was initially devised by Adolphe Kegresse. Racers like Audi Group B legends Walter Röhrl and Michelle Mouton as well as Porsche endurance racers such as Derek Bell and Stefan Bellof achieved much of their speed thanks to the man from the Haute – Saone, but that story is for another day.

Adolphe Kegresse at the wheel of one of the Tsar's "Benz's".






















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