September 14: A Day For Remembering The Amilcar And An American Legend

1921 Amilcar
On this night, 83 years ago, the world focused its attention on the death of one of the 20th century’s most important artists, dancer Isadora Duncan. Also in the spotlight: the car that brought about her demise: an Amilcar.

Thumbnail image for Isadora Duncan

Long story short: Duncan was famous for her dramatic clothing, especially her long, flowing scarves. On the night of September 14, 1927, Duncan hopped in her convertible, and as the driver took off, her silk scarf became wrapped in the spokes of the rear wheel. Within seconds, she was lifted from her seat and hurled to the cobblestones, dragged for some distance before the driver fully realized what had happened. At just 50 years old, she was pronounced dead at the scene.

Duncan was born in America, but felt too confined here, and spent most of her adulthood in Europe. She was a fiercely romantic figure and something of an icon — especially among gay men and lesbians. (Duncan was also openly bisexual, having had a lengthy affair with author Mercedes de Acosta, among others.) She’s the stuff of legend.

Many people think that Duncan drove off in a Bugatti on the evening of her death, but that’s probably because “Bugatti” was her pet name for her (younger) Italian lover, who happened to be a mechanic and may have been driving the car. There is also some confusion about her last words, which were reportedly “Je vais a la gloire”, or “I am going to glory”, which would be both ironic and tragic. Other sources say her last words were “Je vais a l’amour”, or “I am going to love”, which obviously didn’t come to pass. At least not that night.

There’s no such confusion about the Amilcar, though. Founded in 1921 by two Frenchmen, Amilcar began as a sporty, racy brand and remained so for its short lifespan. Though Amilcar’s vehicles looked great, they were plagued by mechanical problems. (Not to mention some obvious flaws in wheel design.) The company merged with Hotchkiss in 1937, but both folded two years later when World War II broke out on the Continent.The Amilcar never acclaimed the status or notoriety of its competitors, but the world’s love of Isadora Duncan (and Italian mechanics) lives on.

If you’ve got nothing better to do on this Tuesday, you might enjoy skimming this notice of her death, which ran in the New York Times.

PARIS, FRANCE — Isadora Duncan, the American dancer, tonight met a tragic death at Nice on the Riviera. According to dispatches from Nice Miss Duncan was hurled in an extraordinary manner from an open automobile in which she was riding and instantly killed by the force of her fall to the stone pavement.

Affecting, as was her habit, an unusual costume, Miss Duncan was wearing an immense iridescent silk scarf wrapped about her neck and streaming in long folds, part of which was swathed about her body with part trailing behind. After an evening walk along the Promenade de Anglais about 10 o’clock, she entered an open rented car, directing the driver to take her to the hotel where she was staying.

As she took her seat in the car neither she nor the driver noticed that one of the loose ends fell outside over the side of the car and was caught in the rear wheel of the machine.

Dragged Bodily From the Car.

The automobile was going at full speed when the scarf of strong silk suddenly began winding around the wheel and with terrific force dragged Miss Duncan, around whom it was securely wrapped, bodily over the side of the car, precipitating her with violence against the cobblestone street. She was dragged for several yards before the chauffeur halted, attracted by her cries in the street.

Medical aid immediately was summoned, but it was stated that she had been strangled and killed instantly.

This end to a life full of many pathetic episodes was received as a great shock in France, where, despite her numerous eccentric traits, Miss Duncan was regarded as a great artist. Her great popularity in France was increased by the entire nation’s sympathy when in 1913 her two young children also perished in an automobile tragedy. The car in which they had been left seated started, driverless, down a hill and plunged over a bridge into the Seine River.

Copyright © New York Times, Sep 15, 1927