Lyon’s architecture and its secrets: industrial and automotive heritage

Part 2/3. In the first half of the 20th century, the city of Lyon applied itself to four particularly innovative industrial sectors around the automobile, textile chemistry, pharmaceuticals and image. Industrial remains, often unknown, bear witness to this period, marked by the names of several great families, such as Berliet or Gillet.

In Lyon, the first half of the 20th century was marked by moderate population growth and rather weak economic growth. In the industrial sector, four sectors are particularly dynamic after the previous century: automotive, textile chemicals, pharmaceuticals and image.

Some of the great pioneer brands of the French automobile industry, such as Rochet-Schneider, Voisin, Berliet, were born in Lyon and made the city the capital of the automobile before 1914.

The silk industry suffered a desperate decline from the crisis of 1930-1931, but the invention of artificial silk allowed it to replace natural silk very quickly and was the origin of the large groups that dominated the textile industry for a long time (Rhodiaceta, Comptoir des Textiles Artificiels, now Rhône-Poulenc). In the field of pictures, at the end of the 19th century, the Lumière company was the leading producer of photographic plates in Europe. Brothers Auguste and Louis invented the cinematograph in 1895 and developed autochrome, which made color photography possible and was successfully marketed from 1907.

As for medical research, the Bacteriological Institute of Lyon, the future Pasteur Institute, and the Mérieux Institute, a pharmaceutical laboratory founded in 1897, developed many vaccines.

Metallurgy and the production of food products (such as Rivoire & Carret pasta in Vaise) are the incomes from these sectors of the industry that should be added, but also the activities that accompany the slaughterhouses (baby factories, tanneries) significant financial strength of the city.

Founded in Lyon in 1863, it was the culmination of Crédit Lyonnais, which in 1914 became the world’s leading bank. The stock exchange operates in a magnificent palace built by René Dardel during the reign of Napoleon III. It peaked from 1920 to the crash of 1929 with the rise of white coal in the Alps.

Lyon 8th
Past entrance of the Berliet factories

A dismantled old Berliet door from the 1920s has been rebuilt in the same way and bears the company logo © Nadège Druzkowski

20, rue de la Fraternité, the entrance to the last Simone-Veil school complex, is a reminder of the industrial past of this city block at the intersection of the Monplaisir and Bachut districts. Until the facility closed in 1987, the Berliet factory covered more than 2.7 hectares, one of the jewels of the automotive industry in the last century.

The history of the Berliet factory in Montplaisir began in 1902, when Marius Berliet bought the 5,000 m² Audibert and Lavirotte factories. Born in Lyon in 1866 into a conservative Catholic environment, Marius Berliet had an early interest in mechanics.

© Malartre Museum

In 1895, at the age of 29, he created his first car, the Pantoufle. At the end of 1899, he employed four workers and built six carts. From 1903 it produced large four-seaters that rivaled Rochet-Schneiders. In 1906, the Montplaisir factory had 500 employees and produced between 600 and 650 machines a year. In 1912, the second edition of the Monte Carlo rally was won by Berliet.

In 1912, a Berliet won the second edition of the Monte-Carlo Rallye © Fondation Berliet

In 1913, 3,500 cars rolled out of the Montplaisir factory – which at the time covered 48,000 m² and employed 4,000 workers – as well as the first carriages. That year, Berliet also won a military competition with a CBA truck. World War I dominated the automobile industry.

In 1914, the Ministry of War signed a contract with the Berliet company, and the company undertook to supply it with one hundred machines per month. By the end of 1915, war orders had increased significantly, and at least 15,000 CBA trucks were delivered to the army during the First World War.

In 1916, Marius Berliet established his main factory in Vénissieux-Saint Priest (now Renault Trucks) on a large plot of land, where an ultramodern production area was created.

The Monplaisir site continues to be a car and truck mechanic and assembly plant. In 1906, there was a school for drivers, and then in 1912, a school for students facilitating training in the automotive industry.

Did you know?

Abbreviation for car manufacturer Berliet…is a locomotive logo. Marius Berliet got his start in the industry in 1905 thanks to Alco, an American locomotive manufacturer who wanted to branch out into the automobile industry and bought him a license for three cars for 500,000 gold francs. As a tribute, it adopts the abbreviation of buffalo hunter locomotive.

Lyon 3
The old portal of the Rochet-Schneider factory

The portal is the work of architect Louis Payet © Nadège Druzkowski

At 49 rue Feuillat, the monumental ornate portal that now houses the training center for Tour de France companions is also one of the rare witnesses to the beginning of the automotive revolution. It is home to the Rochet-Schneider luxury car factory, installed in 1900. The architect Louis Payet, known for his industrial buildings, tested the project and signed the door in 1912. The famous Zénith carburetors were also invented here.

© Archives of the Berliet Foundation – Lyon

From the beginning, the Rochet-Schneider company gave its design workshops and laboratory to François Bavere, who developed a compensating jet carburetor that allowed a fuel flow strictly proportional to the car’s engine speed: the Zenith carburetor was patented in 1907. After the contract was signed. Between the Lyonnais carmaker and François Baverey, all models leaving the Rue Feuillat factories had a Zénith carburettor from 1908 onwards. Other automobile manufacturers adopted this carburetor, and in 1909 a special company was created for its production: Société du carburetor Zénith, which remained in the premises belonging to Rochet-Schneider.

In 1917, the entrance at 49 Feuillat became the headquarters of Zenith. Such was the success that by 1928 the single plant in Lyon was producing up to 110,000 carburetors per month. Zenit’s technology remained at the forefront of progress until World War II.

In 1963, Zénith sold its factory to Berliet, which became the Renault production site for industrial vehicles from 1978 to 2000.

Did you know?

The famous mechanic and driver, anarchist and criminal Jules Bonnot was the first to use a car during a grand heist in the 1910s. Before becoming “Public Enemy No. 1,” he was employed at the Rochet-Schneider factory, from where he went to a machine shop on the road to Vienna.

The old Tase factory

The former Tase factory in Vaulx-en-Velin is a remarkable example of industrial, monumental and urban architecture. Its facade, now listed, is inspired by the Art Deco style. Founded in 1923 by the Gillet group, it produced viscose derived from cellulose, leading to three distinct applications: rayon, industrial yarn and fibran. At its peak in 1929, the Tase factory employed 3,000 workers to operate twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, with up to 90% of the workforce being immigrant labor. The factory faced several crises in the 1930s, 1950s and 1970s until its final closure in 1980.

Villa Gillet, today a modern writing house, was built in 1912 by the Gillet family on a hill overlooking their former factory, now Gillet quai Gillet.

Picturesque houses of the “small town” of Vaulx-en-Veil

© Nadege Druzkowski

The history of the “small town” of Vaulx-en-Veil is directly related to the history of the neighboring Tase factory: ninety-seven houses were originally built to house the factory’s workers. The houses, all different, some with large pitched roofs, have a stunning Alsatian feel and benefit from a garden, which gives the whole area a wonderful country feel.

To discover this ensemble, there is nothing better than walking through the labyrinth of alleys in front of the war memorial, starting from the stadium, opposite the old factory.

The small town was built in 1924 on an area of ​​eleven hectares, ninety-seven semi-detached houses with 297 dwellings. To compensate for the low attractiveness of the proposed jobs and the isolation of the area, the factory offered very affordable rents, close to all shops and leisure activities (church, bar, cinema, dairy, butcher, hospital, baths, etc.).

The small town was located south of the Tase factory, downwind of the three large chimneys that dominated the industrial site. Residents of the viscose production district, which caused the release of acid-laden air, tried to hang their clothes until Sunday, when the production subsided, so as not to get too polluted or even have a hole!

After the construction of the big city and 500 residential buildings in 1926, the houses were reserved for craftsmen and skilled workers.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *