WHEN Jim Merrington bought a four-seater vintage car so he could take grandchildren for a drive, he had no idea how his life was about to change.

Eleven years and £80,000 down the road, the 70-year-old is the proud owner of a one-of-a-kind Twenties Delage DI Series 5, which he has driven across Europe in a one-man quest to unearth the car’s fascinating history of Russian revolution, Nazi cover-ups, devoted restoration and a brush with the Spanish police.

Mr Merrington’s beloved Delage and an exhibition of his discoveries about its past and creator will be on display at Brancepeth Village Hall, County Durham, tomorrow.

The retired brewery director, from Brancepeth, said: “Buying a car these days can hardly be described as a life changing experience, unless it happens to be a 1926 Delage built by Louis Janoir.

“It has been a lifechanging experience for me.

We’ve travelled all over Europe and made friends around the world. I’ve been into cars my whole life, but nothing like this.”

The car was built by the French firm Delage in 1926, with a chassis designed by Parisian aviation pioneer Louis Janoir.

Born in Bourgogne in 1885, Janoir made several attempts at the world height record before helping establish the Russian air force and building 1,000 First World War fighter planes.

When peacetime came, he turned to automobiles, creating aeroplane-like aluminium bodies at least 20 years ahead of their time.

During the Second World War, Janoir was involved in anti-Nazi industrial espionage and was forced to flee.

Despite his engineering genius, only three of his Delage cars survive: in Biarritz, France, Wijk en Aalburg, the Netherlands, and Brancepeth.

Mr Merrington’s car’s first owner was Louis Michon, a French civil servant, whose family hid it away deep in the Pyrenees to prevent it being stolen by Nazi looters.

By the Sixties, it had found its way to Switzerland, where it was restored.

It was brought to the UK by collector Terry Cohn, who paid about 50,000 Euros for it in 1999.

Mr Merrington, a former North-East journalist, said: “I owned a few vintage cars but I could only get one grandchild in at a time.

“They persuaded me I needed a bigger car, so they could all get in.”

The purchase launched an ongoing labour-of-love restoration project and a Europe-wide search to uncover the vehicle’s past, which has taken Mr Merrington to the continent at least eight times. He has also met descendants of Janior and Delage, Princess Elizabeth of Chimay, who inspected the car at her chateau, and was stopped by Spanish police, although only so they could be photographed with the vehicle.

Mr Merrington’s exhibition is open tomorrow, from 10am to 4pm. Entry is free.

His self-published book, Aeroplanes to Automobiles: the Genius of Janoir, is priced £20.

For a copy, email jpmerrington@aol.com