PARIS, France — As a confirmed (certifiable?) enthusiast of old weird cars, it seems implausible that I’ve let 39 editions of Retromobile Exhibition pass without ever attending one. This annual four-day exposition is to vintage-transportation obsessives like me what CES is to techies, or more apropos, what Comic-Con International is to nerds.
This year I finally made the pilgrimage to this famous event in Paris, and I’ve been asked to report on the 10 coolest things I saw there. Are you kidding? That’s like limiting a competitive eater to 10 hot dogs. I have done my best, however, to narrow down things down a bit. Passez la moutarde, s’il vous plait.
1.) I saw an actual Pegaso for the first time, and the show hadn’t even started. I snooped around the perimeter of the vast exhibition space at Porte de Versailles Expo the day before the official kickoff of Retromobile and witnessed a 1951 Pegaso Z-102 being driven into the building. Then considered the most expensive car in the world, the Spanish-built Pegaso made contemporary Ferraris seem like pickup trucks. Alas, Pegaso production by the truck and bus manufacturer whose name it bore lasted only until 1958 and just 86 cars were built. Speaking of boars, another Pegaso at Retromobile was displayed at a stand promoting upcoming old car events in Spain. The man in the booth was giving away samples of “jambon iberico,” ham from Spain. He spent hours discussing the glory of vintage car conclaves in Barcelona and Madrid while deftly slicing wafer-thin pig bits. The subtext of his endeavor seemed to be, “Come for the cars, stay for the ham.” Or was it the other way around?
2.) Retromobile eve found me at the sumptuous headquarters of L’Automobile Club de France, which is located on the swanky Place de la Concorde in an actual palace where the ACF moved four years after its founding in distant 1895. It was the perfect setting for a banquet held by the Society of Automotive Historians, of which I am a card-carrying member. There I met fellow bow-tie aficionado Bryan Goodman, just over from England. His interest in old cars (really, really old cars) has been a lifelong passion. He mentioned that he has been a participant for no less than 50 successive years in the annual London to Brighton Veteran Car Run for vehicles built no later than 1905, about 30 editions of which he has driven in his French-built 1904 CGV H1 Phaeton. It was also at this dinner that I met up with AUTOMOBILE’s own Robert Cumberford. We discussed the design illustrations he contributed to the January 1961 issue of ESQUIRE, with which he suggested how American-built compact cars might be the basis for sporty cars. And Lee Iacocca takes credit for the 1964 Ford Mustang?
3.) Citroën, Peugeot, and Renault had show stands to connect their heritage with their contemporary products, as did Bugatti, Jaguar/Land Rover, Mercedes-Benz, and Porsche. The star of the Renault display — both literally and figuratively — was Etoile Filante (“shooting star”), a brilliant little land-speed record car for the gas-turbine class that sported an elegant logo and outrageous fins. In 1956 it achieved an FIA-certified record of 191 mph on the Bonneville Salt Flats. At the time, this was a great promo for the Renault Dauphine, then the No. 2 import model in America, just behind the Volkswagen Beetle. These days the only French-built cars sold in the U.S. come from Smart and Bugatti. (There’s a message in here about extremes and French design.)
4.) Also of decidedly Gallic origin was the Pathe-Marconi Super Car, only in this case, “car” is the French term for “bus.” This is really a streamlined cab and trailer commissioned in 1955 by France’s leading producer of phonograph records. The design is amazingly modern, on par with the 1940-’46 GM Futurliner buses that appeared at General Motors’ promotional exhibitions known as the “Parade of Progress.” It came from the brilliant imagination of unheralded designer Philippe Charbonneaux, and the show stand included a few of his similarly adventurous designs for other products, including a space-age refrigerator, a far-out television and several other car designs. Pathe used the Super Car to promote its recording artists at various events; the trailer was equipped as a sumptuous lounge complete with an upper observation deck. Who knows what trouble Edith Piaf, the chanteuse chanson known as the “Little Sparrow,” got into back there?
5.) Retromobile is a place to discover cars you never knew existed. For instance, tucked away in a remote corner were pieces from the collection of Marco Gastaldi of Monaco. These included a Bentley Mark VI (1946-1952), a Hispano-Suiza Type 49H (1922-1930), and a Sunbeam Venezia with Touring bodywork (1963-1968). There was also a 1963 Sunbeam Imp concept designed and built by Zagato on speculation (one of three, as Rootes didn’t go for a production model). This car has a Zagato-style “Z” juxtaposed with the Imp logo on the rear deck, so it is widely known as the “Zimp.” Only at Retromobile.
6.) How about a Red Army T-34 tank from World War II on a stand that included a massive pile of rubble meant to recall the fall of Berlin? Yes, this was part of Retromobile, and it was as impressive and scary as only a Soviet-era armored vehicle can be. This display was a significant distance from the Mercedes-Benz stand, so one hopes that whatever “unpleasantness” this exhibit might have caused would have been minimal. Can’t we all just get along?
7.) One juxtaposition that spoke to us started on the Bugatti stand. Volkswagen’s pampered French pet presented just two cars, an ordinary Veyron 16.4 and the Vision Gran Turismo concept. Right across the aisle was an 1885 Amedee Bollee Diligence du Marquis de Broc, an early 18-passenger, steam-powered bus. It stands as high as a two-story building, is driven from above like a ferry boat, while the boiler and its smokestack is located amidships. Self-propelled transportation was born in France, and the contrast of today’s aero-designed Bugatti and its upright precursor speaks volumes about how far we’ve come over the last 145 years.
8.) We didn’t see many examples of the French-built Facel Vega (1954-1964), nor any examples of the Ohio-built Chevy Vega (1971-1977) for that matter. FACEL is an acronym for Forges et Ateliers de Construction d’Eure-et-Loir (aren’t you glad you asked?), which built bodies for Bentley and Simca before creating its own ultra prestigious Chrysler-powered grand touring car. These automobiles have unimaginable presence — not gaudy like American luxury cars of the time, far from staid like their British counterparts, and not clinical like the Germans. Despite the Hemi V-8 under the hood, the early Vega encapsulated the assured, understated essence of French luxury and savoir faire. To see one is always memorable, and I encountered at least nine over the course of Retromobile. Artcurial, the French auction house, sold a 1954 prototype of the Vega for a record $565,500 at its Retromobile auction. Worth it? Mais oui, if you have l’argent.
9.) Vintage motoring hobbyists (and the automobile industry as a whole) are concerned about transforming young people into car enthusiasts, and that’s understandable. YOUNGTIMERS is a French magazine now publishing its 62nd issue that speaks to younger enthusiasts of older cars. Its focus is cars of 1970s-1990s. The magazine had its own show stand and hustled subscriptions to the crowd against a backdrop of terrific cars from 1976, including an Alfa Romeo Alfasud, Alpine A310, BMW 6 Series, Citroën CX, Mercedes-Benz W123, Renault 14, and VW Golf GTI. Magazine publisher Francois-Xavier Basse described his magazine for us: “It’s like Old Timers but for younger people.” Oh yeah, we get it now.
10.) Eccentric offerings are nothing new for Retromobile Exhibition, but this year’s “Les Rhomboids” was arguably the strangest gathering ever of alternatively formatted four-wheelers. This time it was a diamond-pattern layout, with a single wheel on each side, plus one front and rear as well. Philippe Charbonneaux’s Ellipsis was part of the group, as was l’Automodule, which is essentially a transparent globe on wheels that can literally run in circles.
11.) Cut me some slack; I can’t stop at just 10! The auctions were shows within the show. Artcurial held its event in the great exhibition hall itself, Bonhams held its event in the breathtaking setting of Le Grand Palais, and RM Sotheby’s had an elegant tent by the River Seine. Worthy of special mention was the Citroen-only auction, which offered 54 cars that represented the collection of Andre Trigano, the founder of Club Med. We spent more than two hours in the company of many examples of the 1920s Torpedo, pre- and post-war Traction Avant, Ami 6, DS, Mehari, SM and, of course, Deux Chevaux. Of the latter, the most noteworthy was the very last car across the auction block, a 1961 2CV Sahara, one of fewer than 700 2CV built with a motor in the front and another in the back (a total of four air-cooled cylinders!). Not a bargain at $193,000, but who’s counting besides us? By the way, Artcurial sold the 1957 Ferrari 355 S with which Sterling Moss won the 1958 Grand Prix of Cuba for a record-breaking $36,230,000, but it only has one engine, so really not much of a good deal to our way of thinking.
Just after we finishing packing for the flight home, we encountered a pack of vintage-era Fiat Cinquecentos rolling down the street led by a Ferves Ranger, arguably the strangest Fiat 500-based vehicle of all time. Just 600 of these micro-size SUVs were built between 1966 and 1971, and it’s thought that fewer than 50 survive. One was sold at auction just last year for the equivalent of $47,000.
Lucky you, we shot video of it roaring off the line: Fiat 500 rally on the streets of Paris.