FOUESNANT, France — “Earns one?” I asked.
“Yez. Earns one. ‘Ask ze man who earns one.’ Zat is what ze publicité for ze Packard automobile hused to red.”
We went all the way to France to be reminded of one of the greatest advertising taglines in American history: Ask the man who owns one. By an affable Frenchman, whose broken English far outstripped our unintelligible French. A pinstriped, fedora-wearing fellow driving the pastel yellow 1937 Packard 115C convertible with a rumble seat I found myself rumbling in.
To be accurate, not rumbling — more like promenading rather smoothly. With a silent six burbling up ahead, photographer Tom Salt sitting on the front bench with our driver, and me in the trunk where the hideaway jump seat resides, we were traveling gently through the Finistère region of France as passengers of the Packard’s owner and antiques dealer, Hérve Corvec.
Corvec and his imposing Depression-era cruiser, a standard of American excellence from a time long past, were two high notes among many in a weekend so lovely I’ll never forget it. Cool ocean breezes tempered the warm temperatures. The scenery was colorful and unspoiled, with roads wending their way through ancient villages with edifices of rustic stone and plaster, then up and over the gentle, rolling hills of the impressive French countryside.
The coastal roads were filled with old cars, trucks, motorcycles, and amusing wheeled devices of every make, description, and hue. From French esoterica and farming vehicles to Bugatti race cars, from American muscle to microcars and mopeds, from military effluvia to pristine examples of the French, German, and English mainstreams of yesteryear. Everywhere, too, crowds of waving locals lined the pavement to cheer us on as if we were national heroes.
Owing to a chance introduction, the empty seats in Corvec’s car became our front-row tickets to the 36th annual Tour de Bretagne. That’s Brittany — as we Yanks know it — a so-called cultural region along France’s western-most coast below the fabled shores of Normandy, where the coastline helps define the southern-facing mouth of the English Channel. We came to know about this madcap annual happening after one of our readers bought a house in Brittany and stumbled upon the rally-cum-old-car-hoedown, which lasts two days and three nights. The tour, organized by a trio of regional antique car clubs, met in the village of Fouesnant in May 2016, and more than 700 vehicles showed up for what struck us as the most laid back and charming car event we’ve ever encountered.
Cars are clean and tidy, just as you’d expect. So are the commercial vehicles. The car-show people here are plenty weird just like collectors back home, but there’s something fundamentally different; they are less serious, less competitive, and less anal-retentive. On Saturday, we couldn’t help noticing the satanic alcohol spirits came out early and stayed out, which we suspect wasn’t unusual. Rillettes on toasted homemade brioche with a glass of hard cider to wash it down? It’s 10 a.m., don’t mind if we do. It led to an atmosphere of widespread relaxing, off-point conversation, and generous sharing of food. As an event, it was more like Mardi Gras than a car show, with pockets of drinking and heavy drinking, cross-dressing, and at least three people dressed as Super Mario.
But the tour is deeply rooted in the local love for les vehicules anciens, with eyeful after eyeful of cars we’d rarely seen, if ever, like Ford and Renault torpedoes, one from 1912, the other from 1913, and a Rosengart SuperTraction Cabriolet. It’s easy to forget what a tremendous contribution to automobiling France has made. In the industry’s earliest days, the French set the engineering pace for the world, and while it’s been an up and down ride ever since, they’ve made it into the new millennium by keeping it interesting and running against the grain. Even today, French carmakers’ reputation for iconoclasty and technological freestyling endures.
Beginning in the 1950s and ending in the early ’90s, many French automotive products were sold in the United States. None received the due they deserved, though in fairness sev-eral deserved none. Still, a number of amazing Citroëns, rad Renaults, and bumping Peugeots came to America. Many won passionate adherents, though “many” is a relative term. In the end, there were never enough paying customers for these characterful machines, rich though they were in idiosyncratic ecstasy and excess. The niche the French occupied in our market was rarely and barely profitable. From an American perspective, French cars started to fade away. We saw whiffs of Renault in the last-gen Nissan Versa, as well as the Jeep Cherokees of the ’80s and ’90s, but there’s been no real French noise in the U.S. since Renault sold AMC/Jeep to Chrysler in 1987 and Peugeot closed up shop here in 1991.
However, PSA Group — as the former Peugeot, owner of Citroën since the 1970s, is known today — announced in spring 2016 that it plans on returning to the U.S. after a quarter-century’s absence. Even given its status as the world’s ninth-largest and Europe’s second-biggest carmaker, a reintroduction to America won’t be easy and is far from assured. Having been bailed out of near bankruptcy in 2014 by the French government and Chinese automaker Dongfeng, which now each own a 14-percent stake (identical to that of the Peugeot family), PSA has managed to survive, becoming a fairly real player in Asia while shoring up its position in a Europe mired in recession.
Now comes, who knows why, designs on an American revival. PSA CEO Carlos Tavares said the company intends to establish a car-sharing and mobility services beachhead in Los Angeles in partnership with Bolloré Group, which operates electric car-sharing services in Paris and other cities. Inviting users to drive PSA products, this first step will allow the company to stay au courant with its industry and markets that have fixated on new and reimagined business models. The hope is such exposure will cultivate enthusiasm and word-of-mouth endorsements for the brand among future purchasers, who will be there for PSA if it eventually decides to expand to U.S. retail sales.
That’s some years out, though, so I arranged to travel to and from the rally in a borrowed 2016 DS5 to get a feel for the current range. DS is the new upscale brand PSA launched in 2009 with the goal of establishing a line above Peugeot and Citroën, image-wise. It’s thought to be the brand most logically suited to the stiff prices vehicles will need to command in the U.S. if they are to make money. The DS name references Citroën’s famous DS models of yore that were considered futuristic in their day. Today’s DS is not futuristic. Five years have passed since its release in Europe, and it is already tired, but this isn’t of significant consequence since we won’t see this DS5 in the U.S.
A little bit quirky but not unpleasant, the turbodiesel DS5 I piloted is a halfway decent Audi A3 or A4 competitor, though not as exciting or good enough. It’s hard to see something like this leading a sales charge in the U.S. without a price so low that it makes the whole exercise of selling it a self-inflicted wound of the first order. A better tool will be needed. Fortunately, the show field at Fouesnant reminded us what was once possible in France and, we hope, possible once again: Peugeot, Renault, Citroën, and less-common domestic stalwarts like Panhard and Matra, to lesser-known marques like Salmson, Hotchkiss, and Mathis to the ultimately obscure like Léon Paulet and Chenard & Walcker (winners of the first Le Mans.)
I’d come across a group of officers who’d be driving the route in a Renault Estafette law enforcement van, a charmingly homely front-driver from the early ’60s, with a loudspeaker blaring instructions. One of the gendarme attached to the Estafette stopped me on foot to advise that while drinking and driving were ordinarily against the law, today they would be mandatory. Once underway, various people would stop us and invite us over for a drink, he warned, and it was incumbent upon us as visitors to their country to accept their offers. I asked Corvec if the policeman was kidding, and he said they weren’t policemen at all; they were locals dressed in period costume. He acknowledged, however, a certain underlying truth to their message. A few hours later, we saw the police van pogoing down the road with the faux officers hanging off it in a most unprofessional way.
Late in the afternoon, we joined the faux policemen and others for an oh-so-French picnic. The feast was spread out before us on a woolen blanket over the hood of a dark but shiny red Jowett Jupiter, which for the first time ever didn’t look weird to me but rather beautiful. Alongside it was a Jaguar XK140 set next to a Volvo 1800 ES, a 1930s Dodge pick-up with Indian motorcycle livery, a big Triumph motorcycle from the 1960s, a 1930s Model A Ford, a ’30s Hotchkiss cabriolet with a dog standing peaceful watch, and an ’80s Austin FX4 London taxi. Elsewhere, dozens of other similarly eclectic gatherings were unfolding. The policemen followed their own admonition to drink early and often, with slightly scary results. Their likely pre-fascist tendencies aside, they remind us that the French are different than we are, and so are their cars. Let’s hope it stays that way.