Showrooms on the Champs-Elysées

Peugeot 406 coupe
Italian design gives French cars... Italian flair.

For Car Nuts and People Who Know How
to Come In Out of the Rain

Paris:- Wednesday, 19. November 1997:- I planned doing this a couple of days ago and so the dark overcast and the light rain falling on the Champs-Elysées when I arrive are perfect.

It is not as if I've been wracking my brains for some new angle to work here. Monday's Le Parisien had a full-page ad inviting everybody to the Cour de Rome in front of the Gare Saint-Lazare, to see Mercedes' new 'Smart' car, and with all the publicity about their other new one - the idea to tour the auto showrooms just came.

Most of the time I am hustling up the métro escalator at Etoile, finding the week's posters for the camera, and dumping myself down the stairs at métro George V. without much further ado.

The Champs-Elysées is all sorts of things to Paris. It is a bit of Times Square, Kurfurstendamm, any Broadway, Gran Via and all the others Peugeot showroom rolled into one - plus it is the black and white background in the film 'Au Bout de Souffle' - Breathless. Do you remember the shiny cars in the background?

Peugeot's showplace looks like a car showroom and not like a fast food takeway joint.

When it is raining there are cafés and restaurants - more of them than one tends to notice - and movie houses, which have original foreign-language films, and there are shopping arcades and airline offices, and even a couple of dull banks.

Except for the cafés, restaurants and the avenue itself, pretty much everything else you see on the Champs-Elysées are things you can see somewhere else in the world, or have seen before.

Everything except for the automobile showrooms. Three on the Champs-Elysées have French cars in them, and one has a German make. On a darkly overcast and rainy day, these are dry and well-lit.

If you are European, most of the cars on display will likely be familiar; although at the moment, there are a couple of new models - having their premieres now. For non-Europeans, French cars may be a novelty - although I will say right off that they are not quite so eccentric as some of them used to be.

Basically, there are two kinds of French automobiles. One kind are made by the state-owned manufacturer, Renault. The other kind are made by the private company, Peugeot. Cars made by either company have about the same motors, the same model lines, the same numbers of doors and the same numbers of wheels. They also are mostly just about the same colors. This is more of less true for all of the world's major automobile manufacturers. You have a lot of choice of the same thing.

However, there is only one Champs-Elysées. I always start at Etoile because the rest of the avenue is downhill from here. Facing Concorde, the first auto showroom is on the left, and it belongs to Peugeot.

It is a big showroom with lots of glass street-front. There is a good selection of Peugeot's various models and a handful of browsers are slamming doors and kicking tires.

The Monsieur on the reception desk tells me to take as many photos as I want. So I take one; of the 406 coupé with the Italian 'A' Mercedes body. Its color is not as exciting as the one shown at the Auto Salon last spring. It is the best-looking car currently made in France and is one of the best-looking cars made in Europe.

It took me more than a couple of minutes to figure out the 'A' was for 'A'-Klasse because this 'A' is a lot bigger than it looks.

Further on down the avenue, Mercedes-Benz has a huge 'A' in front of their showroom and strollers are constantly stopping to look at the new 'A'-Klasse in the main show window.

Inside there are about a million francs-worth of German cars on display. At the reception, it takes a lot of phone calls to get permission to shoot the interior of the showroom and I choose to capture a bicycle on display. It is called a 'City Bike' and it has a Mercedes star on it and it costs under 10,000 francs.

A fair amount of space is occupied by a counter for 'La Boutique Mercedes.' I didn't know Mercedes went in for this type of thing and I try to imagine T-shirts with the slogan, "Life is cool in the fast lane in a Mercedes 600."

In fact, they have an 'A'-Klasse T-shirt for 120 francs. In effect there are two boutique catalogues; one called 'Edition A' and the other is the main catalogue. Most of the items have very discrete Mercedes star logos on them and most of the items are fashionable and tasteful - and, hard to believe, competitively-priced.

The boutique has a large selection of model cars - all Mercedes of course - and this allows you to leave this showroom with a real Mercedes - Schucco Picolo - for as little as 65 francs; and some of these are 'retro' models. The new 'A'-Klasse can be had for 120 francs, and there is a Teddy Bear version, which, turned insideout, is an 'A'-Klasse; for 170 francs.

The receptionist tells me about 500 people a day come through the showroom; but it can be as many as 2,000 on Bastille Day and other holidays. The cars are locked and if you want to sit in one to try out the leather seats, a salesman will unlock the door for you.

Outside it is still raining lightly and the neons are reflecting in the wet pavements as it gets darker. I cross to the other side of the avenue Renault 'Kangoo' to take in the Renault showroom, which has a huge front, with one display window being a couple of floors high.

The 'van'-craze has finally arrived in Europe and the lemon-yellow one in the big window is called a 'Kangoo.' I said it was a 'craze,' didn't I?

A 'Kangoo' twirls around, and around, and around; overlooked by Goofy. No kidding!

Europe, especially France and southern Europe, have always had varieties of small utility vans. Often these are based on the smallest passenger cars, and they are really handy for small tradesmen, repair services, rapido deliveries and some are even used for modest bare-bones camping.

At the last Auto Salon, both Peugeot and Renault showed new versions of these, but now purpose-built - which makes them even handier as they are less of a compromise.

As the local baker and TV-repairmen snap these up it has occurred to both manufacturers to put extra seats in them, making them into mini-vans - so if you are running a car-pool hauling lots of kids to school, these are perfect for the job.

The Renault showroom has a boutique too. Here you can buy scale Renault models and then retire to Renault's Pub in the rear. This is pretty cozy and after you have had your fill, you can leave without worrying, because your new car is in your pocket.

About the level of métro Franklin-Roosevelt I cross the avenue again, for the Citroen showroom. Despite its imposing front it only has room for four cars to be on display, because the rear of the space is occupied by a popular steak house.

Citroen has its new model on display, the Xsara. This is pronounced 'Zara' so I ask why it isn't spelled this way, because then it would have the extra distinction of being last in the alphabet. Of course this is a question for the marketing people, who are not present in the showroom today.

Citroen is grouped with Peugeot; they share motors and at least one car body - the 'Saxo' is identical to Peugeot's smallest, the '106.' But above this level, Citroens are different: they have hydropneumatique suspensions, their own distinctive bodies, and their own set of customers who pay homage to front-wheel drive and one-spoke steering wheels.

The European Tour of the 'Smart'

As I've written above, Monday's Le Parisien had a full-page ad inviting everybody to the Gare Saint-Lazare, to see Mercedes' new 'Smart' car; so when I leave Citroen I pop into the métro and roll up to the station.

At Saint-Lazare, while buying a SNCF ticket, a friendly but unofficial 'helper' appears at my elbow to assist me with the 'smart' ticket-vending automat. He Citroen 'Hippo' is too late because I've memorized the touch-screen's complicated routine, but I give him five francs to tell me where the 'Smart' is.

It is darker and still raining in the Cour de Rome in front of Saint-Lazare, where Mercedes and Swatch have pitched their promo tent. As at Mercedes' showroom on the Champs-Elysées, a fair number of people are stopping to oggle the new car and pick up its 'Reduce to the Max' brochure.

'Hippo' is the steak house and Citroen is the car. No cars are called 'Hippo' - yet.

Backing up enough to get the whole tent in the viewfinder, I bump into an anti-terrorist cop and two army types with machine guns. It is not 'smart' to do this.

When I turn around to see where my 'excuse me' went, I see they are looking annoyed because they have had to move a bit further away from the 'Smart's' tent. I then move up for the close-up and realize that there is a real mob here; they are snatching away the brochures as if they were free beers.

Maybe Mercedes' idea to get in the small car business is the right one. After so many years of not buying any cars; if things get better, maybe Mercedes will have one we can afford. Scale model, peddle-car, plush, 'Smart' or 'A'-Klasse; it doesn't matter just so long as it's a Merc.

The Car Photos

These have been used to illustrate the companion feature in this issue, which explains the why and wherefore of Mercedes' 'A'-Klasse stumble to success.


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