100 Years On Wheels

photo: 1951 citroen 2cv
France's 'Model-T' - a 1951 'two-horse' Citroën.

With Ten Seconds at 280 KPH

Paris:- Wednesday, 7. October 1998:- Above ground the day is damp and grey and it seems as if a lot of people are in the métro for the long haul to the Porte de Versailles and the auto salon.

On Wednesdays, a lot of kids have the day, or half the day off, so I am expecting to see more than a few of them looking at cars at Paris-Expo. It looks like a good number of other citizens have the day off too, because they don't get off the train at the usual stops; except for all the students who get off at Convention, the stop before my destination.

Instead of gazing at shiny new cars I intend to gaze at shiny old cars in Hall Eight, where the 100 yearsphoto: 1898 voiturette of the salon is having its own show. I see the building and I climb up a lot of stairs to find sets of exit doors before I find the entrance around the corner, at the top of a hill, without stairs.

One of the two 1898 cars - the 'Voiturette.'

There is a zig-zag 'bank-line' setup to filter in the few visitors arriving. Right inside the entry, there are two 1898 model 'voitures sans chevaux' twirling slowly around. The smaller one, a Renault, is called a 'Voiturette.'

To show a car at the 1898 salon, it was supposed to have demonstrated to a commissioner that it was capable of doing a Paris-Versailles round-trip, 'à l'aide de ses propres moyens.' This rule was meant to exclude all exhibits called 'automobile' that weren't, even though the official name of the first salon was 'Exposition Internationale de l'Automobile, du Cycle et des Sports.' For the first exhibition there were 220 displays.

Today, for this retrospective, there are not as many as that. The rectangular hall is laid out in a loop, which is to be followed in a clockwise direction, starting with 1898. Large overhead signs have manufacturer's names on them; some of them not forgotten.

The cars are behind low transparent barriers and giant reproductions of posters for the various auto salons are placed behind. In some places the lighting is not as bright as it could be. Some cars are placed on turntables, and this shows them off better; and some cars are isolated and it is possible to walk all around them. The carpet is dove grey.

Just inside the entry, there is a booth selling throwaway cameras, and many people are using these. In most cases, it is possible to get an almost unobstructed view and shot. With the time of day, it must be a thin lunchtime crowd, and this helps too.

The first 'voiturette' does not look like a buggy transformed into a horseless carriage. It is hard to imagine a carriage being so small - it looks like it was designed for really narrow streets, like today's micro-cars. Its companion on the stand is more normally-sized.

By 1906 cars were no longer mere 'toys' for the rich or exotic machines for sportsmen. They became designed for use: taxis were big and private cars were either lightweight runabouts or heavyphoto: 1931 cadillac limousines. Ford's model 'T' symbolized the minimum car for everyone while Rolls-Royce was the opposite for the favored few.

This 1930 Cadillac V-16 was a - big - delight to see.

The weather could have been not much different from today, but from photos you can see there were a lot of convertibles. A 1929 Citroën called 'Coupe de Ville' has the driving position in the open, and the back seat has a solid roof, with standard-sized doors - so it is not a 'Coupe' in the sense we think of. It is not a limo nor a taxi either and I wonder why the driver had to sit 'out there.'

The 1930 Bugatti type 41 'Royale' has a motor hood on it longer than many of today's small cars. Behind the air vents, you can see a very long and shiny motor. It looks like a straight-24! This car is also very wide, and like city buses, I imagine there are Paris streets where it will not pass.

Many of the cars are representative and are not the 'firsts' of their lines. A 1939 Citroën 'traction' is one of these, but it is incredibly clean - looking a bit newer than new.

The cars are not exclusively French. A 1930 Cadillac is very impressive. Equally so is a German 1937 Horch, type 853A, which was an Audi forerunner, with the 'rings' on its radiator grille.

History runs on, with WWII represented by a 1942 Willys 'Jeep.' Although it started just before the war, the post-war symbol is a 1951 Citroën 2CV. Germany's 'fresse-welle' is a very fine 1956 BMW 562 with a V8 motor. I've had rides in one of these, and the motors sounded like Ford flatheads. The finish was pure upscale Munich though.

'La Dolce Vita' arrived and with it came - not the TR3 from the film - but a 1961 Ferrari 250 GTE. This car does not have an easy time being on a stand across from a mint 1964 Facel Vega II, even though the body builders may have been identical.

Shown with these are Corvettes and Mustangs, with their vivid signal colors or pastel hues; and the multi-colored ones too. The show either ended after these, or I stopped taking photos.

Near the exit, there are a row of 'concept' cars, done by French manufacturers. There are not so far out as the ones the Americans used to do in the '50's and '60's - which were for pure show. Thus one Citroën looks like a mock-up for aphoto: 1956 bmw v8 present-day Xantia and the sign says it has the trick-suspension, which you can have as an option today.

Munich's answer to the Mercedes; a 1956 BMW 562 V8.

Less successful is one of the new 'euro-vans' which is cut down at the back, to be sort of a pickup or some kind of tote platform for surf boards. It looks all wrong; it is too big and its proportions are shot. The same cut-job on any station wagon - 'break' - would have worked better; like the old Ford 'Ranchero.'

Also near the exit are a few booths selling various items. One is a CD-ROM, which has the 100 years of history, of the cars and the salons. It is also advertised as a 'collector's item,' as if it were terribly expensive or impossible to press an extra hundred thousand plastic disks.

The other stands have books and magazines. I take a sneak skim of a catalogue for collectors, to see if I can find a reference a reader has asked for. Bingo! The car... did exist.

There wasn't an example of it here. The French manufacturer Mathis got a license from Ford in the mid '30's to build copies and these were called, 'Matford.' They were not exactly the same as US-model Fords; and some, but not all, imported genuine Fords carried the 'Matford' badge in France.

To tell the difference you have to be a serious collector, and measure the length of the frame. The 'Matford' was only produced from 1935 to 1939, so if you can find a '37 two-seat convertible, it is worth a bit more today than what it cost new.

Wild Kid's Stuff

Hall Eight seemed to be without toilets so I go into the larger Hall Five to find one. It is no longer lunch time and the crowds have grown considerably, and there is now a long line waiting to try out the entry-snake to see the '100 Years' exhibition.

This does not entirely prepare me for the scene in Hall Five. This is auto sports, 100 years of it, and auto sports' games; and the hall is full of kids. It is like the hurdy-gurdy part of the circus.

I think they are pumping in the smell of burnt rubber but it might only be what 7,838 pairs of used sneakers smell like. The air does not seem clear either and there are great deals of different noises, vastly over-amplified. I guess it all comes under the heading of 'motor-sports.'

The software firm, Ubisoft, has a real Formula-Three car positioned in front of a big TV screen. The kid who's in it gets out and the next 'kid' steps up. This one is not a 'kid' but he wants to try it anyway.

By 'try it,' I mean sit in the car and drive the course simulated on the screen in front. Like a real racing car, the master of ceremonies has taken off the steering wheel so the pilot can get in - but he can't. He is too big. 'Sorry; next up!' is called and I continue my search.

This brings me to the whole noodle at another stand. The racing car, suspended high enough so everybody can see it. The screen is three joined together, with a slight wrap-around. The car tips, tilts, bumps, twirls and dives.

I can just barely see the tiptop of a driver's helmet. It is so low, I think maybe this one not only fits, but maybe can't reach the pedals.

On screen, there is a well-defined racetrack. It is a movie of one, it is moving. Very fast. A curve comes, the real car tilts into it. There is a straight. Up in a corner, the virtual speed is given as... 230 kph and rising... to 280 kph. A curve is coming suddenly and I see the car going wide. There is a bump. The sounds bumps. The real car bumps. There is glass-shatter-effectphoto: sim' racing on the screen. But our driver is on the road again, picking up lost speed, fast. Zoom!

Short but cool driver, hits 280 kph, effortlessly.

The finish line goes past too fast to see it. This driver is number one out of five. The crowd applauds. I did not wait to see the 11 year-old get out of the car. I get out of there; past the go-carts, suits, models, stickers, photo-books, posters - the stuff of racing fandom.

The sky is still grey outside with just a hint of orange in it. The métro has no orange hints in it. After passing Montparnasse I have room enough to read today's Le Parisien. It is full of pedestrian news.

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