Good-Looking Old Iron With Wheels

photo: citroen touring car

An ordinary Citroën touring, amid many exceptional cars.

Another Run for Rétromobile

Paris:- Friday, 12. February 1999:- Something is happening here and you don't know what it is - do you, Mrs. Jones? At 11:00 this morning, the big crowd waiting for Rétromobile '99 to open its doors, does not seem to contain any Mrs. Jones.

The 'Mrs. Jones' I am thinking of is French or German or British or Italian, maybe even Russian, and quite possibly, American. 'Mrs. Jones' is the imagined car freak's widow; the one who has lost her husband to greasy metal instead of football on the glotze.

When I can quit exaggerating here for a minute I have to admit there are a couple of 'Mrs. Jones'' pushing in to the ticket booths with all the Mr. Jones.' These are the Mrs. Jones' who know that some, many, of thephoto: radiator ornements, automobilia cars inside are painted in pastel colors; the yellows and aquamarines of yesteryear. These are worth seeing.

More radiator-ladies than you can count. ALL beautiful.

These were the cars that were advertised in the '50's with models in wide-flaring pastel-colored dresses. If you could associate the dress with the car, you would buy both. If the car was a 'Dauphine' so much the better because that was sort of a pastel name too. The wide dress wouldn't fit in it though. It was the thought that counted and it did sell the cars.

In the '20's and '30's cars had dark, intense, colors. Dark blue, dark green. By the time Europeans climbed out of the rubble after the war, the colors had gone pastel. Wages had gone up, roads had gone down, and La Dolce Vita got underway even if it sometimes only had two wheels and was called a Vespa.

Mass-appeal has come only slowly to collecting and restoring old French cars, possibly because, in the area of color, the French were not leaders.

The green of wet cement is not a 'collectible' color, and this particular 'green' was used year-in and year-out for 30 years and you can still get it today without trouble when buying a brand-new car that looks vaguely like an over-designed banana.

Most cars these days, regardless of nationality, look vaguely like over-designed bananas. Since once you seen one frilly banana you have pretty much seen them all, more and more Mr. and Mrs. Jones' are coming to Rétromobile to see things that look like cars.

Each year, the organizers have a bit of a 'theme' for the Rétromobile salon. This year, centre stage is given to 'celebrity cars.'

Pope Puis' XL's Citroën C6 is gold plated where it is plateable, andphoto: citroen popemobile dark, dark brown where it is painted - but otherwise looks a bit modest. But it does look like a car and not like a Swatchwatch box of a 'popemobile.' It has clocked only 156 kilometres. Maybe it was only used on one Sunday.

Old-style gold-plated Citroën Popemobile; only used once.

There is a one-off Czech-made Tatra convertible, based on the Tatraplan sedan chassis, which shown at the Geneva show in 1949 and given to Joe Stalin.

The longest DS ever made - 6.53 metres of it - was for General Charles de Gaulle and he didn't like it because the window separating him from the chauffeur wouldn't roll down. It was only used officially once; for a 1969 trip down the Champs-Elysées with Richard Nixon for a passenger.

The 1937 Horch 830 convertible was General Von Choltitz' car when he was commander of 'Gross' Paris. The FFI took both away from him and gave the car to General De Gaulle in 1946.

Probably the best-looking car at this year's show, is the 1935 Maybach Zeppelin convertible. It is very big and extremely black with a lot of very shiny chrome. It has a very big motor and it was a gas-guzzler, guzzling up to 16 litres of super per 100 kilometres.

Since I don't have a photo of it, to give you an idea of the Maybach's size, it is on the Mercedes stand beside a 540 kompressor convertible. The otherwise impressive 540K looks like a back-up outboard motor for the Zeppelin. And why 'Zeppelin?' Because that's what the motor was designed for - Zeppelins.

The engineer, Jean-Albert Grégoire, is having his 100th birthday celebrated on the Amilcar stand this year. Grégoire is not well-known but his name is closely associated with Hotchkiss - which I have heard of - but can find no references to it, other than light Hotchkiss tanks were used by the French army during the Blitzkrieg in 1940.

This automobile constructor, athletic champion, pilot, and inventor is not in my famous French names book. France is not among the list of countries in which his patents have been exploited.

In 1925 he had built a two-litre four-cylinder flat-four, front-wheel drive and four-wheel independent suspension 'car,' of which there is a bodiless model on display. Its missing self-supporting aerodynamic body was apparently made by Hotchkiss.

The mechanical parts showing, look clean and new. They look heavy-duty; somewhat similar to the landing gear of an Airbus 300 and about as modern.

For an encore, also in 1925, he built an electric car that went 256 kilometres on one battery charge. The 'Grégoire Sport' convertible built for Françoise Sagan in 1958 is a little too big to be really elegant, but I bet its mechanicals are equal to anything we have today.

If I put in a list of all the outstanding cars at this show, this feature would go on forever. A visiting Metropolephoto: rolls royce grille reader, Allan Pangborn, wine-maker and machine-tool expert, is helping me decipher the trickier metallic things here while we take an odd tour past the tools and some of the strange used parts.

Mike makes wheel disks for cars like this one.

For fun, I introduce him to Mike Rubin who runs LamRR Disk in California, and it turns out they know the same neighborhood wineries.

Mike is very proud to be featured in the French magazine 'Nitro' with a 1948 photo of him in his stripped Ford racer, at Mirage Lake in the Mojave Desert. "Look," he says, "No helmet, no roll bar!"

Mike will be showing his Rolls Royce hubcaps in Germany in April and in Britain in June. "Not hubcaps," he screams for the third year in a row, "They're wheel disks!" If you happen to have a Hispano-Suiza J12 - possibly made in Boulogne-Billancourt - and are tired of cleaning its wire wheels, you can email Mike, to ask for a new set of 'disks' for it.

Allan and I think the Hydromobile, with its three retractable wheels, needs a bit of body - no, hull - work. Built in 1942 by a Hungarian engineer in the US, it is the only example left of six made.

At another stand, we don't fully appreciate the 1942 Tatra - the Czechs again! - which has a three-litre air-cooled V8 for its aircraft propeller; perhaps making it the world's only air-powered snowmobile.

Over on the Ford stand there is a diamond-green Mustang fastback, supposedly 'Bullit's' car in the movie. Allan says the color isn't right, says it's a replica. Behind it is one of the three Mustangs used in the Claude Lelouch film, 'Un Homme et une Femme' - a red '66 289 GT HP convertible. The white hardtop, seen at Rétromobile in 1996, is elsewhere this year.

I've said it before - if some California kids can design a new Beetle for Volkswagen, then why can't some good old Bavarian BMW boys do a 'new' Mustang for Ford? Allan reminds me the original was on a cheapo Falcon chassis, so I think new 318 tti mechanicals could do for a 'new' 1999 one. Just like the hackers who won't let the 2CV die.

Peugeot, Michelin, Audi and Citroën have big stands. Audi's pre-war V16 Auto Union 'Titan' looks like a big bullet with wheels; but is a lot smaller than the Zeppelin. The NSU Prinz is smaller than just about anything; and it was the first to have the Wankel rotary motor - later used by Mazda.

For its 80th anniversary, Citroën has the usual DS's and a lot of older coupes, sedans, tourings and roadsters. The impact of these is lessened by the large display of all theirphoto: v16 boat motor modern rallye cars based on their smallest models; all of which look like nameless replicas of World 'everycars.'

If case you've wondered what a V16 boat motor looks like...

While rubberneckers ogle the oldies, the serious people mob the parts stands; to look for missing links. Away from the wide-open stands gleaming with the tropical steam of pastel and the blitz flash of chrome, the parts stands are the bazar of the Casbah and if rugs were sold, they wouldn't look out of place.

Instead of rugs, there are badges, radiator caps with chrome goddesses, split-wing goggles and endless doodads. Allan recognizes special pliers made for Boeing - on sale here for a lot of francs; practically trash in Seattle.

While car companies went under or were merged in the United States, the little names kept on longer in Europe. Allard, Alpine, Alvis, Austin, Bizzarrani - yes! - Borgward, Bristol, Daf, De Tomaso, Delage, Delhaye, Dino, Facel Vega, Gordini, Innocenti, Isotta-Fraschini, Matford, Monteverdi, Panhard, Pegaso, Riley, Salmson, Talbot, Trabant, Van Den Plas, Zender and Zil. Not all at Rétromobile today; not all forgotten either.

Rétro-Nautique shares some of the place at this salon because some of the 25 boats here share motors from cars. 'De Gestrekt,' restored by Austin W. I. Lion, is described as a 'Classical English Speedboat.' Like older sportscars, it has its engine in the middle and the driving cockpit is near the stern. The other two-thirds of the boat are its bow.

Made in 1911, 'De Gestrekt' is 11.1 metres long and not very wide. Its motor dates to 1993 and is a US-made V8, with 280 hp. Steel hull and massive mahogany deck gleam above and below a full-length brass guardstrip. In French this type of boat is called a 'canot automobile anglais.' Mr. Lion says he wants more than $10,000 for it; much more.

A similar eight-metre boat belonged to Horace Dodge and there is a staired platform beside it so every detail of its cockpit can be seen, as well as its 12-litre V16 motor, concocted by Harry Miller.

Besides 250 cars there is also a fair sprinkling of rare motorcycles, andphoto: canoe boat by 'lion' even rarer vehicles. One, looking like a two-person buggy from the last century, seems to have multiple power sources: a steam engine, a gas motor and even a couple of electric motors.

The only way to fit this very long 'canoe' racer into a photo, does not show how long it is.

I leave, for a long ride in Paris' electric underground wagons and Allan stays behind, to 'look around a bit more.' With Rétromobile continuing into the 21st, he may still be there.

Rétromobile and Rétro-Nautique - at Paris-Expo, Hall 2/1; Métro: Porte de Versailles. Until Sunday, 21. February; open Monday, Wednesday and Thursday from 11:00 to 19:00; Tuesday and Friday from 11:00 to 22:00; and on Saturday and Sunday from 10:00 to 19:00. Entry charge: 65 francs; from six to 12 years, 40 francs.

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