World's Oldest Car?

photo: lenoir, michelin launch stand

Possible world's oldest car is made of stuff lying around any average 1860's backyard.

Seen At Rétromobile 2000

Paris:- Friday, 11. February 2000:- I leave my place so early this morning that I am nearly bowled over by the rising sun using my street as a laser cannon. In the métro I also get a chance to see civilians beginning their métro-boulot-dodo routine for the day.

First observation: they look grumpy and unalert. Was there something good on TV late last night? Secondly, the métro cars are full. The civilians go to work en masse. Coming home, they may have a snort in a café, get their hair done or do some shopping first - spreading out the crush.

I am riding with the Parisians this morning because I am on my way to Paris-Expo for a freebie breakfast at Rétromobile. After I find the unmarked entry, all I have to do is listen to speeches on the Michelin stand - see? I 'mention' Michelin - about the world's oldest car, which is far older than Michelin's tires for cars.

Supposedly 'lost' for a hundred years, the world's oldest car turns out to be neither Benz nor Daimler nor Wright Brothers. It is pure backyard jalopy, possibly built between 1863 and 1882 by a French engineer named Etienne Lenoir.

Legend has it that it was found in the '50's and lovingly restored by a 'passionate' enthusiast - who wants to see it recognized as France's if not the world's oldest self-propelled gas-engined car.

It looks like a wooden crate made of junk, with wagon wheels in front and slim wire-spoked buggy wheels at the rear. After the speeches which I cannot hear because of grumbles from the region of my stomach, the car's mechanic cranks it up.

I can't see this because the world's automotive pressmen are pressing thickly around it. I do hear noisesphoto: ferrari that sound like hardwood laths snapping together; 'slap, snap.' Standing on a nearby BMW stand, I get ready to photograph it - if it drives past me.

This year's featured make is Ferrari - as in this millionaire's hot rod.

After ten minutes of 'snapping' it does this, sort of. It launches off its starting stand, goes down the ramp and stops. Restarted, it lurches forward a couple of metres. The pressmen push it for its left turn. It starts again and advances five more metres, where it stops in front of me; completely shrouded by the pressmen.

Restarted, it stinks. Slowly, 'slap-snap,' it proceeds to the 'Argus' stand - for a total distance of about 30 metres. It does actually move ahead, in lurches, completely unaided.

The 'Argus' is a paper that publishes the official new car prices along with the French market used-car values. What is the 'Argus-value' of this 1863 model-year 'Lenoir?'

The wood-slab hood is raised and the TV guys stick their zoom lenses right in the engine room's dark place. As far as I can see, there is no tread-mill for squirrels inside; so this 'Lenoir' possibly does have a gas motor - but the smell of its exhaust is definitely a new one for me.

If it isn't burning squirrels, maybe it is something like burnt hair-oil. The only way to be sure is find out what king of fuel it uses and set your head on fire.

Anyway, this is a big coup for Rétromobile 2000. Michelin's free breakfast may be adequate for domestic pressmen but is woefully skimpy for people who don't know where their lunch may be coming from or when. The mini-croissants - no butter, no jam - are okay, but the coffee is ghastly. Basically, it is not 'café.'

Once I have had twice as much of both as the people who know where and when they'll have lunch, I set out to 'cover' the salon.

It is not open to the public yet. This poses problems - the stands are not completely ready for the public either. In places there is protective plastic sheeting, some cars have a bit of dust on them, and many doors and hoods are cracked open.

This year the featured make of the salon is Ferrari; as in 'Best of.' This means the 335S, the 250 Testa Rossa, some prototypes with number-names, and some named after races such as thephoto: vespa with trailer Aga Kahn's 1954 250 Mille Miles, another 375 Mille Miles and a GTO. I think these are only on the semi-metric scale.

In the early '50's, Vespas were a stepping-stone to getting a car. Meanwhile they served as taxis and pickup trucks.

There are short and long-chassis versions of the Super America and a Daytona. I don't read the signs; I just look at these cars. Some are frankly brutal-looking and others look like muscular Dolce-Vita hot rods.

My first car show was probably a GM 'Motorama,' and this was about the time metallic paint was giving way to pastel colors. Today, there is actually one of Chris-Craft's first plastic boats in pastel pink - named Lady Penelope - and it has a model '59 pink Cadillac on its forward deck and both it and the boat have twin-fins at the rear.

A '55 Chevy four-door Bel Air represents the metallic-paint era, but there is nothing to show the '56 change-over year of three-tone jobs that mixed metallic with pastel colors.

Besides the street-racer and track racing Ferraris, there are a bunch of other famous fast cars. Auto-Union's late '30's 12 cylinder compressor racer is on display - the one driven by Stuck and Nuvolari - as well as Bugatti's 'Tank de Tours.' Fangio's '55 Mercedes W196 almost rubs shoulders with the Porsche F1 which won the French Grand-Prix with Dan Gurney behind the wheel.

Here and there, are mixtures of really antique cars with post-war sporty cars. Peugeot has some very nice oldies, Citroën has - if you look around - a clean 'Traction,' the President's SM and the prototype for the CX, which has never been shown before - possibly because it looks like a CX.

Citroën also has a helicopter, which it built but did not put into production. It looks like any other ordinary helicopter to me, but is supposedly worth 'ohs' and 'ahs' because it was built by a car company. Having owned one of their cars, the only surprise for me about the helicopter is it is displayed at a car show.

Renault is showing some big - old European cars could be either very big or very tiny - old sedans; plus two recent 'concept' cars. These only fall into the rare, and totally ugly categories.

Mercedes has a cinema theme for its big stand, where it has a black 300 roadster and a slick silver SE convertible, plus some fake people.

BMW has a late-'50's 507 roadster and what looks like a brand-new Z8, which has a sticker-price of more than 800,000 new francs. On Honda's stand there is an old but nice 800S and beside it a new model; one meant to compete with BMW's other small roadster.

I don't know how these newer cars get into this show. If they are not in production, then they may be in the 'rare' category - but Peugeot isn't showing its big new 607 model. Or, if it is, I overlooked it.

It seems that there are fewer antique motorcycles than in previous years. But there is a post-war stand for scooters, which the press handout describes as 'engins de crise.' As farphoto: peugeot 2 door sedan as I can tell, scooters are alive and well in today's Paris, and are not bought by citizens suffering from any crises I know of.

This '30's 2-door Peugeot sedan is a small jewel, for a small family; but with a large trunk for annual vacation trips.

A very mint-looking 1952 Vespa is shown with a trailer made by the French manufacturer, Stabil. There is a racing version of a Lambretta, a French-made Valmobile that folds up into a suitcase, a '49 Tamoto - one of two known examples - and a Delaplace, which featured front-wheel drive. Again, supposedly only two of these are known to exist worldwide.

The salon-within-a-salon is Rétronautique and it has about 30 watercraft, dating from 1900 to 1960. This also seems like fewer than last year. There is the pink Chris-Craft mentioned above, a nine-metre long torpedo boat and an inboard-motor canoe that is antique and very slick.

One '50's racing boat is featured on account of its Ferrari motor, and another is featured because of its airplane motor and short-bladed propeller.

The area of Rétromobile that seems to have increased in size this year, is the space occupied by all the spare and replacement parts stands. Regardless of which hall at Paris-Expo the salon is held in, these areas are always dim - as if there is an attempt to duplicate the effect of a wrecking-yard warehouse.

While a lot of these spare parts are old and original, most seem to be clean; and there is a lot of rechromed bits and pieces that look cleanest of all. Why then, the dimness?

Mixed in with these stands are others that feature model cars, badges, motor-related signs and even expired US license plates. A quick look-though reveals few old license plates.

I don't know if it has been done on purpose or not, but this year's carpet is a very light grey - where it isn't Ferrari-yellow. Combined with a lot of overhead spotlights, a camera is going to see a lot more light than your eyes think they see.

While a regular film camera may not be fooled, a digital camera tends to overexposure, on account of the light reflected off the carpet. It probably has something to do with the 'white balance' - which is some mysterious ingredient of video systems.

After a two-hour tour I think I've photographed farphoto: air boat more than I can use. This is about the time the doors are thrown open to the impatient public and Allan Pangborn finds me.

We do a tour together and Allan has many questions to ask a few of the exhibitors. Well, maybe not many questions, but he has many interests - boats, cars and motors. He takes a close look at the new Honda; thinking his 15 year-old Buick is due for a replacement.

Mechanical innovations - of the past - are very much on display, as with this air powered sporty boat.

In the end, I have to go back to 'Ed's' office to finish breakfast and to see if I can't get rid of some of the 70 photos I've taken.

Allan stays behind and eventually picks up a brochure from a kit-car outfit in Britain. Allan is thinking that a Cobra kit may make a more interesting project than a new but stock ready-made Honda.

If he goes through with it, he'll have to build two new sheds: one for the winery and the other for the hybrid US-Brit hot rod. Not all of the 100,000 visitors to Rétromobile are dreamers.

Rétromobile 2000 and Rétronautique
Hall 2/1, at Paris-Expo. Métro: Porte de Versailles. Until Sunday, 20. February. From 10:00 to 19:00 on Saturday and Sunday; from 11:00 to 19:00 on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday; and from 11:00 to 22:00 on Tuesday and Friday. Entry fee: 65 francs for adults; 40 francs for children from 6 to 12.

Other photos from Rétromobile are scattered throughout
this issue. All photos: Ric Erickson©2000
Send email concerning the
contents to: Ric Erickson, Editor.
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