The True Meaning of 'Rétro'

photo: unrestored model a ford 1928

The only totally 'rétro' car in the show is
this '28 model A Ford.

Could Be 'Disco Volante'

Paris:- Friday, 9. February 2001:- It is Rétromobile time again. While it is raining in Paris, it is probably snowing in the Alps - the day the kids' winter holidays begin - so all the younger and dynamic families will be heading for the hills and snow, while all the 'rétros' are heading for the mobile show at the Porte de Versailles.

On the métro, which seems to be acting a bit rétro about its strike that wasn't yesterday, none of the first paragraph seems to be true. There are neither hordes of old car fans, nor kids on it.

Paris-Expo is suitably grim with the rain coming down from the steel-colored sky - the exhibition grounds are reformatting themselves again with concrete and paving bricks. The short-cut entry is still passable, and the annual old car salon has chosen to be in the hall right beside it, instead of beyond the Perifreak! - near Issy.

For some time now, I have given up reading the car magazines. For this reason the first display is a surprise to me, because it features the last century's top five cars. Ford's model 'T' is on the stand because it is number one, and numbers two through five are merely represented by overhead banners.

Only one other of these cars is prominently featured in this year's salon - Citroën's DS model. The salon's honored car make of the year is Mercedes, on account of its 100th anniversary, but it has no candidate for the 20th century's top five.

This might not be fair because it appears as if the 'top five' stand is a Michelin operation. Two other German cars make the cut - they are the Volkswagen and the Porsche 911. Besidephoto: garage this stand, Michelin has a demonstration area, where it is showing how to make tires for zillions of model 'T's and Beetles - but actually, '30's model tires.

This 'garage' display is actually a sales stand for 'rétro' gas pumps and other wheelie artifacts.

With all of this safely mentioned, I can now get down to my real salon tour - which begins with overlooking all of the above except the métro ride, and spotting a white BMW Issetta.

This car actually has four wheels. The two rear ones are close together, so one of them was often overlooked. It's other neat feature is having its only door as the front of the car. In the one I rode first, the owner tried to make it tip over. Even a second six-pack of beer couldn't do it.

The second one I rode in, was with a foreman at the BMW factory in Munich, where they were reserved for mid-level foremen who were too important to have to pedal bicycles.

After the ride, I had a weeks' worth of lift-truck training, so I never walked much while I was there either. Lift-trucks, by the way, were something that it is possible to tip over - even by accident. Driving over a hard ball of ice could do it.

Before getting to the honored-car Mercedes area, I find a large area of Citroën cars. You may find this hard to believe, but in the '20's this company made cars that were sort of normal - they had two headlights, four wheels with ordinary springs, two or four doors, and came in sedan, coupé and convertible models.

It must have been left-over euphoria from the '20's that induced the company to become famous by bringing out the smooth 'Traction' and the radically basic 2CV in the '30's.

These evolved into the even smoother 'DS' line after the war and the 2CV just kept on, and on - until thesephoto: ds cabrio 1961 days, when the company has forgotten how to make a car like this, and seems undecided about whether to keep on making its 'DS' successors.

What some of the rétro days used to look like - a 1961 'DS' convertible.

Citroën kind of kicks itself in the head by showing off a light-yellow 1961 'DS' convertible, because it makes nothing so slick today - nor do any other manufacturers. Be careful around 'DS' fans - they are a bit like sex maniacs.

The 2CV fanciers of the world are another breed apart - because the car is like a logical successor to Ford's model 'T.' This model of Ford was built and sold by millions before there were proper roads, or service stations, and the 2CV was built with about the same intention - and to be cheap to own and run as well, like the Ford.

Once, about the time France's oil companies were getting interested in looking for oil in Africa, some Citroën engineers were killing time doodling and decided to make up a 2CV for exploration purposes.

All-wheel drive was not so much of a big mystery, but the Citroën people had no budget to make a motor muscular enough to turn all four wheels. So they merely put a double of the front motor in the trunk, 'et voilà,' as ingenious people in France say occasionally, they had a 2CV 4x4.

First rolled out in 1961, this 'Sahara' model worked fine in Africa and could even climb 40 degree sand dunes. It's only drawback was that when it carried four passengers and their sunglasses, little room was left for luggage not to mention oil exploration equipment.

Meanwhile, somewhat before in fact, American engineers decided to cash in on the WWII Jeep's popularity, by bringing out a very civilian 'Jeepster' model - one much more elegant than all the phoney city-jeeps one sees around today. And cheaper too - a 'Jeepster' cost $1765, with whitewall tires.

Finally I get to Mercedes' area and the first thing I see is a light-yellow model 37 'Simplex.' This 1907 'Maybach' racing model is as about as big as a large highway truck, and probably weighs about as much - with a frame that appears to be made of train rails.

I'll skip all of the other models of Mercedes, to mention only the 320 Streamline model of 1939. This is a typical Mercedes in front, built to bull its way through the air, but a different crew of designers were given the rear end - probably Italian 'gastarbeiters' - and they oozed it out, as if this was the only angle from which to view the - huge! - car as it ran away from you on the autobahn, at its top speed of 126 kph.

The way cars are built today, there is no place for a rumble-seat. In case you are unfamiliar with this term, it appliedphoto: mercedes streamline 1939 to two-door coupés and single-seat convertibles, and the rumble-seat was simply installed in the trunk - which made the car a four or five-seater.

The best viewing angle for Mercedes' 1939 Streamline autobahn cruiser.

Citroën brought out a 'Traction' coupé in 1934 with a rumble-seat, and it was called in true French fashion, a 'Faux Cabrio.' It is true the front seat had a roof over it and the rear seat none - but in 1938 the same model car became a simple 'Coupé.'

No Rétromobile salon is complete without Italian-designed cars - because without them 'Rétromobile' would have to be called something like 'Jean Lafong's Pièces Détachés und Schrotthaufen.'

There are the usual gaggle of red Ferraris and a Maserati or two, and a whole bunch of Fiats - without even one Topolino! - and a Lancia, and a minuscule 1954 Morretti - showing how to make a really tiny car look like a swell-looking late '50's big Ferrari.

Trust Alfa - which has had its hard years of ugly cars too - to have the salon's top car. Now, if you were in a dark alley and somebody wearing a trenchcoat sidled up to you and whispered, "Hey man, you wanna buy a mint Disco Volante?" - why you, you'd probably be wondering why you were risking your life and limbs in a dark alley.

So, it was after the war and Italy was a wreck, and Americans were yelling at their government about flying saucers, and over in Italy the guys at Alfa were doodling one day - this was before computers, which don't doodle well - and they doodled up a flying saucer, a 'Disco Volante,' and since they were in the car business, they added wheels to it.

My notes say this was 1952, but I think 1962 is more like it. The press PR-bumpf says five were made, and the sign on the stand says three. Two spiders and a coupe - all of them red. Four cylinders, two litres cubic, tube chassis - good for 225 kph. And it looks like a Saint-Tropez disco kitten.

Which reminds me to go down to the boat area of the salon, called 'Rétronautique,' to look for Brigitte Bardot's very own custom-built 'Riva.'

I see a lot of 'Rivas' and some 'Swiss-Craft' and any one of them could be 'it' but none say explicitly that it was Brigitte's, so I think any five of them were - they are all great with their mahogany decks, chrome trimmings and '54 Mercury steering wheels with the aqua - light bluish-green to light greenish-blue - colored paint around the instruments.

Unlike the Q-boat attributed to Porsche Design with twin 928 V-8's, but no windshield, no chrome and no wooden deck. It's one of these non-doodle boats - or is it a torpedo?

Every year Rétromobile features some goofball 'first.' A couple of years ago it was the world's first car - the one Columbus drove down to the dock before setting out for a bit of deep ocean racing.

This year it is Jean Bertin's Aérotrain. Bertin was an inventor - of many other things too - who decided to dispense with wheels and to run his train on an air cushion.

He started out with propellers but quickly switched to jet engines - giving six passengers a ride of 345 kph in 1967. His model two got up to 422 kph. His '180' version was designed to carry 80 passengers, and his 'Supersonique' got up to 1300 kph - without actually flying.

However, the government decided to stick to wheels on rails, and in 1975 announced the first TGV line from Paris to Lyon. This killed Bertin's Aérotrain and all that is left of it are the two prototypes on show at Rétromobile and 18 kilometres of an elevated guide-rail in the countryside near Orléans.

Away from the centre section where the lights are bright and the cars are shiny, there are dim side alleys full of parts dealers, model car stands, accessory outfits and other merchants of automotive objects.

The alleys are mobbed by the seekers of rare parts and single-minded car fans, some looking for an affordable but tiny car to fill in the missing slot in a collection. There are paintings, posters, magazines, and the annual 'for sale or trade' panel.

It's as if the cars on show are admired - many are for sale too - but the real business is serious lookingphoto: steering wheel, riva junior for the vital missing piece. There are some sons but few wives, and the snack areas look like the motorcycle gang from hell has just passed through.

In case you've forgotten - or never knew - here's what the '50's were like. For cars as well as boats.

Finally, I have managed not to mention France's 'national manufacturer' - Renault. This firm's cars are certainly present, and their old cars are really second to none. But since making the Dauphine - a poor 'remake' of its popular and original 4CV - it is obvious the firm dispensed with its doodlers, if it ever had any.

Therefore, Renault is mentioned now, in connection with the one and only 4CV on show - with right-hand drive and Japanese plates. It is deep blue and all of its chrome is beautiful.

In one of the salon's byways, I chance on the stand belonging to the 'Club Obsolete Ford France.' The stand is graced, if this is the right word for it, by an unrestored but complete 1928 Model 'A' Ford coupé.

The car's other info says it cost $550 new. And between 1927 and 1932, 4,320,446 of them were built, with 9656 being built on a single day in April of 1930.

This Ford is not the only unrestored car at this year's salon, but it is the only totally unrestored one, right down to its original but flat tires. In some odd way, it is the best car at this year's Rétromobile because it is authentically 'rétro.'

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