It's Wheelie Time Again

photo: racing peugeot, 302 darl'mat

All the paint, chrome, glass, metal and rubber you
ever wanted to see.

Paris-Expo Goes 'Rétro'

Paris:- Friday, 8. February 2002:- Except for the 'Fiat 500 of the Week' - when I find one - I tend to ignore all cars that aren't trying to run me over. But once a year, there is a whole 'Carmania Week of the Year' lasting 10 days, and I go down to the Porte de Versailles to look at some old wheels.

This year I am doing this on Rétromobile's first day and it seems that there are fewer métro riders on line 12 than usual. At the Porte de Versailles stop, I do not notice more than three other people get off the train - but this may be because I am at the front of the first wagon and closest to the exit stairs, and I don't look back.

As in past years, it is a really gloomy February day, and Paris-Expo's black hall 2 looks suitable for a major funeral. There is no line-up to get into it. Except for the 'Rétromobile' sign, it looks like nothing is going on.

Out of curiosity, I check last year's feature. It starts off just about the same as this one. Is it 'déja-vu?' Need I write this report? Does Metropole 'need' a ' Fiat 500 of the Week' photo? Onwards!

There is no line-up to pay the somewhat stiff amount of 10euro 3 sign for the entry either. Beyondphoto: peugeot 301 miramas the entry, BMW has its usual large stand blocking the way. A glance at it doesn't tell me much - does it feature various racing versions of its '2002' series?

Peugeot's neat 301 broke road records with Miramas in the '30s.

I learn later that this year's salon has three themes - competition, 80 years' worth of Jaguar cars, and the presence of Christie's, with 40 pieces of old iron ready to be auctioned off. By 'later,' I mean I only remember to obtain a press release for this year when I am on the way out.

This means I have to figure out the year's themes by myself while walking around and looking over the latest edition. The first thing I notice is all the hordes of people I was expecting to see riding the métro, are already here - like last year. This salon gets a lot of 'early-birds.'

The next thing to look at is the for-sale-and-trade bulletin board. Usually this is a scrappy wall in a dim corner, being mobbed by seekers or vendors of rare parts, but this year's is not so dim. It has its usual thousand hand-made 'want-ads' and usual eager throng scanning them.

One guy gets boosted up by some buddies, to post a note in a free space up around the four-metre mark. I think these people have good eyes from reading lots of tiny-type want-ads, so reading fine-print halfway to the ceiling should be no problem.

The first car I see - not counting the BMWs - is a Peugeot 301, which won road races in the '30s. I guess its drivers helped too. The stand for the car is well-done and the car hardly looks like it was raced through a lot of rain and mud a good number of years ago..

Peugeot, which is not the 'car of the year' here, but did get the 'New Car of the Year' award for its latest model, the 307, has a quite large display of its past 300-series cars. These come in allphoto: minerva radiator eagle shapes - sedans, coupes, and convertibles. Seen out of context here - this is not 1930 or 1940 - they seem to be attractive for what they were - fairly small cars for a fairly small middle-class.

Ultra-rare crystal eagle tops ultra-rare Minerva radiator.

The 'competition' or racing aspect of this year's show is not overwhelmingly obvious, or maybe I'm not noticing it because I haven't seen the press release yet. A Peugeot racer, in the middle of a big layout, is so far away that I don't find its explanation poster, so I can only say it is a 'racer' from the way it doesn't look like a family sedan. In fact I think it is probably the 302 Darl'mat, which did Le Mans in '38.

Citroën has its usual - but different every year! - collection of perfectly normal pre-DS cars, many of which are pre-Tractions too. A lot of people probably don't know that this company made neat but fairly ordinary- looking cars in the 1920s before its 'Traction' adventure started.

But you can't have a Rétromobile without a 'Traction,' a DS and a Deux-Chevaux, and there is at least one of each. There is a newer stretched CX, ordered by the former East German government for a planned visit by François Mitterrand in 1989.

The Swedish coachmaker Nilsson got the job to lengthen two CX-Prestiges but they were a bit doubtful about getting paid for the job because the Wall came down, Mitterrand decided not to pay a visit, and East Germany disappeared like a rosy soap bubble.

Nilsson decided to do the job anyway and did get its money, even though the cars were never used for state occasions. East Germany used to buy a lot of CXs for its 'Bonzen' fleet.

A little further on, the auction people Christie's have a large space full of extremely large Dusenburgs, Packards, Hispano Suizas, Mercedes' and Cadillacs. None of these look like they werephoto: mercedes cockpit built after 1930. There are a couple of more exotic cars too - like the perfectly minuscule Fiat 500 Abarth I will see later on at another Christie's stand between the scooters and the mahogany speedboats.

Note this 1920s Mercedes' roomy cockpit. Note its sturdy controls.

These monster cars from the '20s seem to have been made with pretty much the same cookie-cutter. They seem to all have steel train rails for frames and everything else is over-sized - headlights, wheels, motors - V-12s, V-16s - four doors.

One Mercedes, a two-door roadster, is no shorter than a long two-tone green Cadillac four-door touring car. Another one has a rear-seat dashboard and windshield of its own. The steering wheels are about as big as many modern cars' road wheels.

Whoever actually drove these cars must have been muscular. No power-steering or power-brakes, just a lot of cubic engines and big gas tanks, and convertible tops for air-conditioning. Seeing one Cadillac, a great plains express, with Texas plates is no great surprise.

Their detail-work is astonishing. Running boards have individual non-skid strips outlined in chrome, and above these there are chrome-handled lockers for odds and ends like reserve sets of cylinder-head gaskets. Besides doors, there are fender-mounted chromed foot-plates for climbing in.

Anyway, all of the cars Christie's has on show, will be auctioned off to the highest bidders on Tuesday, 12. February. A sign of the times is that most will be offered without 'reserve' prices.

This is fine for Christie's and the few high-rollers that may still be around, but the large space occupied by the auction house's used-car lot is space that isn't occupied by 2CV clubs and their collector-members.

It seems to me that a lot of the smaller stands have been gobbled up, resulting in fewer odd-ball objects on wheels. There is a big Minerva sedan, built in Anvers in Belgium, that has a very large crystal eagle topping its radiator cap. Imagine a Twingo having one of these!

There is a - two-wheeled - bathtub? At first this thing looks so odd that I'm not sure I want to look at it.

It looks like a polished-metal Big Bertha cannon bullet, with two giant wheels. This was taxi-operator Ulysse Texier de la Caillerie's idea of a 'Jeep,' which he invented in 1928. It was meant to be amphibious, with some sort of stabilizers for all terrains.

It was demonstrated to an enthusiastic Colonel De Gaulle in 1932, about the time he was writing his textbookphoto: scooter glaces, 1956 agf on armored tactics, which was highly regarded at the time by Germany's tank enthusiasts. A more sophisticated version was shown to the French army in 1936, but they were not interested in anything invented after 1918.

Scooter-based ice cream wagon brought 'La Dolce Vita' to Europeans' doors.

It wasn't until 1998 that the details of the Auto-Amphibie were rediscovered by a group of fans in Secondigny, and they re-built the model that is on show here. Besides its two wheels, I don't manage see what else is holding it up.

I cruise by the stands of the automobile artists, by the stands of the model cars, by the dingy stands of the parts dealers, and on the way discover that this year's salon has a fairly large dining area in addition to the usual truck-stop-type buffet - which also has a larger seating area than in past years.

There are fewer snazzy speedboats in the 'Rétronautique' section than in the past. I fail to note the Scripps V12 owned by Yul Brynner or the one offered by Christie's - a Timossi KD 900 with a Maserati 450S motor, raced by the Count Agusta team in the late '60s

The motorcycles are equally few in number. There is a smallish stand for 'three-wheelers.' In this case it means motorcycles and scooters with side-cars, but also includes a ice cream vending vehicle - with its tower of cones and its built-on parasol for a true 'dolce vita' effect.

I can't explain exactly why I find Jaguar's '80 Years' to be unexciting. Jaguars are still around - more than ever, since being taken over by Ford - but do not have the rarity value of, say, a Pegaso - or even the somewhat stolid Panhard.

While having a café at a buffet, I overhear two Americans discussing their collections - "I'm concentrating on the 'W' series, from 1904 to 1908..."

Rétromobile is a salon where you hear a lot of languages in addition to French, especially a lot of British and American accents and quite a lot of German.

Some manufacturers use this salon to discretely remind attending car fans that they are still in business - like Ford with its Jaguars - and like Chrysler with its - its '56 Chrysler 300B.

'Banker's hot-rod' is what my father used to call these. The one on show is a very big car - reminding me of the huge 1920s touring models - with a huge and very powerful V8 motor. One that could get its white two tons of air-conditioned two-door 'elegance brut' offphoto: cadillac v16 texas zero and up to 100 kph in just over eight seconds - showroom- stock. In 1956 the price was about 4000euro 3 sign.

This Cadillac V-16 goes to the highest bidder if Christie's can find one.

With manual-shift as a 80euro 3 sign option, about 31 non-banking big-car racers had it delivered with this.

We are supposed to look at this car, owned I guess by a collector, and imagine that the new Chrysler 300 on the stand could run the '50s-era 'Panamerica' with equal ease. The stand has a video running that even tries to picture it with zoomy close-ups.

On the way out, on a smaller Michelin stand, is the 1953 Ferrari 375 MM that did run the 'Panamerica' in 1953. Its V12 with 340 hp and body by Pininfarina, was piloted by Magnoli and Cassini. Only two were built, and this one is at Rétromobile 2002 right now.

Since it does not seem to be one of Christie's offerings, I don't think it is being advertised as 'one-owner, never raced, never rallyed.'

Rétromobile - Until Sunday, 17. February. Hours are usually from 11:00 to 19:00, but start at 10:00 on Saturday and Sunday, and go on until 22:00 on Tuesday and Friday. In Hall 2/1 at Paris-Expo, Porte de Versailles, Paris 15. Métro: Porte de Versailles. InfoTel.: 01 58 95 40 15.

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