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A Lot of Clean Metal

photo: laurel & hardy, citroen ds

Uncle Den–Den's friends show up to show off a Citroën DS.

The 29th Rétromobile, 2OO4

Paris:– Friday, 13. February:– The first stand inside the doors of Rétromobile is always occupied by BMW. This year there is a very tasteful yellow and black four–seat roadster that the camera captures as a blur, twice. I think it is a model from the early '30s, but I fail to note the details.

If you have no need of spare parts and do not want to buy a scale model of your dream car, and you do not want a motoringphoto: peugeot 402 grille costume, or a speedy wristwatch or an enamel gasoline sign, and you are not in the market for a mint–looking 44 year–old Ferrari 250GT, then you might be concerned about blurry photographs.

Each stand at Rétromobile uses the lights it has rather than the overhead lights provided by Paris–Expo. Some lights are bright – some are too bright – and in some places there is very little light. There are treasures in the dark, but you will not capture them without a flash. And a flash will not work well either.

French oddness – headlights behind the grille of this Peugeot 402.

This is a show with a lot of shiney metal, and since there are a lot of old cars being shiney, they are liberally laden with chrome headlights, radiators, hubcaps and windshield trim. It looks like old–fashioned neon in black and white – it glitters, it shines. Chrome is rare in our austere lives and times, and it is not as if it is as expensive as silver.

This year's Rétromobile has the theme, 'L'aventure et du voyage.' This means there are a number of displays of vehicles that have made some long trips. Depending on when and where, few of these displays have much chrome.

A couple of weeks ago Arte–TV ran a documentary about André Citroën's ideas about promoting his products. Citroën had the notion that potential buyers would be impressed if he sent his vehicles to the ends of the earth – and showed everybody how in weekly newsreels that used to be shown in cinemas.

There were three of these excursions in all. The first, in 1922 and 1923, sent a small armada of half–tracks made by Citroën, across the Sahara. I guess the idea was that some roads in France were just as impassable, but I'm not aware that the half–tracks were offered for sale in France.

Citroën also made sure that along for the ride, besides drivers and mechanics, there were also engineers, army officers, geologists and doctors, as well as sound and movie cameramen. And cooks, of course.

Citroën handled all of the considerable logistics. He had reserves of fuel pre–placed, plus spare parts and medecinesphoto: citroen half track and, again of course, lots of food and movie film. He was more organized than Napoléon. For one thing, he brought his crews back to France again.

One of Citroën's famous half–tracks.

The two other trips involved sending expeditions across Africa from top to bottom, from the Mediterranean to Capetown. This was in 1924 and 1925, when there weren't many autoroutes in Africa. The most ambitious trip was undertaken in 1931 and 1932, and it went from Europe to China.

At the time there wasn't any easy way to do this. For some stages, the half–tracks had to be taken apart in order to cross rivers. Some of the film from this trip contains hair–raising scenes of half–tracks almost falling off Marco Polo camel paths on the sides of very big mountains.

So then, 60 years later at this year's Rétromobile, for the very first time, there are examples of the original vehicles – set up in a camp–like tableau, with many of the original accessories. There are also TV screens around, showing the films of the expeditions.

In addition to the salon's theme, I also try to think of one. This year it isn't working, so I just wander around, crisscrossing the stands in the 20,000 square–metre hall. I would really like to see the King of Spain's four–door Maserati again, but really beautiful cars usually only show up once here – before being snapped up by shy collectors.

Then there are the salon's Citroën 2CVs. None of this year's crop are ordinary – they are here this year because they've all made long or difficult trips too. For example, there's the one from the 'Raid Afrique 1973.' Elsewhere, there's a spotless four–wheel drive African model. 'Four–wheel' drive worked on account of motors in the front and the rear.

One item I overlook, is Eleanor and Ben Carlin's 'Half–Safe.' This was a US Army Jeep turned into an amphibian, that the couple used for crossing the Atlantic in 1946. For spare fuel, they towed along a used WWII fighter plane drop–tank. The crossing just to the Azores took 32 days. Somewhat later they arrived in Paris and moored near the Arc de Triomphe.

Afterwards they rebuilt their Jeep–boat and took it on trip across Turkey to India, then through Indochina, and finallyphoto: headlight took to the sea again in Japan and set sail for the Aleutians. They arrived in Canada on Wednesday, 12. March 1958, after 18,000 kilometres of sea and 62,000 kilometres on land.

This year's salon celebrates other birthdays – a 50 year–old Alfa Romeo Sportiva Coupé, one of two. There are 70 years' worth of Peugeots, some remarkable. There's a red 40 year–old Shelby Mustang that starred in the 'Gendarme de St–Tropez.' It is 'for sale' at a high price.

There is also the 100th birthday for Hotchkiss, with a 1904 Type 'C' model – 'Made in Paris.' Plus there is 50 years for Facel Vega and another 50th for the Mercedes 300SL gull–wing, with the body by Uhlenhaut – which debuted in New York in 1954. The beauty on display is a 1955 version, and is the salon's best–looking car.

In the Paris region of Argenteuil, Mercedes now has a special garage entirely devoted to the restoration of its older models. It must be a sign of changing times, because new cars are usually recycled rather than fixed.

I come across a Rolls–Royce that has a sign on it stating that it is the salon's most – something? – old, mint, extravagant, glossiest? – which is representing the company's 100th birthday.

The car is a Phantom 1, which was a gift made in 1927 from the husband of the lady who inherited Woolworth's, tophoto: mercedes 300 sl herself. It's interior is done up in Louis XIV style, as a sort of inspiration from Marie–Antoinette's sedan–chair. Even if it is a Roller, it's plain to see that some superrich people had dubious taste.

In passing I note a Renault 'Reinastella' RM2 from the '30s. This bread–and–butter car maker turned a hand to a big limo and the result is impressive, enough to equal competitors' of the time. No Renault badge though – just a discrete star on the radiator's nose.

Step into this 1955 Mercedes 300SL and feel very rich.

The displays by car clubs are getting fewer as the years go by. The clubs themselves aren't disappearing – their lack must be partly due to the salon's affiliation with Christie's – which will be holding an auction tomorrow.

Their star offer is a 1935 Bugatti T55. It is supposed to represent Bugatti's best and this one runs too. It is supposed to very rare, and is expected to fetch up to two million euros. But it is used, with a recorded history of eight French owners and one from Japan.

A possible bargain, in contrast, is a 1965 Silver Cloud III Roller coupé, once owned by Brigitte Bardot. If you are at tomorrow's auction you might drive this one off for a mere 70,000€.

So much for high–priced dreams. Out of nowhere, standing by itself, is a 1939 Nash Ambassador convertible. It is middle–blue and spotless and it looks like it has never seen a rainy day. Well, its interior might have been updated a bit, but only enough so that it seems to be new. It has a straight–eight motor with 115 hp, and a three–speed gearbox, with overdrive.

There is a lot to see, yet it seems as if there is less than there was a few years ago. The scale–model car stands are increasing, or getting bigger. At one of these I can buy the car I had when I came to Paris – an orange Audi 100S coupé. It's only 35€ but this is five euros more than last year.

There seem to be more auto–art stands. None of them seem to have cartoons though – they might be missing a good bet with the 2CV fans – but they are probably impoverished.

More in evidence are stands with 'driving' clothes. These have WWI fighter pilot caps, goggles, gloves, and the correctphoto: 39 nash ambassador type of trench coat – so practical for wearing in tropical rainstorms while repairing flat tires. There are watches too, and even Mercedes has its boutique – with most items in gray and black, easy on the chrome.

Scene–stealer – a 1939 Nash Ambassador.

Finally, there are the parts stands. These are besieged by the impoverished 2CV owners, looking for something rare and vital for their dream machines. There are also ersatz parts stands, selling steering wheels, and the brand–new enamel signs of yesteryear. There are even a few '40s–model jukebox replicas around.

My tour this year has taken about three hours, without looking at very much closely for long. The camera's score is about 60, so I wearily plod off to my transportation – the good old Métro.

Rétromobile – Paris' annual very old used car show, featuring oldie cars, trucks, some motorcycles and maybe a few boats, some newer than new. This year's edition keeps on rolling along until Sunday, 22. February. From 10:00 to 19:00, and 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 49 53 27 00.

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