Dream Chariots

photo, bugatti at retromobile Why folks collect Bugattis.

Rétromobile 2OO6

Paris:– Friday, 10. February:– Whether there's any car industry news or not Rétromobile rolls around every year at this time, sending a lot of mostly white folks down to the Porte de Versailles to search for automotive dreams or a pesky clutch spring for a car that went out of style but not out of mind in 1948.

As a loyal Paris resident I don't own a car. If I did it wouldn't be new. I bought a new car once and the day after the year guarantee expired a compression test showed one cylinder was loafing. Actually it showed no life at all and I hadn't noticed because the other three cylinders were so peppy.

I had to own a VW Variant and a Renault R4 before I had the courage to try a Fiat again, and when it died of rust I switched to Audi. When I think back, I have owned a lot of used cars, usually as the final owner. This hasn't stopped me from loving cars but poverty and no parking caused me to switch to the Métro.

There weren't many passengers this afternoon on the way to Paris Expo and the emptiness around the huge halls there seemed like a signal that expos have been outsourced – to Torino, for the Winter Olympics? Clear shooting, I thought, for the camera.

photo, 
             delage at retromobile Prize–winning Delage at Rétromoblie show.

This year the old car salon is in the big building 7, at the back of the lot, beyond the overhead Périphèrique – the Périfreak! – speedway. From about two kilometers away I see the 'Rétromobile' sign but up close there are no more than a half dozen people. Even fewer are riding up the escalators to the third floor, but inside there are more. Better yet there is daylight, unlike the dim halls of yesteryear.

BMW is the stand right after the entry – as always – and it has a white 2002 Turbo and a blue 1602 convertible, with a motorcycle between the two. I check their bumpers to see if I had a hand making them in Munich, but they are later models – from about when I had the Renault R4. Aside from the striped Mini buried in a corner, BMW seems tired. Where's that BMW–Glas 3000 V8 coupe I almost bought? It was red too.

photo, 
             treat or treat for tour de franceTour de France's first treatsmobile.

The BMWs are mythic cars I guess, but they are modern – '70s models – and hardly belong in this salon, although folks generally like seeing recent iron such as '65 Mustangs. 'Recent,' 40 years old! This show is supposed to be about fenders and running boards, rumble seats and spare tires, big wheels and bare–breasted radiator caps.

So I troll the stands. From a distance I spot a monster coupe, with a mile–long louvered hood, steam wheels, fenders like ice cream dreams, and tiny slits for windows. Some kind of 1930s prize winner on a stand with some Le Mans racer I totally overlook. No idea what it was. Another stand has this impossible black beauty, also long hood, louvers, little coupe driving compartment, tiny split-window windshield. Looks like the driver would need closed–circuit TV to see where it's going or have a crate of Champagne as a seat booster.



These things, Bugatti and Delage, were made by working men. Joes with hammers and anvils, heavy metal, hack the steel and form it into... a teardrop, with their bare hands. None of these 40–ton three–story high punch–press pumping out tinfoil pieces. Machined aluminum is exactly that, not fake plastic. You look and you think, how did they make this stuff?

Especially the expensive cars. Forty or sixty little factories churning out three–ton sports coupes with 20–inch wire wheels and 12 cylinder motors, with rare wood on the dash and steering wheel and leather on the seats and chrome trim like polished silver. We have lost the finest metal sculptors the world has ever seen.

photo, 
             nutella timeNutella time in Montparnasse.

The other day a dude named Carlos Ghosn was on TV–news, telling viewers about his plan to 'save' Renault, the national car maker. He's just finished 'saving' Nissan and now he's going to give the treatment here – without shutting factories, without laying off assembly–line workers. That's it, they assemble machine–made parts. They make nothing.

The financial pundits have a lot of doubt about Renault and Monsieur Ghosn, a longtime Renault manager. Car sales fell in the last quarter, the Japanese are studying their diesel plans, and the Koreans intend to take over Europe. Mr. Ghosn wants to build an extra 800,000 French cars, 550,000 for export.

The problem will be that they are Renaults. Not only are Renaults boring, they are ugly. French drivers buy them because, when it comes to cars, they don't mind ugliness and boring often means, reliable. Renault's east European model, the Logan, has been a success because it is boring, and cheap. So much so that French buyers are crying to buy them.

Mr. Ghosn also plans to fashion a luxo wagon for Renault, to compete with the BMWs, Mercedes and Audis. Every time, since the 1940s that Renault has tried this it has ended up with an unsalable, shoddy and boring white elephant.

photo, 
             place edgar quinetAfter the rain at Edgar Quinet.

At Rétromobile though, Renault has a stand featuring a post–war model named the 4–Chevaux. It has four little doors, a tiny engine in the rear, and is even cuter than a Twingo, which is pretty cute. Folks are ogling the car and climbing in and out of one like they do a new car shows. I bet they could sell more of these than iPods.

As for luxury, I don't think Renault could come within a century of the idea that one of these long–hooded Delages could blow the doors off a hulking tincan of a Mercedes or Munich barrel of a BMW.

No, Renault isn't going to make any wild leaps into the past. We can keep coming to the annual Rétromobile, as the only place to see the pearls, built by the sculptors of steel, hewers of iron chariots, creators of dreams on wheels.

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