R é t r o m a n i a !

photo, delahaye convertible, retromobile The most orange car in Paris this week – a Delahaye.

The Past Is Better Than It Ever Was

by Ric Erickson

Paris:– Saturday, 17. February:– The period of the year from mid–January to the end of February is a time when the present is tiresome, the days are grey but getting longer and the promise of spring is tantalizing. At this latitude the wait will be long and there is nothing about the present to make it worthwhile. Luckily there is a lot of past to wallow in.

In the 1870s nostalgia was eclipsed as a serious disease, eradicated by progress if not time. The phenomenon of nostalgia depends on a past near enough to be remembered yet far enough back to be hazy. Remember the well in the backyard? Or hauling in the block of ice for the refrigerator? Or going to the outhouse on the night of the fierce blizzard?

Personally I do not recall these. However I do remember all three, but the last without the blizzard. I guess it puts an age on me – except that if you go camping somewhere that is not a suburb you could come face to face with a well, ice, and an outhouse – which you often see parked on city streets today, as the fiberglass or tin–sided Portacrapper. Try some nostalgia on one.

photo, dashboard delahaye, retromobile More orange at Rétromobile.

Cars used to be toys because they were unreliable and if you wanted to keep moving you had to fix them yourself. They were like kerosene lanterns – if you didn't trim the wick the light was going to get dim. If you didn't do whatever you needed to do to sparkplugs, you car would be asthmatic. If you didn't put air in the tires periodically you could end up rolling lumpily. Remembering all this is nostalgia, or homesickness.

The exhibition site now called Paris–Expo does not inspire nostalgia, though I imagine it must to some. I have only been going there for ten years regularly. After yesterday I am starting to think it's time that the old–car show held annually should have a rétro version – say, a replay of the 1997 show.

photo, sign, headlight, retromobile

But who am I trying to kid? As Daimler–Chrysler's Dieter Zetsche said, "It's just a joke." Now the news predicts that Chrysler's end is near and for the first time in many years Chrysler is unrepresented at the current Rétromobile, while Mercedes is there alive and well showing off a refrigerator–white 300SL roadster from 1957.

Well maybe it's all for the better. Next year the short–lived renaissance of the Chrysler 300 can be celebrated with two nostalgia models, one from 1957 and one from 2007.

As seen yesterday there are no scantily–clad ye–ye dancers at the nostalgia show, just a couple of hectares of floor space full of old duffers getting spasms of high blood pressure from the possibility of finding an elusive 1938 Peugeot door handle. The dim sales booths sell these things for prices that rival gold watches. Whatever happened to those junk dealers that could peddle a driveshaft for $10, or five if you extracted it from the carcass yourself?

photo, bmw dixi, retromobile BMW's little Dixi cupcake.

This could go on all night, this nostalgia–idiocy. Fiat 500s are alive and well in Paris and are often featured as the Car of the Week in Metropole – for the simple reason that they have no right to exist, but do, despite the near–total disappearance of all contemporary cars. They represent a zeitgeist that recalls a carefree postwar era. One with a picnic basket with a red and white checkered napkin, some green grass and a sparkling brook reflecting a mild blue sky speckled with butterflies against the fluffy clouds.

Later this year Fiat intends to roll out a new version of this mini car – the New Nuova Fiat 500. I fear it is not going to work. It has been announced with fanfare on the Internet, with competitions and contests, forums and passwords. It will follow the Beetle II, the Mini II, the possibly to–be ill–fated Chrysler 300 II and the bosomy Vespa scooter, having its 13th renaissance.

photo, cadillac, 2nd place carrera panamerica, 1950Panamerican hero Cadillac.

Without any aid at all, in 1957 Italian engineers put together a people's car Italian style, with a half–litre two–cylinder air–cooled motor, two doors and a fabric roof, with a top speed of 90 kph depending on the heft of the grandmother and the size of the picnic basket. Over 18 years Fiat built and sold 3,678,000 of these snazzy flitzers. They were cars only if you had the imagination of an Italian. Myself, I had a Fiat 600, practically a limousine in comparison.

So it wasn't nostalgia for me yesterday at Rétromobile. It was to see the podium they would erect under a Fiat 500. And I couldn't find it. As I already mentioned, the huge floor of Hall 7 was crawling with duffers crawling along, popping their cameras at the 300–odd cars, digging through parts bins, kicking the tires of the cars being offered by Christie's, throwing down oysters by the dozen and those who weren't dealing were gawking, pure and simple.

I saw model Fiat 500s. If you ask how a show like Rétromobile makes money, just look at the miniature car lots run by the toy car dealers. Any size of Fiat 500 smaller that the real thing costs 35 euros. Last year they were only 24 euros, and I imagine there were folks around trying to peddle these classics too.

photo, fiat 500 abarth, retromobile Fiat 500 in street racing trim.

The Bugattis and Delahayes became tiring as did the Mustang club's Shelby Mustang. The 1950 Cadillac Coupe de Ville that came second in the Carrera Panamerica of the same year, was – massive. No wonder America won World War II. Rollers are so common as are the 2CVs, Jeeps, ah, but there were one or two pearls – there always are – the very dark 1928 BMX Dixi, based on an Austin 7, an extra–early Fiat 500. But where was the Isetta?

Where was I? Outside the Hall 7 Paris–Expo was nearly deserted, with one battered and red Fiat 500 parked opposite the exit. Later seen in the France–3 TV–news report about the salon. The real thing, street wheels, and dirty, without iPod, GPS, mag wheels, electric windows, airbags, was nostalgia on the run.

A bientôt à Paris
signature, regards, ric

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