When I started travelling alone, French cars were enthralling. They were quirky-looking with ingenious technology. And they had an attachment to motor-sport. Eighteen years old, hitch-hiking back from Florence, I got stuck in a field near Strasbourg. Sitting in the sun dopily looking at rolling green Alsatian hills for most of a day, I saw and will never forget a Renault R8 Gordini driven hard on a lonely road, punctuating my boredom. All crackling exhaust, French racing bleu with two longitudinal white stripes and hilarious negative camber rear suspension.
Later on that same trip I eventually arrived in Paris. Being intellectually ambitious, I had my pockets stuffed with Livre de Poche editions of Sartre and I went, my rucksack and I, straight to the vast Renault and Citroen showrooms on the Champs-Elysee to confirm my feelings about the superiority of French culture. The showrooms seemed intoxicatingly sophisticated, places of worship for a more advanced civilization. Does anybody now remember the Renault Fuego ? I saw one spot-lit on a plinth in the first arrondissement of Paris. It was bright green, like a tree frog.
There were other witnesses to my infatuation. Back in London, the ceramic tile tableaux at Michelin House were a reference point. Those grand old moustachioed Frenchmen on heroic roadraces between Lyon and Marseille, Dijon and Pau. In all the books I read when small, there was almost always the dream of the RN7. Never mind that this Route Nationale is now a neglected blacktop, murderous when it is not desolate, it was for me the road to pleasure. As soon as I had a car of my own it was an old Citroen : and I enjoyed hot breezes though the open roof, jazz on the radio, the Med in prospect, if never actually, in sight.
Rewind. Volkswagen currently has its Paris HQ in the Seventh, but now plans to move into the vacant Virgin Megastore on the Champs-Elysee. Meanwhile, the Citroen and Renault premises are deserted. Recent figures show that the majority of EU purchases are to replace existing cars. Only about 2% of sales are net additions, compared with 70% in the developing world. Europeans are not buying many new cars. Especially new French cars. If you can find a French person wanting to buy a car…..they are looking at a Volkswagen. They are drinking Coke and munching Pringles.
When did the decline start ? Back in those first paragraph student days, I could sit on a train for thirty-six hours to Madrid and have for company only my French philosophers and the latest copy of Auto Journal with all its fabulous news of new French cars with oleo-pneumatic suspension and strange seating arrangements. Who can say whether it was cause or effect, but when French culture as a whole lost its authority, the cars became boring. Who reads Sartre today ? Exactly.
The glorious hauteur of France was once revealed in its cars. As soon as I could afford it, I bought a Citroen GS. In this car you had to remove the entire engine to replace a spark plug. Magnifique. The Peugeots of the day had three rows of seats plus worm-and-roller steering. And no-one who has ever seen one can forget the 1967 Panhard CT. With the size and style of a Chevrolet Corvair, this large 4.267m car was powered by an air cooled 850 cc twin dating back to the 1940s. It was en plein ciel at 90 mph.
But it was the simple French cars that most impressed, in the way that Duralex glasses and Opinel knives are still the best of their kind. I have driven the fastest and most expensive cars in the world and I cannot say that any of them gave me more pleasure than the 1948 Citroen 2cv I once played with in Paris or the 1961 Renault 4 I recently drove in London. Design being the ordinary thing done extraordinarily well, the 2cv was a masterpiece. The dear quattrelle ? Early ads said “Elle supermarche bien” and made the boxy car look like a supermarket trolley. But if your trolley is full of foie gras, Roquefort and Gevry-Chambertin, as it once might have been, who’s to complain ? Besides, driving a cheap 845 cc Renault 4 to the limit is more satisfying than being thwarted and threatened in an overheating and expensive Ferrari F40. It really is.
But soon this will be only memory. If present figures are extrapolated, like Noilly Prat and foie gras, French cars will cease to exist in the next decade or so. Forty years from now if someone like me is sitting a field near Strasbourg, the only interruption of his ennui will be an EU official explaining that it is absolument interdite while the latest Indian and Chinese personal transport modules glide silently by. Alas, the people who said vive la difference forgot what it means.