Francophile : ” A person who admires France, its people, its culture or its cars of yore.”
The above definition (no prizes for guessing which part of it I added) would be a fair description of me. The four years beginning in October 1995 saw me happily ensconced, speaking French very badly in Bordeaux. While I’m not blind my host’s faults which I’m far too polite to mention (apart from maybe the Vel Satis and their supercilious attitude to wine that doesn’t originate in the Hexagon) the warmth and friendliness of the people I met and befriended remains strong in my memory.
Twenty years on I have two major regrets. The first is that I drank way too much beer and didn’t appreciate or learn about the wine that was produced literally on my doorstep.
A far more fundamental cause for regret continues to gnaw away at the back of my mind. The timeline of twentieth century France is literally littered with important, interesting and innovative cars. In almost 50 months I don’t think I ever saw one of them, ever. It’s hardly unsurprising that a Bugatti would be an extremely rare sight but you would have thought that the relatively dry climate in the Sud Ouest would have helped keep the occasional Traction Avant on the road. Not so in my experience. You barely ever saw a DS and I don’t think anyone even knew what an SM was. When it came to Renault things were even worse. Amazingly out of over 8 million Quatrelles manufactured not one seemed to remain in Gascony. The gorgeous little Cinq? Non plus… Rarities like the 16, 20, 4CV or one of my favourites, the pre-facelift 25 might as well never have existed.
Even though it was still in Peugeot’s showrooms while I lived there, numbers of the little 205 on the road were already dwindling. If you hoped to see a large saloon older than about 5 with a lion on the bonnet you needed to go to North Africa. By far the most disturbing thing about this state of affairs is the complete apathy displayed by the French themselves. My Patron’s wife grew up in rural Normandy in the ’50s and early ’60s. The first car she remembers her father running was an Onze Légère. The second was a DS. The most positive thing she would say about the first was that it didn’t make her travel sick, the second’s strongest attribute in her opinion was that it didn’t look as bad as the first. This was a strong, proud Française who knew the date and location of every important grape harvest since 1900, was intensely fiére of her country’s heritage yet she couldn’t give a rashers about growing up with two of the world’s most important cars.
This could be forgiven if it were a mere blip in an otherwise appreciative society. It truly wasn’t though. Nobody I spoke to had even heard of the “Systéme Panhard”. A Frenchman invents a beautiful logical layout that remains completely rational (and available) today but there is no awareness or pride in this achievement. Bordelais Paul Bracq, has returned home and continues to sculpt, draw and advise his sons who restore Pagodas. 99% of this city’s denizens don’t even know who he is. Mention De Dion Bouton and expect to be rewarded with a blank stare. Louis Renault was the first person to make proper use of a turbo (admittedly in an aeroplane) and nobody cares.
What the hell is wrong. Any other nation would scream these achievements from the rooftops. It’s not as if the French tend to hide their talents behind bushels. Their authors, artists, fashion designers, wine makers, scientists, architects and even film-makers are all weaves in the tapestry of the French collective ego. They aren’t above adopting the occasional “étranger” either! Engineers are also lauded (as long as they have nothing to do with cars), think Concorde, the TGV and their massive structures (the Millau Viaduct, the bridge to the île de Ré and le Tour Eiffel all spring to mind). Coco, Gustave and the two Jean Pauls are household names whose exploits the French rightly celebrate and maybe even bask in a little their reflected glory. The true visionaries, the guys who really changed things for both the average Français and for millions worldwide have had their achievements all but forgotten.
Louis, André, René, Armand and Jules-Albert are names that should trip off the tongue. That they don’t is a real shame. These are the real heroes of the early days of motoring and are surely just as important as Henry, Ferdinand and Enzo?