French Cars

What designer doesn’t like automotive design?  The pinnacle of consumer goods in terms of complexity and often, cost, automobile design inspires passions that transcend mere utilitarian needs; cars become objects of desire well beyond what usefulness dictates.  Vintage cars especially have little use today other than to study the history of culture, design, pragmatism, invention, beauty.  Like the piles of decorative art stashed away in museums around the world, very few good examples of obscure cars survived their initial in-service intact.  What is left now is being hoarded and driven only occasionally.  Luckily, when these wonderful old cars do come out of the garage, people flock to see them and enjoy talking with their stewards about the good old days of motoring.

Sketch of a Citroen DS

For me, looking at French cars is a particular treat because they are so exotic today – but also, there is a certain Gallic quirkiness that emanates from these cars; utility is nice but why not make something very special, to delight the user and casual passerby?  This is the essence of the French motorcar to me: elevating the utility with careful details and imaginative engineering.

Last summer I went to a few car shows and found myself snapping pictures of all the French cars I could find.  What follows are a few of my impressions and what I liked about each design.  First up: the Peugeot 504 sedan.

Peugeot 504 at Carlisle Import Show

A neighbor had one of these where I grew up.  It was 1970’s brown with a saddle interior, and one night my friend clipped it with his 1967 GTO and totaled it on the spot.  The neighbor said “oh forget that piece of junk, don’t worry about it”.  At first glance, that sloping trunk is a little bizarre.  As time goes on, many car designs (or any product, really) which seemed a little dowdy will eventually grow on me.  I would have been crushed if my 504 were hit by some over-exuberant teenager in a muscle car.  The interior:

Peugeot 504 Interior from Carlisle Import Show

This is a Peugeot 505 racing car.  I didn’t get any information about this particular car but it appears to have been recently campaigned in vintage car racing, what with those modern tires.  I can’t think of a more unlikely race car at the moment, but the 80’s Showroom Stock series might have been the perfect opportunity for Peugeot to get some exposure in the USA.

Peugeot Race Car at Carlisle Import Show

Keeping with the Peugeot marque, here is a lovely older car.  This is a 1938 402 Legere.  Without revealing the date on the placard, I might not have guessed the correct year; this car eludes a particular time period, at least to my American eyes.

Vintage 1938 Peugeot 402 Legere at Carlisle Import Show

In a most-fantastic detail, the headlights are embedded behind the elegantly sloped grille.

Here is a marque I heard of but had never seen: Panhard et Levassor.  The car I saw, I believe, is a model 24b1.  I could not get a good overall shot at the show, so to get a full view of the design I found this picture on the internet.Panhard 24b1 at Carlisle Import ShowThis car had some amazing details, like the chrome beltline, perfectly integrated bumpers and fine window trim moldings.  The wheel hubs appear to be finned brake drums with just a thin chrome rim at the edge.

Panhard 24b1 Motorcar at the Carlisle Import Show 2011

Just look at that incredible bumper detail.  From a little research into Panhard et Levassor automobiles, I discovered they were absorbed into Citroen in the early 60’s.  This particular design debuted in 1964.

Panhard et Levassor 24b1 Automobile DetailThe greenhouse is almost symmetrical from front to back.  This swept-back detail on the rear glass/tail gives the car a very good suggestion of aerodynamics, although the laminar science applied here was probably very little.

Panhard 24b1 Greenhouse Detail

A detail of the door handle.

Panhard 24b1 Door Detail

Every part of this car was carefully, originally detailed to be one integrated piece of art.  Due to the noon daylight the interior was hard to capture.  It was too a feast of design, with binnacled instruments and a sweeping integration of instrument panel and door handles.  Look how close driver is to passenger; what better to help romance bloom on a Sunday drive in the country?

Interior of Panhard 24b1 at Carlisle Import Show

Citroen SM… the last great car by Citroen before the corporate merger with Peugeot in the early 1970s emasculated this great brand’s singular vision.  Jointly developed with Maserati (mostly providing drivetrain including a lovely small V6), the SM had many amazing technological advances including electric self-centering steering, headlights that point towards the corners when the wheel is turned, the famous hydraulic suspension… the list goes on.

Citroen SM in Philadelphia

This amazing example was found in Philadelphia at a small design-oriented auto show.  Again, the attention to detail is exquisite; for instance, again we see completely integrated bumpers, but I think we can admit these would not be much protection during parallel parking.

Citroen SM - lovely hood detail

Citroen actually purchased cash-strapped Maserati in 1968.  Of course Maserati had extensive experience building racing engines and large-displacement road engines; Citroen was looking to make a modern sports-variant version of the venerable DS saloon car and the partnership with Maserati would help put the missing pieces into the puzzle.

Citroen put everything they had into this car.  They literally spent themselves into ruin with the engineering and tooling costs.  The car was a success but it was expensive, and of course they probably would have loved to double production numbers.  There are many fragile and unique mechanical systems that do not tolerate casual neglect.  Many cars were probably abandoned after going long periods without proper maintenance.

Citroen SM Door Handle

I should take a minute to describe the peculiar French approach to automobile ride and comfort.  French cars have traditionally weighed heavier on comfort over road control and a firm ride.  The driving position may not be “aggressive”, and the gear change not as direct as say, a German car.  In cars such as the SM – a “personal luxury car” to use the American term – great effort has been expended to make the car responsive but in its own unique way; isolation from road harshness brings driver alertness by avoiding fatigue.  Plus, you just need to look good when driving; you won’t look good if your hair is mussed and you have perspired from having the top down in your little roadster.

Interior: Citroen SM

Citroen SM

The other iconic Citroen (some would consider the iconic Citroen) is the DS.  Developed in the 50’s this is the car that really defines the high period technologically and stylistically.  These two cars were parked in Hampden in Baltimore on Bastille day.  I happen to be driving by on my French moped and could not resist a picture.

Motobecane Moped with Citroen DS

Although the more exotic cars such as the Panhard and Citroen SM draw a big crowd, I get equal enjoyment from the average old economy car.  This seldom-seen gem is a Simca.  My parents have a story about driving a Simca which involves hilarious throttle cable repairs, a string on the end of each windshield wiper through the side windows as an important “manual override” and being able to hear the rust chewing away the car on quiet nights in the garage.

An old Simca displayed at the Carlisle Import Show

According to my parents, a member of the family won two Simcas on a game show in the late 1960’s.  Two?  His and hers, or did they think a spare car would be needed?  As I sat in this car (the owners were very friendly after sharing the above stories), I imagined my father with his Vise Grip hand-held throttle desperately trying to drive in the rain…

Simca Interior

On to a few Renaults.  I had never seen an R16 before – a very distinctive design.  I believe the car was designed in the early 1960’s, and is a very early hatchback.  It was the European Car of the Year in 1965.  I’ll let the pictures do the talking on this one.

Renault 16 at the Carlisle Import Show 2011

The “bird beak” nose detail was a styling cue that appeared all the way into the 1990’s.

Renault 16 Front Detail

France used to allow – or still does? – these cool amber headlights.  I’m pretty sure they are illegal in the States but they really complete the look of the car.

Rear Detail of Renault 16

Here is a look at that hatchback.  I love the framed badge which becomes the bottom lip of the hatch, the rhombus-end/diamond taillamps… oh and notice the Quebec plate.  I talked to a friend of the owner and they brought several cars with them to this show in Pennsylvania.

Nearby was a trio of Renault Le Cars.  The race car looked completely trashed and although curious about that, I was completely transfixed on the brace of completely mint, time-warp road cars.

Renault Le Car

I asked around for the owner but he was out walking the show; he owned all three.  Both road cars were of a very high specification, with roll-back sunroofs, front air dams, beautiful cast wheels, perfect graphics, minty interiors… they were just stunning.  Sadly the red car was gone when I came back to get more photographs, but no matter: the white one was the car I would most want to take home that day.

Renault Le Car, White: Detail of Wheels

The Le Car – called the 5 at home and in world markets – was a very successful car in France.  The Le Car was sold through AMC dealers in the States from 1977 all the way to 1993.  I’m thinking these cars were very late model survivors.

Red Renault Le Car Rear End Detail

I love the plastic bumper details on these cars.  I did a little research and the car was restyled a bit for the 1980 model year; US bumpers were always larger and clad in black, but the domestic models have very svelte, more integrated metal bumpers.  This is a case, however, of me preferring the US version as these styling stripes and that integrated reflector is very nicely done.

Renaultt R5 Turbo Detail

In the display building was an incredible Renault R5 Turbo 2.  This was a specialized, rear-engine/rear-drive homologated racing car that is very, very rarely seen in the USA.  This car – and a nice Citroen G3 – were mobbed by people and it was hard to get a good shot.  I will close with the photo of an R5 Turbo 2 from the internet.  Next summer I will make sure to get to more car shows and possibly disseminate the styling and history a bit more.

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5 thoughts on “French Cars

  1. I’m jealous of all the cars you get to see! I get to see some pretty nice cars living in LA but nothing like you’ve seen. I have seen a Citroen SM the same color as the one you saw. I would check out the dealership but it’s so far away. Bleh. Anyways, I can’t wait to see more amazing photos! Keep up the amazing work.

  2. Thanks for the great shots of my 2 Renault Le Cars. They both have original paint and are nearly original other than the front air dams and upgraded wheels. I actually have more! I appreciate your interest in French cars…people think I am a bit strange for liking and driving them!

      • I searched Google Images for “Renault Le Car” and saw my cars…the pictures you took show up in that search. I’ll be at Carlisle this year…not sure what car I may have, though. I live just over an hour north of Carlisle.

        I’m going to check out your site…seems interesting!

  3. You caught a couple of nice photos of my Simca 1000, Millie (and my Renault 16, Jacqueline, next to it, with my man, Ken). The big surprise about French cars is that they sell phenomenally well around the world, just not in the United States, where, apparently, their comfort, individuality and ingenious designs were let down by awful marketing and service. And, when you see a French car, definitely talk to the owner, you’ll probably find that there are French car stories covering their whole lives! 🙂

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