I love Paris in the Winter

It’s an exhibition, a shop-front and an automotive party. That’s why Retromobile is a February must

In its new hall the annual winter Paris auto-exposition had a higher-quality feel this time, perhaps because the parts and models were in a separate section leaving the displays, dealers and automobilia in the spotlight.

The show seethed with fine machinery, spearheaded by a selection from the amazing Peter Mullin museum of French cars. Alongside the famous Hispano-Suiza Xenia sat a Saoutchik Talbot T26, a selection of seductively-bodied V12 Delahayes, a Bugatti Atlantic coupé and that gloriously absurd Voisin Aerodyne with its wonderful jazz-fabric interior. Delahayes seemed to be everywhere, but I especially liked the shortchassis Guilloré V12 on the Automobiles Historiques stand of Flavien and Vanessa Marçais, who run those two fine race series for GT & Sports Cars and Italian Historics. They also showed me over the only privately owned Alpine-Renault A442 Le Mans car – which is being restored to race! I can’t wait to see that.

Dealer stands at Retro are much more than sales opportunities, more like mini-museums. On his patch the ever-cheerful Lukas Huni backed up a particularly handsome Mottobodied Talbot-Lago T26 and enormous Boneschi touring Lancia Asturia with his own V12 Delage 2LCV, Fiskens showed Didier Pironi’s Ligier JS11/15, while Hall & Hall paired Villeneuve’s Canadian GP-winning Ferrari T3 with one of the Auto Unions recovered from Soviet Russia on the back of a VW pick-up. You couldn’t help imagining Gilles in an A-U – blistering. They also had Seaman’s Delage 8C – and there was another on an insurance firm’s pitch. French manufacturers seem to have rediscovered the show: Renault went big on the sporting angle with Alpine, reminding us that 50 years ago before it went Group 4-wild the Berlinette was a pretty little thing, Peugeot offered a spread of early 200-series cars to mark the new 208, and Citroën took an art route with a groovy-liveried GS, posters and sculptures, a rally SM (was there ever a less likely rally car?) plus maquettes of the 2CV concept by legendary designer Flaminio Bertoni – and the hatchet he used to shape plaster models. Another French make represented was Monica; no, not a rebirth for the elegant 1970s four-door sports saloon, but marque inspirer Jean Tastevin was on hand to sign a new book on the project. BMW harked back to its humbler origins with a pretty 700RS competition spider and an F2 singleseater of 1949, while Skoda celebrated grander days with one of the Hispanos it built under licence between the wars, featuring a positive sideboard inside with mirrors and cabinets, plus a very attractive Monte Carlo coupé of 1937 with waterfall grille and aero tail.

It’s the completely unexpected that make a trip to Retro worth it: you’ll come across things like one of the 1925 Chenard et Walcker Le Mans ‘tanks’, a cute Fiat Topolino hot rod with chopped roof or the beautifully constructed replica of an electric tricycle which ran in England in 1881. Built by Germany’s Autovision museum, this was straight out of H G Wells, all wicker, brass and mahogany. Next door, something which stopped me in my tracks: the delicate 1920s duralumin skeleton of the mid-engined Gerin, a grounded aeroplane with all-independent suspension and gearless CVT drive. On show for the first time, it was never completed in period, although its designer drove it for miles sans its intended fabric bodywork, and its owners don’t plan to finish it now – that would be anticipating history. Elsewhere you could admire a wonderful line-up of amphibious cars, from the practical Trippel which could convey 16 stormtroopers across a river to the bizarre Comète – a two-seater bathtub balancing on two enormous rubber-tyred paddle wheels.

I was impressed by the parade of one-offs built by French hopefuls in the Sixties. Home-built though they were, all were well-finished and remarkably good-looking, particularly the Elitelike Piollet coupé and the Prab, reminiscent of the 1980s TVR Tuscan. I can’t imagine where else you could explore this by-way of motoring history. In fact there were rare vehicles in every direction: the tiny Marquis, designed by Alpine’s Jean Redélé, the experimental F1 Ferrari ‘Spazzaneve’ – seeing its short, squat form I appreciate why it was uncharitably called ‘snowplough’ – or a tangerine Fifties Alfa 1900SS show car by Ghia-Aigle which I went to look at with American collector Oscar Davies. He was keen to buy until he found he couldn’t climb over its doorless flanks.

Auctions are a major Retro feature, and while I didn’t make it to Bonhams’ sale which was elsewhere, they had brought one of the late George Daniels’ cars to preview the Goodwood sale of the horologist’s collection, a 1907 Daimler tourer – two owners from new. I did inspect Artcurial’s offerings, though, finding a tasty Delahaye 135M bodied by Pourtout, one of my favourite houses, and a Lancia Rallye 037 which swept me back to my bestever day’s driving, in one of these GpB wildcards along the banks of Loch Ness. What a car.

Retromobile is famous for its high-quality automobilia, and it’s a treat to admire original Bourlier travel posters, huge model biplanes and cases racked with unusual radiator mascots, trophies for forgotten rallies and elaborate sculptures. Retro isn’t cheap, but the best never is, and Retro is where the best goes on display. I wanted to pocket a painted Twenties bronze of a hydroplane skating over metallic waves, but the dealer gave me some suspicious looks.

There’s new art too: I watched entranced as Hervé Nys’s sculpted Bugattis endlessly climbed a spiral ramp, and while I could give his wheeledsheep skull a miss, I liked the contorted con rods writhing together like snakes. Models abound, but my eye was caught by Patrick Badot’s amazingly detailed 1/6th-scale Lancia Ferrari. Patrick, a keen Motor Sport reader, tells me it can take from six to 36 months to create a model, which he produces in a small run. No wonder they attract the price of a full-size car. Alongside were the 1/43rd-scale Bugattis of Alain Bouissou, true magnifying-glass jobs with pinhole drillings on a T59 chassis and separate wheel spokes, and the super-detailed Auto Union and Alfa Monza of Pierre Laugier, with paper-thin panels which open up to reveal jewel-like internals.

It’s hard getting round Retro, not only because there’s so much to see but because at every corner you bump into people you know. The days of finding unused pre war Alfa switches among the parts stands are mostly over now, but it’s still the place to catch up with car types and meet new ones. Mark Lizewskie, curator of the Jack W Rich auto museum in Pennsylvania, told me about restarting the one-time Hershey hill climb, along with a concours where in line with a welcome shift in attitudes there will be a preservation class where faded original paint is applauded, not marked down. Oh, and I met a lady with 100 Cadillacs, but that’s another story.

For once I didn’t buy anything at Retro – last time I came away with a Panhard garage – but it’s always a pleasure to visit. Very different atmosphere to Goodwood or Pebble – it’s indoors for a start. Or mostly indoors: thumping away outside sat the awesome 11ft-tall 330-litre (believe it) turbo-charged Duvant engine, built to drive a huge dynamo. A plume of exhaust sailed up into the freezing air, a flag for the weird things you can find in Paris in the winter.

Gordon Cruikshank