Past and presence

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Parisian winter exposition assembles an impressive array of wings, wheels and props

Transport of all hues turns up at Retromobile, the annual Paris extravaganza. Greeting visitors this year was the Morane-Saulnier monoplane of tennis champ and aviator Roland Garros, with his Type 18 Bugatti, while outside were a bristling Mirage V fighter and a working locomotive steaming up and down. And inside I found the ideal commuting wheels — a road-rail Jeep to take you to the station and then all the way to Platform 4.

One of this year’s themes was a homage to the Citroen DS, focused on Lukas Huni’s richly varied display. What a stunning effect this mould-breaking saloon must have had on a 1950s audience more used to 4CVs and Simca Arondes. Among Huni’s delicious show of prime Alfas and Bugattis, that lovely Facelbodied Bentley MkVI Cresta stood out with its sculpted wooden dash, while opposite sat a voluptuously curved Alfa shaped by Swiss extreme stylist Luigi Colani — pity the buyer — who ever has to replace its bulbous glasswork. Elsewhere Citroen went topless, displaying a range of coachbuilt CX and SMs including that Heuliez SM with ‘venetian blind’ roof. Bet that doesn’t leak…

Across the aisle Renault boasted a top contender for the bad taste tankard — a matt black Louis XV Twingo, lined in crushed velvet featuring marquetry, brocade, candelabra and a gold fauteil instead of a rear seat. In recompense the firm also brought an Alpine A220 V8 Le Mans car — registered for the road. Not to mention a vast street sweeping device they built in 1913. Completing the partes tres of Gallia, Peugeot’s 1935 401 Transformable proved that folding metal roofs aren’t new, while Porsche brought the T7 prototype that spawned the immortal 911.

A selection of Lamberts from the Mulhouse museum included a sweet pick-up used around the works, a racer and a slightly slabby threeseater coupe which its minders ostentatiously handled with white gloves. These light but sophisticated machines initially had FWD and independent front springing but struggled to sell. I’ve seen one Leyat before, but never four in one place. A few 1920s eccentrics thought this style of aeroplane-cabined propdriven contraption was the future, and Leyat managed to build several including the open ‘sports’ version on show. And there was a model of a proposed 40ft-long propeller bus, presumably capable of wiping out 20 people at once…

Volkwagen flew both Bentley and Bugatti flags by showing the Embiricos 414 before it returns to Arturo Keller’s vast Napa Valley collection, plus the restored ex-Benoist and Stafford East T59 that was once often seen at UK events. Shown here once before in unrestored state, it sparkled, proudly celebrating 80 years since these beautiful machines left Molsheim — but in contrast ‘distressing’ has elsewhere gone too far: several restored cars boasted unrealistic dirtied paint and roughed-up leather. I don’t like glitter, but nor do I like paint-on grime.

Spent an interesting time on the Hall & Hall stand where after admiring the Beltoise/ Brabham Matra M5650 Rick Hall races (the Hill/Pescarolo M5670 was nearby, too — it’s that kind of show) Dick Crosthwaite told me about a forthcoming C&G project that had me goggling. You will too — but I’m not allowed to tell you yet. Equally frustratingly, Dick recalled being taken to a warehouse full of 60 or 70 Maseratis somewhere in America that he couldn’t quite recall. I left him being grilled for location clues by several excited car people.

It’s the art and automobilia stands that confirm you’re not at the NEC. There are acres of glass cases displaying trophies, models and mascots you might see at Goodwood or Pebble, but here there are unique novelties: lamp standards made from con rods and ring gears, a Dino engine table with its carbs breathing through the glass top, a desk hewn from an airliner engine. There’s sculpture, too: some recent, some dating back to the dawn of motoring. I admired a cyclist carved from a block of sandstone, but I coveted an intricate model of a early V8 aero engine, complete down to working cams and tappets, which I was told off for playing with. I might have consoled myself with a handsome curved ply hydroplane with streamlined chrome outboard but as it was full-sized I couldn’t get it back on Eurostar.

This time I didn’t buy myself anything at all, despite the enormous and tempting range of models including several transporters, even down to the Gordini truck in our feature this month (see p104). What I really did fancy was Dioram’art’s astonishingly detailed and busy 1/43rd scene of the Le Mans Classic paddock, packed with cars and little spectators. Another depicted a pit full of DBR1 Astons being fettled by wonderfully scruffy mini-mechanics.

If you’re searching for that elusive book or photo, try here: I noticed original brochures for the Fiat 8V, Stratos handbooks and a first edition of Luigi Barzini’s pioneer classic Peking to Paris. If you haven’t read it, do: their hardships crossing the Gobi desert make facing British snow look small beer. And some of them did it on spindly De Dion tricycles; falling over one at Retro reminded me that it’s 130 years since that pioneer firm began.

Fiskens showed a 250F in sparkling white, a livery James Mitchell tells me was applied for a German movie filmed partly in practice at Monaco 1959. What’s the film like, I asked James. “Awful.” So don’t bother tracking down Ein Engel auf Erden.

This was the first time I had seen the 4WD six-cylinder Spyker from the Louwman Museum — a technical tour de force for 1903 — while the Dutch collection and Mercedes-Benz jointly unveiled a handsome pair of Benzes built for the 1910 Prince Henry trials which they have co-operated on restoring. These had spent years forgotten in a Mercedes warehouse, complete barring the unusual flared bodywork. MB also showed one of the 1908 GP cars and the 200HP Blitzen Benz record-maker, which glistened like porcelain — a far cry from 1909.

Retro is more than a show, though — it’s a forum for the old car world. Many people said to me “I’m just here to see people”. I got talking with a man who noticed my Motor Sport badge and asked if I knew who Gwenda Stewart was — turned out he owns the FWD Derby-Miller that very rapid lady once raced.

Over dinner I got an insight into the other side of the paperwork we all moan about when an American FIVA inspector described the problems of the USA’s sheer size: if someone living in the Mid-West discovers he needs a FIVA certificate to do, say, Peking to Paris, it may mean flying an inspector out to him. And as FIVA is composed of individuals representing countries, the swings of diplomacy are played out round the table. My informant described the meeting after country A had upset country B, when delegate A had to apologise to delegate B through gritted teeth before car talk could resume…

I also learned from a well-known historian that Bugatti faking is no new pastime. According to him, a well-known racer who worked at Molsheim would return to the factory on Saturday with a trusted foreman, assemble a Type 35 by Sunday evening and stamp it with the same chassis number as the last car out on Friday, selling it to an unsuspecting buyer and pocketing the proceeds. There’s nothing new under the sun, as WB liked to point out. But while Retro is about history, there’s always something novel there.