A chance encounter with a French automotive museum in which British flops are displayed alongside curios and aristocrats
I really wasn’t on the lookout for cars. But while meandering around the Yonne, looking at châteaux and abbeys and other historic sights, it was impossible to ignore a large red sign beside the road from Vézelay to Avallon, directing the attention to a Musée des Automobiles just a handful of kilometres away. And experience says that a car museum in a remote bit of France sometimes has treasures to reveal.
This had first happened to me 30 years earlier, when a trip to the Benedictine abbey at Le Bec Hellouin in Normandy revealed, next to the monks’ peaceful garden, a building containing a treasure trove: a 1947 Simca-Gordini monoplace, a 1932 Delage D8S with bodywork by Letourneur et Marchand, a 1937 Peugeot Darl’Mat, a late ’60s Alpine-Renault A210, a Ferrari 250 Tour de France, several handsome roadgoing Bugattis and much more, all of them beautifully preserved and presented. Opened in 1968, and including cars from the collection inherited by Amédée Gordini’s son, it shut its doors in 1991.
At Olivier Delafon’s museum in Sauvigny-les-Bois, however, the treasures are not Delages, Bugattis or Gordinis. Delafon is a snapper-up of unconsidered trifles. He likes to buy them cheap, and he seems to be disappointed if they don’t come with a patina of dulled paint, pitted chrome and caked dust.
When I found my way into his premises the day’s unconsidered trifle was sitting on his trailer: a Vanden Plas 1100 in that shade of brown that, carefully chosen to convey a sense of suave luxury back in the early 1970s, the era of the prawn cocktail and the black forest gâteau, could politely be described as chocolate.
My reaction was lamentably instinctive. “Horrible little car,” I said, thinking back to the days when British Leyland – or whatever it called itself at the time – was collapsing under the weight of disasters like the Austin Allegro and the Morris Marina. The VDP 1100 seemed like a prime example of putting lipstick on a pig.
Olivier was mildly affronted. “It drives beautifully,” he said, even though he had brought it home on his trailer. And perhaps, on reflection, I was being a bit unfair. With its Pininfarina-designed bodywork, Hydrolastic suspension and an east-west engine, this variation on Alex Issigonis’s basic design would have had Connolly leather seats, a walnut veneer dashboard, decent carpets, picnic tables in the seat-backs and twin spotlights either side of an elegant radiator grille added at the Vanden Plas works in North London.
It even looked a little bit like the smaller sibling of the car sitting in the courtyard of the converted stable block of Delafon’s Château de Montjalin: an S-type Bentley saloon, bought at auction in the UK for £7000. This was such a steal because it couldn’t be started, having no ignition key, which deterred most of the dealers sniffing around it.
But Delafon knew a man who knew a man at Crewe, where Bentley keeps duplicates of the key to every car they have ever made, or so he told me. Now, although bearing the scuffs and bruises of an unrestored 1950s vehicle, it starts on the button and is in everyday use.
Its owner is the son of a man who sold his château to Mick Jagger in 1981, because it was too small. (Jagger still spends his summers there, and a corner of the museum devoted to Rolling Stones memorabilia reflects that somewhat tenuous connection.) A semi-retired hedge fund manager and former Lehman Brothers vice-president, Delafon bought his own 18th century home for £120,000 30 years ago, without roof or windows, and spent £4m on making it habitable.
Little signs by the path from the car park to the museum inform visitors not just that no hunting is allowed within the grounds, but that concern for the welfare of the estate’s wildlife extends to small insects.
It also covers motor vehicles: the collection includes derelict or unrestored examples of the Simca 6 (a kind of French-accented Fiat Topolino from 1948), Panhard Dyna, Autobianchi, Renault Dauphine (in policier livery), and the inevitable Citroën 2CV (three versions, including an early one with canvas-and-tube seats).
Another recent addition, an exquisite little Cazenave 50cc moped, built like a miniature 1950s GP machine, cost Delafon 30 euros at a bric-à-brac sale.
The best story is attached to the most dilapidated exhibit of all: a Buick Electra 225 dating from 1961. Its first owner, a French film producer, was driving it south to the Cannes film festival when the car broke down near Avallon. Leaving it with a local garage, he continued his journey by hire car. Some time later the garage owner, unable to repair it, tried without success to persuade the car’s owner to pay a storage bill. Then the garage man fell out with his wife and found himself living in a caravan close to the Château de Montjalin. He had taken the immobile Buick with him, and over the decades it sank into the earth and disappeared beneath a covering of fallen leaves – until being rescued by the museum’s mechanics, who took three weeks to dig it out.
It is so far gone that you can’t even tell what colour it once was, but you get the feeling that nothing could persuade Olivier Delafon to undertake a restoration. In the world of the barn find, he is the Roi Soleil.
Richard Williams is a former editor of Melody Maker, was The Guardian’s chief sports writer and is the author of several books on Formula 1