French museums

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There are now so many motor museums in the world that they have prompted the compilation of a book about them, though obviously the author could not hope to visit them all. In France there are three notable ones and some lesser ones that are in effect private collections which the owner will allow people to visit for a small fee.

One such is at Bec-Hellouin, a small village just off the N138 South West of Rouen. The N138 is the road to Le Mans for anyone travelling to the 24 Hour race, so this small private museum is ideally placed for the motor racing enthusiast. The owner is the “Grand Patron” of Chocalat Menieur and he has collected together cars that he likes, rather than classic museum exhibits, and it is noteworthy that they all run and are in frequent use. He is a keen Bugatti enthusiast so the collection numbers half-a-dozen of the Molsheim cars among the exhibits. There is one of the very first Simca-Gordini sports cars, dating from 1937, a rare Le Mans Peugeot of 1938/39, early Citroëns, Delage, Renault and recent models of Aston Martin, Ferrari and Mercedes-Benz.

The museum makes no pretence to offer a history of motoring, as others do, but is more in the nature of a gentleman’s “Motor House,” situated in the grounds of his country Château, next door the historic Abbey of Bec Hellouin. As there is also an excellent gastronomique restaurant in the village, it is all well worth a short detour during the thrash to Le Mans for anyone who enjoys gracious French living.

The three major museums in France are those at Rochetaillée-sur-Saône, just east of Lyon, that is worth a visit if only to see how a motor museum should be laid out, the museum of the Automobile Club de l’Ouest inside the Le Mans circuit, and the Pichon museum at Cleres, just north of Rouen. While the Lyon Museum is an example of “doing it right”, the Le Mans museum is an example of “doing it wrong.” It would better be described as a mausoleum, for it is cold and dull and lacks any sort of character. In a museum at Le Mans you would expect to see a history of that famous race depicted in exhibits or photographs, but there is no such thing and there is no attempt at presentation whatsoever and a lot of the exhibits really look like sad old things in their last resting place.

At Cleres the museum is different again, for though it is a miscellaneous collection from Grand Prix cars to veterans it has a restful and informal atmosphere and the owner and his family live in the Hotel opposite and enjoy old cars and talking about them.

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