The European classic car scene kicks off each year early in February with the Retromobile, held at the Parc des Expositions Porte de Versailles, Paris. The show is always worth a visit - a chance to catch up with old friends, and usually an opportunity to see some cars not usually seen except by the owners... 2014 was no disappointment. Here are my top 10 cars at 2014 Retromobile...
10. Campbell's Original Bluebird
Visitors to the Show were greeted at the entrance by two Land Speed Record veterans from the days of record breaking on Pendine Sands. Sir Malcolm Campbell’s original Bluebird, a 350HP Sunbeam that took him to his first Land Speed Record of 146.16 mph in September 1925 was present. Bluebird was powered by a Manitou 18.3 litre V12 aero engine giving the advertised 350HP at 2,100 rpm.
This car was the creation of Louis Coatalen in 1920. A native of Brittany, France, he had worked for various car companies including William Hillman before becoming Chief Engineer at Sunbeam in Wolverhampton. I looked at one of Coatalen's later record breakers HERE as well at Campbell's Daytona Beach Bluebirds.
On display alongside was JG Parry Thomas’s own record breaker, Babs. This was also an aero engined machine, with a 26.9 litre V12 Liberty powerplant providing the 400 horses, driven through a Benz transmission. These were mounted in the Higham Special chassis, purchased from the estate of Count Zborowski. The Count built four cars for racing and record breaking known as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the Higham Special was number four. Yes, it is the car that inspired the children's book by Ian Fleming, 'Chitty Chitty Bang Bang', and the subsequent Disney movie, starring Dick Van Dyke. Fleming, also author of the James Bond books, had watched Zborowski race at Brooklands as a school boy.
In 27th April 1926, also on Pendine Sands, Parry Thomas set a new record speed of 169.30 mph in the car that he designed and engineered himself. The following day he raised the bar to 171.02 mph. Under a year later, at the same location, Parry Thomas was killed trying to regain the record from Campbell. The car was buried at the beach and remained there for 42 years until Owen Wyn Owen exhumed Babs and restored her to former glory.
8. 1959 Renault
A world away from this pair of speedsters was a weird concept car parked up on the Renault stand. It is at first somewhat unremarkable till the steering wheel is discovered to be located at what would appear to be the rear of the car.
According to the information supplied by Renault, and badly translated by me, this oddity from 1959 was powered by a 1.7 litre V8 engine located at the rear, basically two Dauphine blocks joined together.
The aim of the exercise would appear to be an early search for what is today an MPV (which stands for Multi-Purpose Vehicle, the European equivalent of a CUV) - objectives such as a bright and spacious vehicle aimed at families were at the forefront of the reasoning behind this prototype.
7. Renault Espace F1
Some 25 years later Renault did bring out an MPV, the Espace. They claimed that it was the first such vehicle in production, though Fiat and Volkswagen would reasonably dispute that but that is all water under the bridge. It proved to be a winner for the French giant.
To celebrate the tenth anniversary of this very successful model, Renault let its engineers off the leash to create something really special, the Renault Espace F1. Shown to the public for the first time at the 1994 Paris Motor Show this concept was a thinly disguised Formula One racer. A J63 body (carbon fibre rather than the usual fibreglass) was mated with an F1 Style carbon fibre chassis. The engine was a 3.5 litre RS5 Renault V10, borrowed from a 1993 Williams FW15C, the car that had taken Alain Prost to the World Championship that year. The engine was in the middle as opposed to the normal front location, a six speed semi-automatic transmission, also from the Williams, delivered the power to the back wheels.
Performance was phenomenal, a top speed of over 190 mph with F1 style vehicle dynamics, carbon brakes, all the trimmings. The Espace was built under contract by Matra, who had a stellar competition record, an F1 World Championship for Jackie Stewart in 1969 and a hat trick of outright wins at the Le Mans 24 Hours during the 70's. So it should have been no surprise that this Espace would be top notch.
6. Ferrari 206 S Dino Spyder
Ferraris are always near the top of everyone's list of favourites and the Retromobile was no exception to this rule. This elegant Ferrari 206 S Dino Spyder particularly caught my eye. One of just 18 cars completed, it has an elegant simplicity with styling from Pierro Drogo Carrozzeria it was launched in 1966. The intended production run of 50 was missed due to strikes and Maranello prioritising their Formula One and Le Mans programmes.
Power came from a Vittorio Jano designed 2 litre V6 and it was named after Enzo Ferrari's son, "Dino" who died prematurely in 1956.
The 206 was not particularly successful in competition, especially by Ferrari's standards, and it suffered from a lack of development as Maranello tried to stem the tsunami unleashed by Ford in the Endurance Racing World at the time. As if that was not enough for Ferrari to contend with, the engine rules in Formula One changed in 1966 and Ford, in the shape of the Cosworth V8, was on the way there too.
5. Citroën SM Mylord Cabriolet
Another extremely rare beast was this Citroën SM Mylord Cabriolet from the French coachbuilder, Henri Chapron. Citroën acquired a controlling interest in Maserati in 1967 and produced the fabulous SM coupé, fusing their technology from the DS with a lightweight Maserati engine.
The SM was advanced for the time, featuring hydro-pneumatic self-leveling suspension, and self-leveling lights that swiveled as the car turned, both borrowed from the DS range and other innovations in steering and brakes.
Chapron created a convertible version of this fine French auto, strengthening the chassis, adding a boot (trunk) and, of course a collapsible roof. This all added to the cost of an already luxury car, and in 1971 it was the same price as a Daytona Ferrari.
Only a handful of these elegant vehicles were built, though Chapron did make two special versions for the Élysée Palace, the Présidentielle, having four doors and they were enjoyed by all the French Presidents from Georges Pompidou to Jacques Chirac.
4. 1941 Pierre Faure Type RFA Electric Car
At the other end of the automotive scale was this 1941 Pierre Faure Type RFA electric car. After the Fall of France in 1940, the occupying German forces imposed strict rationing on non-military use of petrol. So ingenious French engineers turned to gas and battery power as a way round the regulations. The best known of this type of vehicle is the Peugeot VLV of which several hundred were produced.
The aerodynamic bodywork was the work of Michel Dufet, a renowned furniture and Art Deco designer, and could accommodate two people.
The car was powered by six batteries, giving a maximum range of around 40 miles, depending on road conditions, payload and whether or not the lights were switched on. About 20 of these vehicles were produced - but even with avoiding petrol use, these form of vehicles were outlawed as resources grew scarce during the Occupation.
3. World War 1 Vehicles
The hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War is being marked throughout Europe and the Retromobile is no exception. There was a collection of vehicles from the conflict. This Latil 4x4 TAR (Tracteur d'Artillerie Roulant) was used to tow heavy artillery around the battlefields. The engine was a 4 cylinder 7.5 litre unit and it had four wheel drive and four wheel steering, very advanced for the period. Over 3,000 of these workhorses were produced.
More familiar to us all is this variant of the Model T Ford. Ambulances such as this saw service from the beginning of the fighting and greatly increased in number after the United States entered the War in April 1917.
This Renault AG-1 taxi would have been a familiar sight in pre-war Paris but in September 1914 it achieved legendary status. On the orders of Général Joseph Galliéni, the Military Governor of Paris, 1,300 of these taxis were requisitioned and used to transport 6,000 reserve soldiers to the front line to fight in the Battle of the Marne. The ensuing victory over the invading German Armies saved Paris from occupation and was a decisive point in the conflict. It marked the end of the Schlieffen Plan and Germany's hope of winning a quick victory. For the French the "Taxis de la Marne" became a symbol of unity and national solidarity well beyond their role in the battle.
The First World War saw the introduction of tanks to the battlefields in 1916 in an effort to break the stalemate of trench warfare. The Renault FT was a French light tank (Char Léger) that was one of the most influential tank designs in history.
The Renault was the first tank to have its armament within a fully rotating turret, The layout, with the crew at the front, and the engine compartment at the rear, became the standard tank configuration.
2. Mercedes-Benz Racing Heritage
On a brighter note I found an old friend on the Mercedes-Benz stand, part of the 120 years of motorsport that the famous German marque was celebrating. They had a wide variety of racing cars, reflecting their rich heritage in the sport, ranging from a Daimler 2 cylinder that took part in the Paris to Rouen "reliability run" on 22nd July 1894 to a modern day DTM car.
My "old friend" was the Sauber C9 Mercedes that finished second in the 1989 Le Mans 24 Hours, some five laps behind their winning team mates, Jochen Mass, Stanley Dickens and Manuel Reuter in #63. The C9 was a very successful machine winning 13 races in its time on the tracks and the Teams, Constructors and Drivers World Championships in 1989.
Of course back at that point in time there was no bulletproof reliability that we have come to expect in the age of Audi at La Sarthe. Kenny Acheson climbed aboard the Sauber for the final spell behind the wheel with an hour and 35 minutes till the flag. He was back into the pits after one lap with severe transmission problems. After five minutes it was decided that nothing could be done, the car was stuck in fifth gear, so Kenny was told to head out and try and limp to the finish. Just about able to get the car in motion and away from the pits, could he keep going, retain his second place and not run out of fuel? Only 100 minutes to go... so no pressure.
Well somehow he made it and with his co-drivers, Gianfranco Brancatelli and Mauro Baldi, Kenny got to stand on the podium. The Sauber C9 had a 5 litre V8 engine with twin turbochargers, good for 800 h.p. at full boost, it was a seriously quick piece of kit. The 1989 running of the Le Mans 24 was the last before the FIA mandated that two chicanes be inserted into the Mulsanne Straight or as the locals would call it Ligne Droite des Hunaudières. The necessity for this change was neatly illustrated during Wednesday when Acheson was timed at 400 km/h (248 mph) in #61. At that kind of velocity, the slightest problem would be disastrous, for both the drivers and the trackside marshals. Most of the drivers absolutely hated being effectively a passenger at that speed, there being little skill required to pressing a pedal hard (though perhaps plenty of intestinal fortitude was obligatory).
1. Brooke Swan Car
My final car could not be anymore removed from the world of the Mulsanne Straight and speeds of 248 mph. Although there was a collection of Maharajah's vehicles assembled at the Retromobile, nothing could touch this one for weirdness.
The Brooke Swan Car was the creation of wealthy Englishman Robert Nicholl ‘Scotty’ Matthewson, who lived in early 20th Century Calcutta. It is certainly different to about any car I have ever seen and would appear to confirm Noel Coward’s observations about Mad Dogs, Englishmen and the Midday Sun.
The design is meant to portray a swan gliding through the water. Apart from the normal lights, there were electric bulbs in the swan’s eyes that glow eerily in the dark. A ship’s telegraph was used to issue commands to the driver up front. Brushes were fitted to sweep off the elephant dung collected by the wheels. The swan’s beak is linked to the engine’s cooling system and opens wide to allow the driver to spray steam to clear a passage in the streets. Whitewash could be dumped onto the road through a valve at the back of the car to make the swan appear even more lifelike.
The car caused panic and chaos in the streets on its first outing and the police had to intervene. Matthewson sold the car to the Maharaja of Nabha, whose family owned it for over seventy years.
To accompany the Brooke Swan Car’ The Maharaja of Nabha had this smaller version made for use on his estate in the 1920s. The body was hand-beaten from steel sheet and fitted with an electric motor. It was called the 'Baby Swan' or 'Cygnet'. This is probably the oldest Indian-made automobile. Both cars are now in the fabulous Louwman Museum, who generously provided me with the information about their history.
Retromobile lived up to its billing as one of the great car days out. Do not miss it if you are in Paris next February!