France in the '70s: Part 2
Read part one of France in the '70s
A year later, I returned to Dijon, again buying myself a very cheap Citroën Traction Avant 11 Légère to travel around in. I think it was 150 francs. Cruising through France in summer with a girlfriend was bliss.
Above: I bought myself a cheap Citroën 11CV Légère just to travel around in. The little Traction took me through half of Europe. We slept in the car and had a great time.
Even when the car finally had a big-end failure it could be repaired right on the gravel. There were always parts to be found somewhere. No big deal. And friendly people were ready to help. We slept in the car, still wondering what the future might hold. But that wasn’t so important back then.
Above: The 11CV’s engine soon developed a big-end failure which was quickly repaired right by the roadside. Traction spares were easy to find, the rest you learnt by just getting on with the job.
Above: In those days you didn’t call the AA. You took your toolbox out!
THE FORD BOOKSELLER'S TRUCK
In the summer of 1977 my good publisher friend Harlward Schrader asked if I could do him a favour and bring a rare pre-war Ford A truck back from France. Apparently it was stranded somewhere on the autoroute near Metz. It was supposed to have been a bookseller’s truck. I said I’d do it, so I skipped school and went off to France with a friend from Cologne and his dog, Taps.
Upon arrival at the motorway service station near Metz, it turned out the old Ford had been left many weeks in the open. Someone drove it there and simply abandoned it. For some reason the engine didn’t turn an inch.
In those days you didn’t call the AA, you got your tool box out and began dismantling the motor right there in the parking lot.
With the oil pan removed and the help of a small tree trunk we prised the cylinder head off. It felt like being in a Monsieur Tati film, that’s how funny it was. People came over and left us money for food. They couldn’t believe what they saw. On top of that, Taps kept on dragging the parts away. I had to go searching all over the parking lot for them.
Above: Most annoying was our dog, Taps, who constantly ran away with precious parts like pistons and plugs. They were all over the place at the motorway fuel station.
Once we’d opened the engine we could see that two of the pistons were completely destroyed and three main bearings had gone as well. Everything was loose and worn out. Could that engine ever run again?
To cut a long story short, it could. We lived 10 days in that truck, right beside the motorway, working all daylight hours to get the thing going in order to drive it back home.
Above: The cylinder head came off with the help of a small tree. What we found inside wasn’t great.
Above: Two completely destroyed pistons and three main bearings gone. Not a good starting point for travelling 550 miles back home.
Above: That’s piston number one. Nothing to do but find a workable replacement which we sourced from a Willys Jeep. Or was it the one from a Renault Juvaquatre? I can’t remember.
It was total madness. I went all over Metz in search of parts that might fit the old Ford engine – another steep learning curve. All sorts of brands and types went into that four-cylinder engine. From Willys Jeep to Renault Juvaquatre, almost anything could be made to fit, sometimes held together by wire found in the old WW1 trenches next to the motorway. (Metz is an area relatively close to Verdun).
Above: Piston rings from all sorts of cars went into that engine. Some were made out of wire from the old trenches next to the Verdun motorway.
There were also some dilapidated Willys Jeeps and Dodge WC-52 3/4-ton trucks lying in the woods. Sometimes I went there and took bolts, cables and belts out. Despite last having run in 1943 when coming in via Normandie, they were still usable. I also took the old seats out so that we could lie more comfortably when working under the truck. I still have one.
In the end the repair went pretty well. The truck ran beautifully. It’s hard to believe that this all took place exactly 45 years ago!
Above: After 10 long days bolting all the various bits together the lovely old bookseller’s truck finally ran. After getting it back to Germany I never saw it again and often wonder what became of it.
I could tell you many similar stories over the years of me hunting through yards, garages and early collectors’ places in order to discover car treasure. It was just so much more interesting than school.
I can’t say exactly when it happened, but almost overnight, the cars seemed to have disappeared. Old scraps were gone and anything valuable became a collector’s piece.
Above: A scrapyard near Dijon. After 1979 many old cars disappeared from yards like that. They became voitures de collection, collectors’ pieces.
In my opinion, the French government’s classification of the Schlumpf collection – already under workers’ union control since 1977 – as an historical monument in 1978 was the start of the real classic car movement in Europe. I was actually there in Mulhouse at the time and saw the rows of cars. Sadly, the photos are long gone.
A CHANCE ENCOUNTER IN LYON
I had been writing all these stories about my experiences in the 1970s for a little while when one morning I woke up and began to question whether this was something people really wanted to know about. After all, old scrapyards are definitely not as interesting to people now as they once were. To me, they were an educational paradise – no one would call them that these days. And so, I had almost decided to stop writing about that time in my life when a chance encounter near Lyon changed my mind.
Driving through the countryside on the way to see and appraise a private museum, I spotted an abandoned 1950 Citroën 15CV Six. It was standing up against a steel building, blocked in by other cars. Its number plates weren’t current and it showed no signs of recent use but looked in pretty much the same condition it would have been 40 or 50 years ago.
Above: A surprise discovery recently, a 1950 Citroën 15CV Six Traction Avant standing in the open. I couldn’t believe my eyes – such a lovely thing.
And it was my favourite model too, with the spare wheel in the back and the wipers on top of the screen. These are rare and hard to find nowadays. I simply had to turn around, park, and walk up to the car. It was unlocked with no one around. My hands trembled.
Opening the Citroën’s door brought on waves of nostalgia. All the emotion and memories of early Dijon; the yards, the films, the unbridled joy I had felt driving to Paris in my Big 15, all came flooding back. I had to sit down behind the wheel – it was an overwhelming experience.
More than anything else, it was the particular smell of the interior that triggered my emotions. The original 15CV Big Six interior has a unique scent – it smells like the France of old. You encountered it in almost every hotel or living room in those days. That scent is hard-wired to my memories of that time and place; it will never leave me.
And because of its unique velvet interior, it is also intrinsically linked to this particular Traction model. Other Traction Avant models are fitted with different cloth and they just don’t smell the same.
Which leads me to ask you, dear readers, if any one of you might know of, or have a 1950 Citroën Traction Avant 15 Six sitting in your garage that is in need of a careful new owner? I would apply.
Above: The 15CV’s interior with its original velvet upholstery. I always loved these models and drove so many of them 40 years ago. I have a feeling I want one again soon. Do you have one to sell?
It must be black, with the roue arrière (spare wheel in the back) and with the original velvet interior. Dans son jus (in its original condition). That would be my happiest day!
Vive la [old] France.
Other articles by Michael Kliebenstein