France in the '70s: Part 1
Of all the amazing places I’ve experienced over the years, my most fond memories are of France in the seventies. Yes, I belong to a generation that grew up with the images of France’s La Nouvelle Vague (New Wave) art film movement in my head. Although most of the films were produced in the sixties, their full impact was only really felt in the 1970s. It was an inspiring new world full of surprise and delight.
French cinema in those days exuded freedom, romance and beauty. And Paris, with its beautiful cars, wide boulevards, soft street lighting and busy traffic whirling past always-open cafés and restaurants, was its unforgettable backdrop, especially so in the rain.
Above: Paris was sensational in the ’70s. I loved the wide boulevards full of modern cars.
The soundtrack to this magical scene was cool jazz. It could be heard continuously radiating from the jukeboxes of countless bars and bistros and was epitomised by tracks such as Take Five by the Dave Brubeck Quartet. Swing was very much still on.
Stunning old cars could be found around almost every corner. We sat for hours at Café de Flore observing the thousands of battered Citroëns, Delahayes, Talbots, Alfas, Simcas, Renaults and Peugeots racing down the Boulevard Saint-Germain. It felt like we were right in the centre of the world, anticipating the promise of a brighter, freer future.
For me, France in the early ’70s was the ‘real’ 1960s, and every so often I would make my way down there in search of art, adventure, joy and total freedom. And I loved the French cars, of course.
Just look at how the car was portrayed in French cinema – always like a character all of its own. You could feel the existential spirit of the time in every frame of 35mm film. Even though the phrase ‘classic car’ had not yet been coined, we all liked driving around in old cars.
French cars’ headlights were still yellow back then, as they had been since the late-1930s. They painted the whole country in an enchanting glow, especially on foggy nights. I loved the yellow lights and still lament their EU-legislated disappearance in 1993.
Paper money was old franc notes – large, like hand towels, and the smaller nouveau franc. When buying anything you had to carefully distinguish between new and old because the newer francs were worth 100 times more. Both currencies were around for a long time, and nobody really seemed to care.
Remarkably, in 1976, I bought two Citroën Traction 15CV Sixes and a 1934 Citroën Rosalie for a bundle of old francs. I found the cars while filling up at a Total service station just outside Dijon. Behind the pump house was a little scrapyard where cars were just waiting to be taken away to the crushers.
Above: Two Citroën 15CV Big Sixes, as found. They hadn’t run for decades and I tried my best to start at least one of them. Sadly, I was only moderately successful.
While negotiating a price, and struggling to keep control of a huge bundle of old francs, some new francs got mixed in and then quite suddenly we’d struck a deal. The numbers in French are complicated enough and I swear to this day I have no idea how much I really paid for the cars. Was it more, or less than 500 nouveau francs in total? Who knows. The owner didn’t seem to care much either. Ça va bien!
None of the cars drove which was a bit of a disaster. I had to get a tractor to pull them around in the middle of the icy winter of 1976.
Above: I needed a tractor to move the two Traction Avants. It was freezing cold and no fun to get them into the right spot. They were also full of mice.
My efforts did not go unnoticed and I was ‘rewarded’ with an ancient Peugeot 402 limousine on top for cinquante francs ancien (50 old francs) which was fine but actually just added to the problem of what to do with them all. Most cars were worth close to nothing in those days. I didn't really want the things, but I just had to save them. I am sure you all know the feeling. I fell in love with the old metal and just had to bring them home somehow.
Above: The Peugeot 402 cost just 50 old francs. It looked like a spaceship to me but ended up being quite a headache.
It's probably pertinent to mention that I was only 16 years old at the time. Getting from Germany to France on my trusty Zündapp 50cc water-cooled motorbike was an adventure in itself. I needed to be careful about my expenditure, of course. This was especially the case in winter when I couldn’t sleep outside and had to pay for youth hostels along the way. It felt like living in a road trip movie, like I was a homeless wanderer, the proverbial French clochard, but on wheels.
At the garage proprietor’s home that evening we celebrated with lots of wine and Armagnac. Admittedly, it was a bit much for a 16-year-old school boy, but it was great fun. The conversation soon turned to films – everybody talked cinema back then. We discussed François Truffaut, Éric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol, Louis Malle, Jean-Pierre Melville, and more. Luckily, these were all my favourite personalities of the Nouvelle Vague so I could hold my own in the conversation.
There was also a glorious 1940s Buick Roadmaster Convertible parked in the garage below. It was black with a red leather interior and was used daily by Le Patron. Too expensive back then but I would have loved to own it one day. Sadly, it disappeared and I never saw a similarly good one again.
After a short night sleeping on the garage floor, I was shown other scrapyards around the area. We took the Roadmaster, and the owner drove so fast he scared me half to death. The scrappers must have been delighted that someone (me) was stupid enough to buy old scrap wrecks for real money.
Above: Too far gone. This is how many scrapyards looked in the seventies. Most cars and bikes were pre-war models.
Everybody showed me pretty much all they had, and I saw some huge agricultural buildings and old factories full of pre-war cars. I saw many blue race cars, a lot of military stuff the Americans had left behind after the war, new engines still in their cradles, and boxes full of parts and generators. There were even some Sherman tanks and howitzers to be seen.
Sadly, I wasn’t even remotely able to identify all the beautiful cars I saw. I’d never even heard of the old French car brands: Chenard Walcker, Clément-Bayard, Aérocarène, Amédée Bollée, Brasier, Delamare-Debouteville and many others. Even Talbot-Lago was new to me back then.
In an old steel factory, I discovered an imposing violet-blue streamlined Delahaye 135 drophead shaped a bit like a beluga whale. Unfortunately, it was too dark in the shed to take a photograph. It had a beautiful transparent steering wheel and even the switches were all translucent. Next to it was a stout pre-war Packard limousine with curtains – ex-Vichy government, no doubt.
And there was the crazy art-deco Panhard et Levassor Dynamic with the steering wheel in the middle. Unsold from new, neglected and finally scrapped after being left in the open for decades. Its engine was the reputedly feeble Knight unit that had long since seized up in the cold – definitely a case of frostbite. ‘Ne roule pas, monsieur. Desolé’. (It won’t turn over, sir. Sorry.)
Above: A centre-steer Panhard Dynamic with a (seized) Knight engine, just like an early Daimler. The Panhard’s design was pure Art Deco, but it was sadly scrapped. No buyers, even for 200 francs.
Several Bugattis were standing around, so many in fact that they didn’t seem all that special. They were mostly reserved for a certain monsieur Schlumpf. ‘Réservée. Pas à vendre. (Not for sale). I heard that many times.
Most of the cars were covered in layers of dust that had built up over the decades. Many had bomb damage, most likely salvaged from the refugee tracks going south. Some were totally neglected, sitting outside in the open fields. I said to the owner that I could very easily imagine Jean Gabin or Lino Ventura sitting behind the wheel of any one of them in a war movie. This initiated much laughter and a few rounds of red wine and pastis (anise-based spirit) at the bar next door.
Smoking countless Gauloises sans filtre, and becoming increasingly yellow in the face, more cars were viewed and discussed. I quickly realised there was a whole new world waiting for me out there!
Some of the cars were so strange and bizarre they appeared to have fallen straight from another planet. Today you would probably say it was the usual mix of crazy and quirky Voisin and Panhard, like the cars we sometimes see at Retromobile today. But in those days they were absolute wonders. Many were strange race cars too.
Most of the cars I saw then were memorable but it was the Delahaye 135 that I went back for. Although I don’t have a photograph to refer to, today I would say it was maybe a Figoni et Falaschi Narval. We’d often amuse ourselves by calling these famous coachbuilders ‘Phony and Flashy’ instead. I overheard someone saying that expression first came from the late Danny Margulies, the great pioneer dealer of Queen’s Gate Mews in South Kensington.
Anyway, when I returned to the cars, the Delahaye had been sold to a US buyer – my guess is Don Williams, as he once told me he bought anything remotely streamlined from France in those days. All the Bugattis were MIA as well, collected by the Schlumpf brothers of Mulhouse.
Getting information about French classic cars was not so easy in those days. As a young boy I didn’t know anything. There was hardly any literature available and no classic car magazines on the market yet. On the odd occasion I got hold of La Vie de l’Auto, the first French newspaper about classic cars. It looked like the Financial Times for old cars and in fact evolved into something very similar over time. Far more often though I would read the Cahiers du Cinéma instead, carefully studying black & white photographs of the films that were being critiqued.
Since the French films were mostly shot in and around the streets of Paris I started looking a bit closer at the many unknown French cars in the background. That was how my classic-car life really started. Most Jean Gabin films were good sources too.
I watched all the films with a new eye for automobiles and tried to find out what they were. There was no YouTube, it was all cinema.
The 1960 film, Breathless (original title: À bout de souffle), directed by Jean-Luc Godard, was another good source. I saw it countless times in cinemas all over France and was deeply impressed by the cars, among them my first glimpse of a Jaguar XK120 Roadster.
Naturally, I was also totally smitten with Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg. Poetry and romance in motion. Even by today’s standards, it is still a superb, unforgettable movie.
Above: Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo, walking down the Avenue des Champs-Élysées – a still shot from the Nouvelle Vague movie masterpiece, Breathless.
Another absolute must-see French cinematic masterpiece is the 1967 Robert Enrico film, The Last Adventure, (Les Aventuriers) starring Lino Ventura and Alain Delon. It’s a great film that perfectly captures the spirit of the time.
Part 2 of this article will follow in Issue 65 of the Porter Press Newsletter.
Other articles by Michael Kliebenstein