French Classic Cars
France has a lot to offer in addition to wine, baguettes and the Eiffel Tower – and the other highlights undoubtedly include French classic cars. It’s no coincidence that the world’s oldest automobile manufacturer – Peugeot – is based in France and has been producing automobiles in series since 1891. As France is encircled between the historic automotive strongholds of Great Britain, Germany and Italy, France’s status in European automotive history is often underestimated and misunderstood. And that’s a reason for us to correct this view and to present these 10 French classic cars.
10 FRENCH CLASSIC CARS
THE ultimate French classic car, which still enriches our roads today, is the Citroën 2CV, often known as the ugly duckling. It’s a car that could not be more minimalistic but despite, or perhaps because of, its simple technology, it quickly became a crowd favourite. Citroën director Pierre-Jules Boulanger’s concept of launching a minimalist, compact car with simple technology was a great success. It was presented on October 7, 1948, and by the end of production in 1990, almost 4 million examples of the vehicle had left the assembly line – plus 1.2 million delivery vans, also known as box ducks. Incidentally, the name 2CV does not refer – as is often wrongly assumed – directly to the power of the engine, but to a key figure in the French vehicle taxation system. Depending on the year of construction, the engine output ranged from 9 to a maximum of 21bhp. The 2CV was eventually replaced by the Citroën AX.
The Citroën Traction Avant was advertised with the slogan “The Traction Avant tames the centrifugal forces”. It is questionable whether the slogan is completely true, but it is clear that this French classic car had revolutionary approaches and set new standards. The name simply stands for front-wheel drive, at that time revolutionary for serial vehicle construction, though from today’s perspective somewhat banal. The Citroën Traction Avant was one of the first cars with a self-supporting (ie monocoque, without chassis) body. The car got the nickname “gangster limousine” because of its excellent road holding – suitable for chases – which still makes the Traction Avant a sought-after French classic car. A total of over half a million copies of the gangster limousine were produced before it was replaced by the legendary Citroën DS in 1955.
When the SM and the GS appeared together 50 years ago, they were at least as spectacular as the DS had been in 1955. The stylist Robert Opron created an aerodynamic GT, whose name SM came from Sport Maserati, but was named by fans as Sa Majesté and interpreted by amateur drivers because of the complex technology as Sado Masochism. Typically Citroen, the aluminium Maserati V6 sits far behind the axle line, in a front mid-engine position. An auxiliary driveshaft drives the hydraulics, generator and air conditioning sited well ahead of the engine. There was also an injection version – at 220 km/h (137mph) the SM was the fastest front-wheel drive GT in the world. The German TÜV initially did not want to allow the SM’s curved glass rear window, though their fears proved to be unfounded. Because of that, pictures of the rear were deliberately left out of the first customer brochures. From 1970 to 1975 12,920 examples were built.
There are vehicles that are likeable at first glance – this undoubtedly includes the Citroën Type H, also known as the HY. A year before the Citroën 2CV, the H-van appeared and quickly became the most popular van in France, thanks to its robust appearance and solid technology. It was so popular that it was produced from 1948 right through until 1981. The monocoque body was covered with corrugated sheet metal, while the double wishbones at the front and parallel swing arms at the rear, with torsion bar suspension on both axles, enabled an extremely low loading edge, which was essential for everyday use as a commercial vehicle.
Eight million examples produced, the first Renault with front-wheel drive and the first large-scale production vehicle with a fifth door – the Renault R4 was more than just a simple successor to the 4CV. After the Renault R4 had turned into a press star at the IAA and the official press launch had ended, 200 white R4s drove past the Eiffel Tower, an outstanding marketing stunt for Renault. The versatile small car, available as a station wagon, panel van, pick-up and buggy, hit the zeitgeist of the times at the time and attracted strong sales figures. Depending on the engine version, the performance of the Renault R4 ranged from 17 to 25 kW. A small and underestimated French classic car, of which many sadly disappeared due to European scrappage schemes.
The 4CV was produced from 1964 to 1961, demonstrating some parallels to the VW Beetle, and took class wins in the Monte Carlo Rally in 1949, the Le Mans 24-hours in 1951 and the Mille Miglia a year later. This French classic car quickly developed into the “Volkswagen” of France and enjoyed great popularity, produced as a convertible and a saloon. Like the VW Beetle, the 4CV was rear-engined and rear-wheel drive, but it was water-cooled and not air-cooled. At the start of production, the Renault 4CV was painted using the Renault factory’s remaining camouflage paint: the colouring led to the nickname of ‘the cream cake’.
Probably the only Renault ever to have played a leading role in a James Bond film was a red Renault 5 Turbo 2. The sports car was based on the Renault 5, was manufactured from 1980 to 1985 and was powered by a four-cylinder mid-mounted turbocharged engine. With 160bhp, the Turbo accelerated from 0 to 100km/h in 6.9 seconds and was only 0.1 seconds slower than the then-current Porsche 911 SC. In terms of price, the Renault 5 Turbo was at the level of the entry-level model of the Mercedes S-Class at that time. Germany’s best-known rally driver Walter Röhrl competed in the Renault 5 Turbo European Cup, which increased the model’s popularity still further.
In 1964, an upgraded version of the Renault 8 appeared: the Renault 8 Gordini with 86bhp. The car was usually painted blue with two white stripes that ran across the bonnet and roof to the rear on the driver’s side. A year later, the Gordini was revised and from then on it was delivered with twin fuel tanks, a five-speed gearbox and a 1254cc engine that produced 88bhp. This French classic car is often forgotten today and is not as popular as it deserves to be. With a few exceptions, a small car has rarely been so much fun to drive – though for tall drivers, driving the Gordini can be quite a challenge.
A truly special French classic car,, which achieved worldwide fame following its victory in the Monte Carlo Rally – of course we are talking about the Alpine A110, manufactured from 1961 to 1977. A total of three different body versions of the sports car were offered, the most popular being the hatchback version “Berlinette”; in addition there was a two-seater convertible and a 2+2-seater sports coupé. The top version of the Alpine A110 was equipped with a four-cylinder in-line 1996cc engine, which produced 175bhp. This was a model designed for Group 4 with a dry weight of just 710kg and a top speed of 133mph (215km/h). The convertible version of the sports car is one of the most sought-after French classic cars today, with a total of only 60 to 70 examples produced.
With the Peugeot 504, the design studio Pininfarina achieved a stroke of genius – the 504 was one of Peugeot’s most successful vehicles of all time. The car was available as a saloon, station wagon, coupé, cabriolet and pick-up, the latter of which was manufactured in Nigeria until 2005. A total of more than 3.5 million copies of the 504 rolled off the assembly line, with power outputs of between 54 and 106 kW depending on the version. It’s another candidate on the list of French classic cars that has been somewhat forgotten – wrongly, because the elegant curves of the Peugeot 504 speak for themselves. They’re well-made and reliable and, though they can suffer from rust, the 504 is another French classic car worth seeking out.
Text Jan Fröhlich // Photos Manufacturer, Classic Trader
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