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Rétromobile - When the World’s Finest Automobiles Gather in Paris


2019, Classique Car Conduits

2019, Classique Car Conduits

2019, Classique Car Conduits

2019, Classique Car Conduits

2019, Classique Car Conduits

2019, Classique Car Conduits

2019, Classique Car Conduits

2019, Classique Car Conduits

2019, Classique Car Conduits

2019, Classique Car Conduits

2019, Classique Car Conduits

2019, Classique Car Conduits

2019, Classique Car Conduits

2019, Classique Car Conduits

2019, Classique Car Conduits

2019, Classique Car Conduits

2019, Classique Car Conduits

2019, Classique Car Conduits

2019, Classique Car Conduits

2019, Classique Car Conduits

2019, Classique Car Conduits

2019, Classique Car Conduits

2019, Classique Car Conduits

2019, Classique Car Conduits

 

Paris, February 2019 - Having eventually arrived at the Paris Expo, by now well into the evening, I needed to focus. But that in itself was a challenge given the spectacle before me, seen from above, at the edge of Hall Two, was the massive Hall One filled with so many of the rarest, most valuable, and exotic classic automobiles ever built.

I'd still been in London well into that afternoon and my overnight room in the French capital had proven to be 25 stops away on the Metro. Without realising there had been lift, I had climbed 214 spiral stairs - dragging my suitcase behind me - in order to unburden myself by dropping it off first at the accommodation. When staring at supposedly small distances on the map, there was no indication of gradients either, and I had latterly ascended dozens more steps and trudged further uphill just as the heavens opened, before concluding this was completely the wrong direction. At least with Everest, you always know going up is correct. Not a great start.

© 2019, Classique Car Conduits

Anyway, now I was finally in the right place and had to make the most of the Preview time left, given that I only had a further day and a half to cover the whole of Rétromobile , and the three associated International Auctions. Two of these being several miles away, at different venues but, right now, I could already sense the trip was well worth the effort. You may have seen other reports of the event, published even before it closed, heralding it the finest gathering in the world, in terms of quality. They were not wrong.

Where to begin? Seeking out the familiar UK-based exhibition stands seemed to be a logical decision, and first port of call, Gregor Fisken, proved a wise choice. Not only had Fiskens brought an original lightweight DB4GT (multiple victories by Moss and Sears), but equally famous and successful racing cars from other manufacturers: How about Competizione ‘Daytona’, Alfa Romeo T33, BMW Batmobile, Cobra 289, C-type and HWM Jaguars, plus Maseratis 250F and Mille Miglia A6GCS? As if this wasn't enough, aristocracy, in terms of road-going enjoyment, included California Spider, 275 GTB/6C and Bentley ‘Six and a half’. Throw in a Formula One Shadow, campaigned in ‘70s Grand Prix by local hero J-P Jarier, and that was a world class concours all on its own. However, of great personal surprise was another Aston. This time the left hand drive Zagato DB4, totally unique with the bonnet scoop, and very rarely brought out by its marque specialist owner.

That lot certainly set the standard, but was just the tip of the iceberg. Right next door was Max Girardo, occupying a space seemingly six times bigger than his original foray to Rétromobile , the year before. I won’t individually list all the jewels he brought, but they included not one but two Alfa T33s, in Jaguar legend an almost priceless Lightweight E-type, plus top class race and road cars from Porsche, Ferrari, Bugatti, Maserati, Lancia, Mercedes, Aston and a couple more sublime touring Alfas to balance their racing cousins. The camera shutter simply couldn’t cope with capturing everything and I was getting dizzy spinning round and round attempting not to miss or, heaven forbid, stumble into yet another sparkling gem parked in every direction.

However, this was France. High time I looked at some French vehicles. And how could I miss a massive great Berliet T100 truck (15 metres long, 5m high x 5m wide), completely dwarfing a WW2 Panzer tank much closer in my line of sight? Amazingly, it was built sixty years ago and this the second, of four units, originally constructed. Powered by a 29.6 litre Cummins V12 and weighing 103 tonnes, the six-wheelers were largely intended to support petroleum exploration in the Sahara Desert during the late 1950s. Slightly more passenger orientated, nevertheless still huge in comparable size, was the 14.5 litre aero-engined Bugatti Diatto AVIO 8C, in the current form of a chain driven racer, but thought to be the prototype for the Type 41 Royale.

Even more striking was a 1939 Panhard Dynamic X81, Type 140 ‘Parisienne’, in two-tone green. What a fantastic looking four door saloon, with unbelievably extravagant arches gracefully swooping over all wheels. Only in France. Now, perhaps it’s acceptable to return towards slightly more conventional and familiar styling.

Although respected throughout Europe (in fact, the world) Simon Kidston, of Geneva based  ‘Kidston SA’, had not officially been at Rétromobile  in previous years as an exhibitor. However, for his inaugural official presence he made a spectacular debut. Simon had earlier told me that his historically interesting, Beirut based, Aston would not be brought to Paris, but he didn't spoil the surprise of what would, in fact, be on display. And what a surprise that turned out to be. If ever there was a heaven on earth dedicated to the Lamborghini Miura, this was it. A pair of the ultimate incarnation, the P400 SVJ, was appearing for the first time on public display, with another, former Shar of Iran, Miura as a centrepiece. The backdrop atmospherically depicted the scene, just as this earlier P400 was delivered new to His Imperial Majesty, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (a collector of exquisite taste) at his San Moritz skiing retreat, back in February 1968. A film and television set designer, also famous for Goodwood Revival scenes, had been engaged by Kidston to present his cars in their best light, and this was indeed an inspired decision.

Typifying the era of 1960s Lamborghinis, the sky blue 350GT - one of the earliest half-dozen ever made - and the even more dazzling unique Miura Roadster, looked perfect on the bright purple carpet, a shade which could be described as something between Amethyst and Violet. You don’t pace around on that sort of colour everyday, especially at car shows, but it worked brilliantly, in both senses.

Next morning I set out for Place Vauban, and sheltering beneath the domed tower of Hôtel national des Invalides was the temporary outpost of RM Sotheby’s. One aspect of their cleverly constructed sale room, evident within these pictures, is the truly excellent lighting which noticeably flattered the potential results, even from an amateur, like me. Natural winter sunshine streaming through the roof panels complemented subtle and soft electric illumination, whilst simple, bold, blue and black stripes underfoot really enhanced the cars from every angle. Whilst not having the spectacular permanent venue of rivals Bonhams, RM Sotheby's continued their very impressive sales percentages at the hammer, with immediate post-auction deals raising the overall figures by a further €7 million.

Heading this list for individual cars was the €4.842 million paid for a 1987 Ferrari F40, though this was no ordinary F40. It was an LM. I remembered seeing and first photographing it myself a full two dozen years before, when it competed at the 1995 Le Mans 24 hours. For me this car had stood out as much as the highly successful McLarens, simply because of its colour. Until that point I had no reason to disbelieve my peers who had insisted that all Ferrari F40s were red. This one in French blue, with Pilot Pens sponsorship, gave a good account for itself by being faster than all the McLarens in practice and finishing 12th overall. It even came back to the Sarthe for a second year to compete in the subsequent 24-hour race, as well as achieving further BPR Global GT series finishes. Other big-ticket items boosting RM Sotheby's results, before business closed, included the 2018 Bugatti Chiron and alloy bodied 1966 Ferrari 275 GTB/6C.

Personally speaking, it was great to see the extremely rare left-hand drive Lagonda Rapide, only before viewed in photos from the Concours held at Villa d’Este, but the cabriolets; Hispano-Suiza K6 and Delahaye 135M were even more impressive. No fewer than eighteen Ferraris were on offer, but the earliest of them, a pair of 1960 Pinin Farina 250 GTs (both cabrio and coupé), were the most elegant. That said, from humbler cousin FIAT, the black 2800 Berlinetta, completed in 1940, arguably outshone them both in terms of understated pure class. One of only three examples bodied by Touring, just look at the curves. My photo could only be from a front angle, so, perhaps go and seek out the side and rear profiles on RM’s own website?

I headed back to Rétromobile for further indulgences presented by the resident auction house. Indeed, as an Englishman, one aspect of the enjoyment in seeing cars brought to auction in France - the ones from Artcurial in particular - is the educational one. And especially those from the pre-WW2 coach-built era of limousines. In the UK, we would occasionally see Rolls-Royce Silver Ghosts and early Phantoms, but nothing like the similar opulence of French manufacturers, such as Avions Voisin. This year we were privileged to witness a private collection of seven, two examples ironically with UK Royal family regal titles such as ‘Queen Mary’ and ‘Queen Alexandra’.

Another aspect of the upward learning curve were three Italian cars from the manufacturer Serenissima. They consisted a 1967 GT prototype Agena, the sister Ghia GT (which, a year later, impressed the Motor Show audiences in Turin, Geneva and New York) and the only Serenissima to have ever competed at Le Mans. This is being the 1966 Spyder, styled by Fantuzzi, and bearing a striking resemblance to a Ferrari 250 LM. Although retiring before the sixth hour of the full twenty-four, and still in original condition, this proven racer achieved the total price of €4.219m which was almost two and a half times higher than the expert valuers’ upper estimate. However, even this figure was dwarfed by the true star of show, another one from Italy.

There had been only five Alfa Romeo 8C 2900B Touring Berlinettas ever constructed. One of them was last year's overall Pebble Beach winner, a sister car won the same accolade a decade before and another pair have also graced the world's best Concours events. Therefore, it was no surprise that chassis number 412024, constructed in 1939, and in the same private ownership for the last 43 years, took most of the Artcurial related headlines. Small wonder also then that it achieved €16,745m (with commissions) and would soon be heading across the Atlantic. Who would bet against this soon completing the set by being the final example to show at the Pacific coast golf course venue?

Then, to underline the unique ‘Frenchness’ of style in cars from our current location, was another Panhard et Levassor Dynamic. This model, the earlier 140 X77 ‘Coach’, built in 1936, once again finished in a shade of vivid green, also impossible to ignore. Imagine seeing these gliding down the Avenue des Champs-Élysées in the late 1930s! Until now I’d thought Traction Avant Citroëns were exotic for the period.

Last year Lukas Hüni, of Switzerland, stunned the attendees with, among other Ferraris, ten 250 GT SWBs, so his chosen contingent for 2019 had been eagerly anticipated. This year was the turn of Lancia and seven examples of the world rally bred Stratos model would form an almost luminously bright crescent at the front of the stand. In addition, road-going models from the 1950s were showcased; different versions of the B20 Aurelia coupé, B12 Berlina and the much sought after B24 Spyder. On the other side were Lancias from both later and earlier eras; the Flaminia and the Aprilia, with the luxurious 1968 Flaminia 2800 Pininfarina Berlina being a noteworthy, rarely seen, luxury four-door saloon.

However, in the middle was a 1936 Astura 3rd Series Cabriolet, so grand it was fit for a dictator and one Benito Mussolini had been the first owner. Sharing centre stage was the only surviving example of the race bred D23 Competition Barchetta from 1953, with its powerful 3 litre V6 in which Taruffi, Bonetto and Castellotti achieved many successes that year, not only in Italy, but a 3rd place in the Carrera Panamericana. From distant Italian nostalgia, I returned to that of my own in the host country.

As a small boy travelling to Paris for the first time on holiday with my parents, I was fascinated by the cars with a big round front bonnet, looking strangely narrower at the back, and particularly because they sat so close to the ground. I was too young to understand the mechanics of hydropneumatic suspension but, learning they were in fact various iterations of the Citroën DS, I convinced myself that only these cars ‘rested’ properly when parked. I also suggested that local parking wardens, or inquisitive children like me, could tell how long they'd been stationary by how much of the rear wheels were covered by bodywork. Invariably the most dented or dusty ‘Déesses’ were almost lying down flat on the road. These were the sleeping Goddesses.

Fast forward a couple of decades and I found that former British MP, car enthusiast and author, Alan Clark owned a convertible DS23. I had finally discovered the Decapotable and the work of Henri Chapron. Then, only at last year’s Artcurial auction did I see for myself a quartet of Chapron’s very special coach-built versions of the DS, including the two-door coupé and four-door ‘berline’. From then on, I was inquisitive enough to explore the rarest Chapron designs further, though hampered by 99% of printed or web words being in French - purely my failing, not the authors’.

That leads to February 2019, beginning the year celebrating the centenary of Citroën, when crossing from the Lukas Hüni Lancia display to one arranged in conjunction with one of his collector customers. This was an instant encyclopaedia of the Henri Chapron DS variations. In addition to the ‘basic’ Chapron Decapotables, and more numerous ‘Factory Usines’, was the full set of the absolute ultimates: The nine named models built between 1958 and 1973 (or ’75 as an Artcurial car proved) were all there, right before me, in the metal. Furthermore, I could sit down for a while at the back of the stand to study a few periodicals, most helpfully placed on a coffee table, though I confess, mainly looking at the pictures and production statistics.

So, for the uninitiated, we had the Cabriolets; La Croisette, Le Caddy and Palm Beach. Then the Coupés; Le Paris, Le Dandy, Le Lemans and Concorde. And finally, the two Berlines; Majesty and Lorraine. To be honest, I think this display was even more impressive than the Miuras!

My final few hours in Paris were spent on a welcome return visit to the Grand Palais, where the Tour Auto begins and Bonhams have held their French sales for many years. It’s a colossal interior space with a glass roof which opened in May 1900 as an exhibition hall and museum complex. Built specifically in conjunction with the Art Nouveau ‘Universal Exposition’ of that year, it remains the perfect venue for a major automotive event. As previously, Bonhams didn’t disappoint in terms of both quality and variety, and the 140 auction cars were easily housed with space to spare. Star sale was a 1939 Mercedes-Benz 540K Cabriolet A which changed hands for €1.581m. Others exceeding a million Euros included a younger Mercedes, a 1955 300SL ‘Gullwing’ at €1.2m and a substantially sized Bentley 6½ Litre, with coachwork by Weymann, at €1.15m. By contrast, an endearing little blue 1950 Porsche 356 ‘split-window’ reached an impressive €805k and another Weymann clothed Bentley, this time a 1926 Drophead 3-litre, went to a new custodian for €787k.

However, within the hours spent surrounded by dozens more examples of 1920s-40s Gallic design and engineering expertise - a visual education in its own right - a diminutive, rather plain angular, Germanic 1928 Hanomag 2/10 PS caught my eye. And despite being among the huge French contingent from Bugatti, Delage, Delahaye, Talbot-Lago, Berliet, Hotchkiss, Renault, Darracq, De Dion Bouton, Panhard et Levassor…et, et, and, and…the list goes on. Just a rudimentary square box in the middle, but with a rounded rear, curved front end and a central headlight, this modest means of transportation was affectionately titled the “Kommissbrot” as it resembled a loaf of rye bread. The German manufacturer, based in Hannover, was another tractor making company (Porsche, Lamborghini then, of course Ford, FIAT, Mitsubishi, etc.) which also diversified into automobiles. It additionally made steam locomotives and half-track military vehicles, but the conventionally wheeled town car before me, in fact the initial Hanomag model, was powered by a single-cylinder 499cc engine. However, something metallically sartorial about it attracted me in a comparable way to that which the Porsche 356 had done. Was it merely the similar shade of blue?

As I write I’ve only just read the full catalogue description, but obviously the bidders on the day had studied it in fine detail. What I’ve just discovered is that this particular car was previously popular in diverse ways, being featured on the cover of ‘Car Classics’ magazine half a century ago in 1969, and beforehand had been used in smuggling activities across the US/Mexico border. How topical! Who would have thought that in ninety years of random conjecture? But I confess to a slight smug smile which came across my face when I also read “designed with the help of Ferdinand Porsche”. With this heritage in consideration, no wonder it smashed through the estimate range of a meagre €15-20k and hadn’t stopped climbing until, with commission, a figure of €58,650 was achieved. I’d watched the hammer falling, but did the mystery buyer pay in used banknotes, I pondered…and by what means had he raised the bread?

Later in the day, in comfort approaching 200mph heading south on a TGV, I was at last scrolling through my hundreds of photos for the first time. I reflected that Rétromobile , and the associated auctions, had been the world’s centre for academic, practical and recreational automotive learning. Nowhere on the planet could have been better and I’d absorbed more information than months of school lessons or university lectures could ever have done. What’s more, unlike some structured classes, I’d enjoyed the entire experience. So, if you’ve not been yourself, diarise a plan right now and head for Paris early next February. No one who likes historic cars will ever be underwhelmed, it simply cannot happen.

Report & Photos: Classique Car Conduits