Where to Buy the Weirdest Car in France
This auction is everything you ever imagined about France.
We all have our reputations. America turns out trucks and muscle cars. Japan makes dependable, fuel-efficient cars. Germany makes big fast sedans, Italy makes high-end sports cars and England makes regal automobiles that break a lot. And France? Well France is where they make the weird things.
Historically, there’s been a germ of truth in this. You don’t see a lot of English pickups, or hyper-luxury sedans from Subaru and Nissan. But do the French actually deserve their reputation? Are their cars really that much different from everyone else's? Oh, mais oui. And then some.
Not only have the nation’s manufacturers gone their own way in engineering and styling, but French car culture seems to embrace anything that’s different simply for being different’s sake. A friend once described the Citroën CX as “what you’d draw up if you had never seen a car before.” Artcurial’s auction at Rétromobile in February goes so far down this path, it's not just the cars that are obscure: In some cases, it's the carmakers themselves. There’s an abundance of oddball marques, those rare and odd brands known only to diehards. The good people.
These nine aren’t all weird, just mostly...well, O.K. They’re all weird.
1951 Salmson G72 Coupé (body by Saoutchik)
Before in-house designers, there were coachbuilders. You’d buy a chassis and engine from a manufacturer, then send it off to a shop for custom bodying. The practice died out but, in France, you could still order a Delahaye or Talbot Lago or Salmson prepped for a coach body...in 1951.
1953 Renault Frégate Ondine Cabriolet
Here’s some kind of lost, in-house Renault project. It’s not a bad looking car, just a lot of the design cues from other Renaults of the period, interpreted in a cabriolet. It’s front-wheel drive and made out of “polyester,” whatever that means. Probably that it’s made out of polyester.
1971 Lamborghini Espada Series II
I love the Espada. It was one of the first cars I fell in love with, possibly because I first saw it in Club magazine (an erstwhile, er, gentlemen’s publication), when I was 16 or so. It may be a V12 Lamborghini, but it’s a four-seat, hatchback shooting brake Lamborghini. Yeah.
1960 Facel Vega HK 500
Facel Vegas are pretty serious cars. They’re big, really fast and incredibly well detailed and people collect them avidly. With a Chrysler 383, it’ll do 145 mph. Old Top Gear also called it one of the most evil handling cars of the era, which is a wonderful thing to have with 345hp and bad tires.
1952 Ford Comète
You may know about Ford of England, where Escorts and Sierras were some of the most exciting small rally cars of the Sixties and Seventies. Ford France is a different story. The Comète actually has a tiny little 75hp, 132-cu.in. flathead V8 and will do over 85 mph. Fords in the US had the 110hp 239-cu.in. flathead, so it’s like they made a car in ¾ scale.
1963 Italia 2000, 1965 ASA 1000 GT coupé & Osca 1600 GT cabriolet
These three are together because Asa, Osca and Italia sound like a series of must-see tourist destinations. If you've heard of any one of these “etceterinis,” the various Italian cars that aren’t Ferrari (OK, ASA was sort of Ferrari and Osca was sort of Maserati, but Italia was based on a Triumph TR3) and company, you know about them all. If not, now you have, but I’m not telling you nothin’ about their Cisitalia or Stanguellini.
1999 Bugatti EB112 berline
You are forgiven if you don’t know about the existence of a Bugatti EB112 sedan. I'm sure Bugatti would rather it didn't exist at all, yet here it is. Two were made, one a show car and this one from leftovers after a bankruptcy, and Artcurial would like you to think of it as a proto-Panamera. Or a giant Mitsuoko Viewt.
1949 Georges Irat cabriolet
It’s a mystery how something this elegant could have failed to go into production. No, elegant isn’t quite the right word. Ludicrous? I get them confused. Even the auction house doesn’t have much say beyond affirming its existence: “This is a prototype that demonstrates the rich history of the French automobile and its many small carmakers, one of which was the ambitious Georges Irat.”
1984 Citroën Visa 1000 Pistes
To what could you compare this? A Subaru Justy, maybe? Except this is a 112hp, AWD Group B homologation car. Citroën, Renault and especially Peugeot had a variety of rally-related hot hatches, none of which had an American equivalent.
1964 Citroën Ami 6 berline
How weird is France? In the Sixties, the Ami 6 was just a regular everyday production Citroën. This, with the hood someone sat on and the sliding glass and backwards rear window and the rear end on tippytoes, this was what you saw in a dealership. You know what a family car was in the US? A Pontiac Bonneville, which you could have with a triple-carbureted 421. The Ami 6 had 602cc and 25.5hp. Sometimes, there’s a grain of truth in the stereotypes.