With the Ford Mustang wrapping up the US iteration of this series, it’s time to move across the Atlantic to a country that is perhaps not quite so well known for its automotive culture, but one that is still very well represented by some absolutely amazing automotive icons – France.
As I did with the US, I’m offering five suggestions based on my own limited knowledge. You’re most welcome to add some suggestions of your own in comments and the more they’re supported, the more likely it is I’ll add them to the poll.
Anything sporty made by Renault in the last 30 years
Renault’s most noted early foray into sporting cars was with the Alpine company, which started off using rear-mounted Renault engines in competition vehicles in the 1950s. Renault bought Alpine in the early 1970s, abandoned it in the 1990s, only to release a special Alpine concept earlier this year, which I covered here on the website.
The cars I’m concerned with here cross over some of the Alpine timeline, but they’re Renault-badged and intended to descend from their motorsport heritage in formula 1.
It all started with the Renault 5 Turbo, a mad little tin can with a turbocharged 1400 engine, mid-mounted and capable of producing 160hp to propel a body that weighed just under 1000kg. Whilst the standard Renault 5 was front-wheel drive, the Renault 5 Turbo drove the rear wheels and was a regular sight near the front of the European rally circuit in the early 1980s, just before the Group B cars came along and blew everybody away.
Fast forward to the new millenium and Renault now produce their performance vehicles under the RenaultSport badge. They even make a bunch of them in the old Alpine premises, at Dieppe, in France. The RS Clio has traditionally been the purists choice with it’s dedication to pure, normally aspirated acceleration and light weight. The slightly larger RS Megane uses turbo technology to push the front-wheel drive envelope even further and both the Clio and Megane have been lauded by the motoring press in Europe and Australia as the best hot hatches of the modern era.
Here’s the old 5T being driven, along with the RS Megane R26R from a few years ago.
I can hear you now – that’s more like it! The Goddess!
The DS has to be one of the most out-there car designs to ever sell in volume. It’s flowing, graceful lines first appeared in the mid-1950’s and were so good that the car was made for another 20 years with only cosmetic and engine changes through the model run.
And it still looks amazing in 2012.
The ‘Goddess’ was known not only for being super-stylish, but also for its amazing, comfortable ride, which was thanks to an incredible hydropneumatic suspension system. Not only did the car float as if on a cushion of air, it also made for some incredible sights, like the low-slung car you see above.
The DS sold just short of 1.5 million units, an amazing number for car with such unconventional design and engineering.
This 19 minute video will leave you absolutely captivated with the Citroen DS. It includes a brief demonstration of the way you use the hydropnuematic suspension to change a wheel on the car. It’s amazing stuff.
Slightly controversial, this one.
Ettore Bugatti was Italian-born but the Bugatti company was most definitely French. Today, while Bugatti builds the car in France, it’s a little difficult to see it as a French vehicle. The Veyron is 100% conceived, owned and engineered by a German company – Volkswagen.
But….. Bugatti’s heritage *is* in France and that’s where the car is built. It’s one of the most impressive feats in automotive engineering ever, which is why it has to be considered as a modern day automotive icon.
The big question is whether or not people would consider it to be a French automotive icon?
Another long-term Citroen that became an unexpected style icon and the vehicle of choice for several million French over its (amazing and basically unchanged) 42 year lifespan.
The 2CV started life in a somewhat similar manner to Volkswagen’s Beetle. It was envisioned as a cheap runabout car for the people, many of whom still lived on the land. I love this bit in Wikipedia’s blurb about the design brief:
The new management ordered a fresh and detailed market research survey that was conducted by Jacques Duclos. At that time, France had a very large rural population which could not yet afford automobiles. The results of the survey were used by Citroën to prepare a design brief for a low-priced, rugged “umbrella on four wheels” that would enable four peasants to drive 50 kg (110 lb) of farm goods to market at 50 km/h (31 mph), in clogs and across muddy unpaved roads if necessary. The car would use no more than 3L of gasoline to travel 100 km (78 mpg). Most famously, it would be able to drive across a ploughed field without breaking the eggs it was carrying.
…..and with that brief, the 2CV was born.
It had a lightweight, air-cooled 2 cylinder boxer engine, the first iteration of which produced just 9 horsepower. Later versions would produce a giddy 35hp! The engine is so small, simple and well designed that people still run them in reliability rallies or even world circumnavigations. Yes it’ll get you wherever you want to – as long as you’re not in a hurry.
The car had 4-wheel independent and self-levelling suspension, easily removable panels (multi-colored cars seemed to emerge quite a lot a few decades ago), a 4-speed gearbox when 3-speeds was the standard and a fabric full-length sunroof that allowed large loads to be carried in the back.
And then, there are the looks. The 2CV was a curious enough looking car when it first came along, but such distinctive styling lent itself to plenty of special editions that accentuated the car’s distinct looks, like the Charleston at the top of this section.
One mechanic in England, who happened to be a Picasso fan, decided to blend his passion for the 2CV and art, producing this Picasso-inspired one-off 2CV below:
It had a few starring roles in film, too, the most famous of them perhaps being a chase in the James Bond film, The Spy Who Loved Me. A bit of poetic licence is taken, of course, but I have a feeling the little Duck could have actually survived much of this.
Bugatti Type 57SC Atlantic
Unlike the Veyron, there’s nothing questionable about the Frenchness of the Type 57SC Atlantic. It’s an undeniable piece of automotive art and the 2010 sale of one of the three remaining Atlantic’s achieved the highest price ever paid for a car, estimated to have been between $30m and $40million. From its sweeping curves to its riveted ‘spine’, this Bugatti is exotic and as near as cars come to actually, really being unique.
What’s questionable might be its status as an icon.
Car people might have heard of the Type 57SC Atlantic but an icon should represent a particular class of product to everyone, including the regular car-schmo who might recognise a 2CV as being French, but might not have the slightest idea about where the Atlantic came from.
And let’s face it, the average schmo has more chance of owning a Koenigsegg, a McLaren and a Pagani all at once than they have of owning one of these.
French? Yes. Jaw-droppingly beautiful? Absolutely. A French motoring icon to the masses? You can cast your vote on that one in the poll.
The car below is owned by Ralph Lauren. You can’t buy it, but he’ll sell you a one-eighth scale model for $9,500.
I’ve stopped at 5 entries only, which will be my custom with this series. I’d be more than willing, however, to entertain a nomination for the Alpine 110A if someone’s willing to make a case for it.
And with that, comments are open for your nominations.