Paris:- Wednesday, 9. October 1996:- Exactly 50 years and six days ago, the first post-war Salon de l'Automobile opened its doors at the Grand Palais. It was Paris' first car show since 1938. Europe was ruined, everything was a in a grey mess, everybody was depressed and poor and there were no cars.
Nevertheless, 809,000 citizens trooped through the show - double the last pre-war figure - to see the offerings of 680 exhibitors. There was little new to see other than prototypes and there was even less to buy because raw material was rare, and the state was interested in exporting everything it could.
At this year's salon, Hall Four has a replica of the Salon of 1946 and it contains the manufacturer's signs overhead, and a good sample of what was on view then.
The new rear-engined Renault 4CV was - I should say is - on display. There are also shining examples of the 3CV Dyna Panhard and Peugeot's 202 series of little sedans and convertibles. They are all really neat-looking and if operating replicas were made of them, I'm sure there would be some further sales of these today.
In this hall it is like stepping into a time capsule, rather than a museum. The lights are high and are not bright, but a good amount of natural daylight illuminates the scene. The cars' colors are not metallic glitter, but calm pastels somehow time-warped to seem new. The black Citroen 'Tractions' are all black and are the shiniest of all - light popping off black, the deep, absolute black of serious limousines.
There are true curiosities such as the Mathis v.1 333, the - maybe - first three-wheeled egg-shaped car - or was it from Mars?
Another legend presented - with two wheels - mentioned in Metropole recently - was the Vélosolex. It was simple, it was quiet, and for people who had walked for years, it was affordable mobility. And it still is.
Other manufacturers' offerings from 1946 are shown in today's Hall Four and they include Ford, which displays a station wagon, a 'Matford,' and a Lincoln. I did not look closely at these, but remember seeing what looked liked a slightly mini 1936 Ford 'A' sedan, in black of course.
'Fiva' must have been a distributor, because beneath their sign there is a Buick and a Cadillac Coupé de Ville, three Delahayes, and the odd egg-shaped Mathis.
Under the sign of 'Feve,' one can see a Delage D6, a Hotchkiss 686, two Panhards - one of which was not built in series, a Simca Cinq, a Salmson S4E Coupé and a Talbot Lago Record, also a coupé.
Bugatti showed a type 59/50DB single-seater from 1939, that won the Prisoner's Cup in a September 1945 race in the Bois de Boulogne. Reported to have more than 400 hp, it tested out at close to 500.
The last American car I see is a two-tone 1946 Studebaker convertible. Like many US manufacturers, Studebaker made military vehicles such as trucks during the war - but after it, continued a 'French Connection' by having Raymond Lowey design the really radical ones - radical, that is, for American tastes. Mr. Lowey lived near Rochefort-en-Yvelines, not far from Paris.
Citroen presented three models of 'La Traction:' a model 11 'light' and a model 11 'normal, and a model 15/Six G. This last has a six cylinder 2887 cm-cube motor with 78 hp, and it was the last 'Traction' to have the motor turn to the left, rather than to the right - as is the norm. It cost 180,000 'old' francs. This 15/Six G - 'G' for gauche - model was secretly designed during the war and the public's first view of it was on the first day of the salon, 50 years ago. Only 202 of these were made in 1946.
Renault's 4CV actually had nine hp which it produced from 760 ccs, spread over four cylinders. With four-wheel independent suspension, it could reach 90 kph. It was a best-seller, well into the 1950's.
The 202 of Peugeot also had a four-cylinder motor, with 1133 ccs and 30 hp. Its tax situation was 6CV and it had a top speed of 100 kph. Truly great - for 1946 - is one of the 202's, called a 'Canadienne' because it is a 'woody' - a wood-paneled station wagon. All 202's share the same oddity - the two headlights are close together, behind the radiator grill.
French road tax for cars is based on a 'CV'-rating, which is supposedly a combination of real horsepower divided somehow by transmission gear-ratios. If your car has a five-speed box, this can be a complicated reckoning, and any car with an automatic transmission - even an old two-speed - usually gets at least one 'CY' added to its tax status.
No doubt this calculation has changed somewhat in fifty years. Citroen's 1946 'Traction' 15/Six G with 78 hp for a 15CV rating does not quite add up to my parking-lot battle-scared 1988 'Traction' BX with 120 hp, and only a 9CV rating. Based on this 9CV, the annual road tax is about $100 today. I don't know what it was in 'old francs.'
Despite this year's new cars and all their extra features - many now standard equipment, added in order to be competitive with imports - salesmen I spoke to are not expecting any great boom. A government incentive plan, which cut the price of new cars - in exchange for turning in used cars at least eight years old - has just come to an end. The plan gave sales a tremendous boost up until its recent deadline. Still, the average age of private cars on French roads remains between seven and eight years.
Several manufacturers announced price freezes or even cuts during the salon - probably for the first time ever - but the general economic situation remains the same. Knocking five percent off the $10,000 price of an entry-level car is small incentive for people who read about more job cuts - caused by rationalizations, restructurings, public offerings of state concerns - in the newspapers almost daily.
If the car show in 1946 presented an optimistic vision of a motorized future in a country starved for mass production of affordable cars - today's automotive industry seems to be only able to show us a greater variety of more colorful, more powerful, more feature-laden cars - that Monsieur Average cannot afford.
On top of everything else, a litre of super gasoline now costs about $1.26 in the Paris region. Repair garages routinely charge about $44.50 per hour for labor, parts prices are out of sight - and next year's road tax is due on 15. November.
The absolute best deal is still a 'carnet' of ten métro tickets for 46 francs. Parking is not extra because the RATP takes care of it.
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