Wheels of Fire

photo: roadster with rumble seat, spider

Not scale, but a real '30s roadster, with a rumble
seat in back.

Real and In Scale 1:6

Paris:- Friday, 7. February 2003:- Early this month is a good time to hold the annual Rétromobile Salon for old car fans and old-car parts collectors because the weather is as perversely crummy as I reverse-predicted it would be. Since it was lousy with gloom last year I was certain it would be sunny this year.

By forecasting it so, it isn't. So getting into Paris Expo's Hall Two is coming in out of the rain and into the past, in the form of being in a big hall full of old wheels of fire.

Each year the salon has a theme and this year it is the 'year of all the records.' You can imagine what this is about if you realize that no matter how fast horses go when they are racing, they only go fast enough to win.

Man, when he is racing, always wants to go faster. Or further faster. Or faster further longer. I shouldn'tphoto: renault racer forget the 'faster, further, longer' that is so excessive that just getting to the end is a feat in itself, even if it is at a crawl. The 'Paris-Dakar' is a good example. In January it started and ended in neither place.

One of Renault's early racers looked more like a mean château.

But this year's salon theme is about pure speed. You might not be a Concorde pilot, a modern fighter pilot, or a rider on Space Shuttle flights - but if you can drive any old car, then the idea of top speed is within the scope of imagination.

But first, the idea is to get from the métro and out of the rain and into the salon building, pretty quickly. BMW is facing the entry like it was last year. I think they've bought the spot. There is a black 507 - I think - a two-sitter roadster. Not very fast really, but a sort of '50s type of sports car made in Munich for cruising the Prinzregentenstraße.

To the right is the usual wall space devoted to buy and sell notices and like every year, even on the salon's first day, many eager fans of this feature are scanning it carefully for wheels - or the vital 'missing link.'

A major feature of the salon are the stands selling car parts, many for cars that ceased being manufactured 30 or more years ago. These stands have old parts, rebuilt old parts, original replacement parts and replica parts.

There are other stands with tools and paint and waxes. All of these stands are here for the pleasure of the people who delight in buying old cars and restoring them, or for people like Dimitri who might need a rare part for his unrestored 2CV, so he can drive it out to the country to places that are more or less 'rétro' all year long.

But it seems to me that the number of these stands is diminishing. The ones I do see are mobbed by seekers of the rare, and I do see some of them carrying prizes like pairs of replica bumpers for a 'Traction.'

I look around a bit but do not crawl up and down every aisle to see if Mike Rabin is back with his wheeldisks for old Rollers or Hispano-Suizas. He has a business in California making wheel covers for cars with very big wheels built before 1940. He also raced an A-Ford on the salt flats in the late '40s. A 'speed' guy.

But I do not find him to say 'hello.' Rétromobile has changed a bit over the years. Besides the French manufacturers like Peugeot and Renault who you would expect to be here, there are the other Europeans like Mercedes - ah, Daimler-Chrysler now - BMW, Ford and General Motors, who all have stands. These last might not sound like 'European' names but they are.

The biggest single stand of all is Christie's, the auctioneer. This outfit is using Rétromobile space to auction off high-end wheels, like Ferraris, Bugattis and other fancy Roller iron. There are smaller dealers like Christophe Grohe, but together the four of them present this year wouldn't fill Christie's parking lot.

The stands where the most interest may be are the ones of car clubs, but these seem to be fewer in numbers than in past years, although the press handout says there are 70 present. While 'Les Amis du Lion' may get some material support from Peugeot for showing the badge around, 'Les Amis de Delage' might not enjoy much official aid.

Anyhow, the French Corvette Club is celebrating the 50th anniversary of this GM sporty car, showing three 'classic' models. The French Mustang Club is content to show off exactly one Shelby GT 500 on its small stand. I find one Ferrari kind of orphaned, in a dim corner. There is another stand, shared between Ferrari and Maserati, but I overlook it.

The Fiat Club has one completely stock Fiat 500 'of the week' for sale for only 6000 euros, with only 30,000 kmsphoto: delahaye b5s, 1936 on its clock - this is like 1000 km per year of age. They have a 600 sedan - 'La Dolce Vita! - and an 850 Spider too. You don't ever see many of these on the streets of Paris. As for the reason that there are so many 30 year-old Fiat 500s running around, none of the club members has a convincing answer.

This '36 Delahaye makes today's cars look exceedingly drab.

As if to prove it, I stumble across two more Fiat 500s 'of the week' at the salon. Both of them are hopped-up Abarth equipped, one in sneaky micro-speed-bomb style and the other is in a full-tilt midget racer outfit.

Daimler-Mercedes has a stand separate from Chrysler. The Mercs featured are a 300 SL gull-wing and a 230 SL roadster with a 'pagoda' top. Over at Chrysler, there are three treats - the first Chrysler, made in 1931, a post-war 'Town and Country New Yorker' convertible made in 1948 with a wooden body behind the front fenders, and a colossal, winged 1961 Imperial Crown.

This white convertible has swivel-seats, a rectangular steering wheel, four stand-alone headlights and two huge tail-fins. According to the press handout, only nine were made - even though I remember seeing one before, in the '60s.

Another neat California-type car is a French Citroën SM with a twin-turbo Maserati motor, used by Jerry Hathaway on the Bonneville salt flats for a run topping 200 mph. The press handout says it is this car's first trip to Europe. First trip 'back' to Europe I guess it means.

I have saved this year's theme, because it is about speed, but extreme speed is not achieved by decent-looking cars like the SM.

So there are the two Sunbeams, of 1922 and 1927, both made by Louis Coatalen. The first had a Manitou V-12 18-litre motor, and became a world record holder by getting up to 235 kph. That wasn't too bad for 1922. The driver was Malcolm Campbell.

Five years later the same constructor tried again, but with two V-12 aircraft motors, for a total of 45 litres of volume. This huge, red Sunbeam put out 1000 hp at 2000 rpm. Like the Café Metropole's winery truck, it was called 'The Slug' - but it was a bit faster, with a 327 kph top speed.

'La Golden Arrow' - aka 'The Flèche d'Or' - was like the original needle car - 1.15 metres high, 8.43photo: hotchkiss, club car metres long. Despite its length it only had one motor, which was a Napier Lion V-12, with nearly 24 litres, putting out 1000 hp. In addition to two radiators it carried a refrigerator too.

On Monday, 11. March 1929, Henry Segrave started out at Daytona Beach and wound the golden needle up for six kilometres until it attained its top speed of 372 kph for 1.5 kilometres, and then he stood on the brakes for another six kilometres.

Hotchkiss might have been an odd name - for a snazzy car.

After the war Malcolm Campbell was still at it with his Bluebirds in 1960, when he got his son Donald Campbell to ride a 4500 hp jet engine in a car over some salt lake, until it flipped at about 600 kph. This bent it out of shape but the pilot was in one piece. Four years later Donald Campbell successfully claimed the world speed record with the same car by getting it up to 648 kph. Here at the salon the car is in one blue piece again.

All of these 'record' cars have come from the collection of the National Motor Museum at Beaulieu, which is in Britain.

Before Citroën became hopelessly middleclass, back in its loopy days, it claimed all sorts of 'records.' It's 'Rosalie' broke all endurance records for rolling 300,000 kilometres at an average of 93.50 kph - nonstop.

Then there was Lecot and his 'Traction' who decided to drive from Paris and Monaco and back, continuously from July 1935 until July of 1936. He averaged 1100 kms a day and ended up with a total of 400,000 kilometres and a huge bill for gas.

Back in the 'good old days' Renault made cars as ugly as it does today no matter what its advertising slogans say. In 1926 they had a huge but lightweight blue monster with a nine-litre six cylinder motor run around the track at Montlhéry for 24 hours, for an average speed of 173 kph.

But with a turbine-powered model out on the Bonneville salt flats, they had to pay attention to aerodynamics with their 'Etoile Filante.' Jean Hébert drove it in September of 1956, up to a record of the time of 309 kph - for a jet-powered car.

There are a lot of other stalls at thephoto: chrysler town & country, 1948 salon that feature 'auto art.' I have been into this too, but I don't see the possibility of looking at any of it for a long time - not even my own. Some of the sculptures of metal are pleasing shapes, so long as they are stylized.

A wood view of the Chrysler 'Town & Country New Yorker.'

Then there are the auto-related souvenirs. There are stands with motor mania signs, clothing, hats, badges, advertising posters and whole antique gas pumps. Some of these look like replicas.

Finally there are a horde of booths peddling model cars, in the scales from 1:43 to 1:6. Ninety percent of these are ready-made metal models. Judging from the car fans around these stands this is an area that is growing in popularity. You too can own a scale model of your dream car for only 40 euros. Too bad I came penniless or I could have gotten a copy of my orange 1970 Audi 100S.

The displays of old motorcycles and scooters are at about the same small level of participation as last year. The fancy boats have been hit hard and there are very few of them, which is probably theposter: retromobile 2003 reason that 'nautique' has been dropped from the salon's sub-name.

In brief, as the press handout says, nearly 300 exhibitors are waiting for about 100,000 car fans. Later when I see Dimitri, from what he says, he will skip this year's salon in favor of driving his 2CV down to Nice and the sunshine.

RétroMobile - continues until Sunday, 16. February. Tuesday and Friday from 11:00 to 22:00, Monday, Wednesday and Thursday from 11:00 to 19:00 and from 10:00 to 19:00 on weekends. Entry costs 11 euros. In the Hall 2 at Paris-Expo. Paris 15. Metro: Porte de Versailles. InfoTel.: 01 48 44 30 30.

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