French Connection: Rétromobile 2009 salutes alternative energy

This year, Rétromobile, France’s premier old car event, looked back on some of the industry's historic challenges, choosing alternative energy as a theme.
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(Left) Ettore Bugatti designed the Type 56, an electric cabriolet, for his
own use at the factory. A small production run was made in the early
(Right) The French relied on gazogene, producer gas systems,
for alternative energy during World War II. This is a gazogene digester
mounted on the rear of a Peugeot 402.

Uncertain times are not new to the auto industry. Many times in the past century-plus, the automobile has faced problems: competing forms of propulsion, a faltering economy, the wages of war. Sometimes, like now, a number of them occurred together. This year, Rétromobile, France’s premier old car event, looked back on some of these challenges, choosing alternative energy as a theme.

This was the 34th year for Rétromobile, held annually in Paris. Unlike most American events, it is comprised of exhibits by automakers, clubs and vendors of parts, literature and automobilia. Conducted indoors at the ViParis facility at the city’s edge, Rétromobile runs for 10 days in February, including two weekends.

(Left) Corvette is America’s sports car, but it has a huge
following in France. The Corvette Club France had a lavish display
at Rétromobile.
(Right) The American Car Club de France has
a large membership devoted to Yankee automobiles. Their display
featured this 1956 De Soto Diplomat, an export model based on
the Plymouth Savoy.

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France has much experience with alternative forms of automotive energy. Although the steam vs. electricity vs. internal combustion battle ended earlier than in the United States, the ravages of World War II brought the country to its knees and forced innovative measures, including small electric vehicles, many of which were manufactured by Peugeot and others during the war years. Another alternative was “gazogene” or producer gas systems that were sometimes retrofitted to cars with internal-combustion engines. In these systems, an on-board digester produced a combustible (if weak) gas from charcoal, manure or other biodegradable matter. Two examples of the latter were a Peugeot 402 on the company stand and a weathered Hotchkiss light truck (“camion” in French) on the centerpiece display.

Steam vehicles included an 1885 DeDion Bouton dog-cart and two American machines, an 1899 Everett, built in Everett, Mass., and a Stanley-designed Locomobile, the latter a replica.

We often forget that the world land speed record was once held by an electric car. “La Jamais Contente” (Never Satisfied), with Belgian driver Camille Jenatzy at the helm, was the first vehicle to exceed 100 kilometers per hour on April 29, 1899, at Achères, north of Paris. A replica of that torpedo-shaped machine, owned by the Lions Club International, was on display. Nor are hybrid cars a modern invention. On display at Rétromobile was a car built by French engineer Auguste Gonnet in 1947. The little runabout has a front-mounted Zundapp two-stroke engine that generates electricity for a motor at the rear.

Just as intriguing was a steam motorcycle built in 1920, long after such experimentation had ceased in the United States.

The prestige collector car dealers from across Europe were prominent exhibitors with examples of Bugatti, Delage, Isotta Fraschini, Mercedes and the like on sale. Clubs, too, are a strength of Rétromobile — those catering to models of Peugeot and Citroën were hosted by the manufacturers, while less-popular makes such as Panhard and Deutsch-Bonnet were represented by clubs on their own. American cars have a strong following in France, so it was not surprising to see whole stands devoted to Corvettes and Mustangs. The American Car Club de France had a striking 1956 De Soto Diplomat on display, which MoPar mavens will recognize as a re-badged Plymouth Savoy with a De Soto grille.

On the first Saturday of Rétromobile, there is a Bonhams auction. Despite this year’s uncertain outlook, a buyer paid $4.4 million for the ex-Earl Howe unrestored Bugatti Type 57S Atalante.

February may not seem the ideal time to visit Paris, but Rétromobile belies the common wisdom by providing relief from the winter blahs: hectares of fine motor cars, lots of shiny brass, whole villages of model cars and food and drink that only the French can make — it all adds up to a gourmet recipe for the cosmopolitan car collector.

Rétromobile takes place on the ViParis exhibition grounds at the Porte de Versailles in Paris. It is convenient to the Metro Line 12 and the Boulevard Périphérique circumferential highway. Dates for Rétromobile 35 have not yet been announced, but are expected to include the second week of February 2010.

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