Monday, July 28, 2014

Abbecourt Auto Show.

I like to think it was organised as a farewell party just for me. As I finish my last week of work in France and slowly finish packing my things for my big move to China, I am thankful that I got one last (actually it was a first as well!) auto show in... and believe it or not, it was in my tiny village of Abbécourt!
It was a few weekends ago; just after breakfast on the Sunday morning I heard the distinct sound of old cars sputtering up the street. I live on a very tiny street with no through traffic, and hearing old car after old car make its way up the street really caught my attention. I ran to the window just in time to see the last of the old relics head up out of view. Assuming they were gone, I got on with my morning.
A short time later my visitor (a Canadian friend who was visiting) and I headed out. On a whim I drove up the street to in front of the Mairie (the town hall), and lo and behold, the cars had all stopped for a mini show and shine! I was in heaven! We jumped out of the car and joined the handful of people looking over the hardware. As an anecdote, the owners heard us speaking English, and when they tried their best to talk to me about their old cars in broken English I didn't have the heart to tell them I spoke French, so I played along! It's amazing how you can make yourself understood when you're passionate about something...
In total there were 10 cars: certainly not an international auto show, but still worth a peek for a couple of old car fans. There was a customized yellow Beetle, and a tidy Renault 4L, and a nifty Renault Rodéo 4x4 buggy. There was also a very clean and original Simca 1300 sedan in green with a tasteful black vinyl roof.  On the more eccentric side there was a Mega Convertible, which the owner told me was a plastic-bodied, partly take-apart-able beach bomber based on a Citroen Ax platform. I had never seen one before, and probably won't again!
The three most interesting cars were also amongst the oldest. First there was the Panhard CD coupé. This long, wide and low sports car had a Jaguar feel to it, but with some touches all its own. To be sure I wouldn't call it downright beautiful, but it certainly had a charm to it! The protruding front bumper and oddly square headlights (relative to the curves of the body) spoiled the look bit, but when viewed the rear the Panhard was every bit a sleek road machine. Built from 1963 to 1966, only 159 copies were built, making it one truly rare car!
Another beauty was a big black Panhard-Levasseur 6CS. This massive closed-carriage, produced from 1930 until the end of the decade, represented the peak of production and success for Panhard, which wouldn't last past the 1960s as an automotive manufacturer. This lovely 6-cylinder coach remains as a pristine example of one of the most storied French luxury brands.
And the best for last! My absolute favourite of the little mobile troupe was a cute little Simca 5 from 1937. The curvaceous blue and black coupé had just the right lines. The long sloping hood and massive fenders, grille and headlights made the small car look bigger than it was. The two doors opened suicide-style, allowing easy access into the cramped cabin. Car fans will know that this car was perhaps better known as the Fiat 500 Topolino, but it also had a succesful career under the Simca name, the French outlet for Fiat back in the day.
The front-opening hood, inboard radiator at the firewall, brake light with 'Stop' script, manually operated side marker lights, and rear deck spare tire cover were all interesting and unique features that caught my attention on this beautiful little car.
Quite the nice send-off if you ask me! I'm very excited about my opportunity in China, and am sure that I will find a whole new bunch of cars to drool over (and blog about), but I am already feeling nostalgic about all the fantastic automotive adventures I've had in France. Luckily I have a folder full of photos that I will pull out from time to time to remind me of all there is to see here!

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

104 Gun Salute.

It may have happened over three years ago, but I still would like to request a moment of silence for my dearly departed Peugeot 104. After two years and over 30,000 kms of flawless service, my 104 was retired to that big wrecking yard in the sky after a nasty little road accident.
I hadn't been in France long when a local car caught my attention. I drove by it almost daily, and was always curious about this strange miniature hatchback. My curiosity got the best of me in the end, and I stopped to see the make and model. It was a 1987 Peugeot 104 Style Z, the 3-door coupe version, and I was in love. A quick peek online led me to one for sale in Paris, and after a first visit and test drive I returned with 600 euros cash in hand and drove it home.
Most of my coworkers thought that I was nuts, and wondered why someone 188 cm (6'2") tall would want such a tiny car. I explained that having grown up with large cars in Canada, I was more amused and intrigued by some of the tiny models that existed in Europe. The tough little 104 ran like a top, with the characteristic muted growl from the X-type Peugeut 1.0L engine. The only issue was starting in damp weather, but that was easily solved with a replacement distributor cap.
The 104 was a willing partner for all sorts of roadtrips, including a rather imposing 1000km, 10 hour trip from Paris to the Pyrenees mountains for a ski holiday, and back again a week later. Three adults and their luggage and assorted odds and ends equated to one cramped trip, but it was a rather memorable journey.
And then came that fateful Sunday; it was a typical lazy afternoon drive with no destination in particular planned. Where the 104 did end up, however, was embedded into the side of a small van that did not pay attention to a stop sign and crossed the road at exactly the wrong moment. Luckily neither myself nor the other driver were hurt. The side of his van was nicely caved in, but he was able to drive off. The poor Peugeot, however, wasn't.
The accident had ruptured the radiator, and the coolant had leaked out. Even if it hadn't, the front right wheel had been shoved back, and the car wouldn't roll. It had to be yanked onto the back of a flatbed tow truck and carted unceremoniously back to town. I was a bit insulted that the tow-truck driver wasn't more compassionate ("Well she's a write-off for sure, an old piece of junk like that!"), and that he didn't radio ahead for a police escort, or at the very least a trumpet solo as she was pushed off at the garage, but I bit my tongue. Not everyone can appreciate such a fine automobile.
If I recall correctly, the insurance adjuster quoted around 4,000 euros to repair it, which clearly wasn't going to happen. I ended up getting 750 euros, which was more than I had originally paid, so I guess I could consider myself lucky. When I look back at these pictures, though, I can't help but miss my first French car. It's a bit late, but I'd like that 104 gun salute now, please...
NB: one fond memory of the 104 was when the exhaust pipe broke; mostly people would consider that a bad thing, but not me...

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Concrete Proof.

All of the time I spent reading those Hardy Boy books as a kid paid off last weekend! I did some super sleuthing, and made a very interesting automotive discovery. Okay, so it's a bit of a stretch to call it automotive, but it was close. And it is also a bit of a stretch to say that it was sleuthing, as I was given the approximate location of the vehicle, but it still felt like a bit of an adventure.
My new auto-obsessed friend, Antoine, who has more cars and stories than anyone I know, told me about a few old car and truck wrecks in the area. One legend that particularly caught my attention was of a dump truck that had slid off a winding road and rolled to the bottom of a steep hill. At the time (decades ago), it was deemed too expensive to try and have it removed, so it was left to rot away. He didn't mention what had happened to the driver, so I want to assume that he got out okay.
After hearing this story, I knew that I would have to go and check it out, especially since it was only about 30 kms away. The following day was a sunny Sunday, and I was happy to have an excuse to go on a little automotive-related mission. Antoine had given me the approximate location, at the end of a twisty road that runs up a very steep hill just after the village of Vezaponin.
(As an aside, this just so happenes to be along a stretch of my favourite road, which I have written about previously: My Favourite Road blog entry...)
At the very top of the hill I was able to park, and walked back down to scan for the truck. The trees and undergrowth were so thick that I was sure I wouldn't find it, but after a few passes up and down a flash of yellow way down at the bottom of the ravine in the first big corner caught my eye. Forget a pot of gold, I had found the yellow cement truck of Vezaponin!

It was there. And looked impossible to get to. Just behind the guardrail the hill was nearly vertical; there was no way to climb down without climbing gear. I found a little path a few hundred meters away, and headed down hoping to be able to loop back. No such luck. The trees and brambles and thorns were so thick that there was absolutely no way to get through. I hesitated leaving, but wasn't willing to give up.
I went back down the road to where I could see the truck. The path straight down was clear enough, but it was going to be difficult to get a foothold. A few small, well-placed trees looked promising, so I started half climbing, half sliding my way down, grabbing tree after tree (much like a monkey, I have to admit) to slow my descent. I pictured myself falling to the bottom and breaking my leg, and wasn't convinced that there was cell-phone service at the bottom of the ravine to call for help. The bottle of water and pack of gum in my pockets wasn't really going to help me survive months stranded at the bottom, so I knew that I had to be careful.
In the end it was less dramatic than I pictured, and I got to level ground with only a few scrapes. I had to push my way through some more trees and thorns, but there it was, in front of me.
The cement truck had apparently been there for several decades, which was believable considering the state of it. The tumble down the hill had twisted the cab to to the point that it was nearly unrecognizable, but the huge rear cement drum was more or less intact. At some point someone had come and removed the drivetrain, as no trace of the engine, transmission, or wheels was left.
After close inspection I could make out the remains of the drivers seat and the dashboard. I could also see some of the roof and the door panels, and bits of the front end, bent under the rest of the cab. I could make out an 'H' logo in a star, but did not recognize it. A quick bit of research revealed that it belonged to Henschel, a German manufacturer that built heavy trucks (including cement trucks) from the early 1900s up until the end of the early 1970s, when the truck division was purchased and absorbed by Daimler-Benz. It is not clear exactly which model this poor yellow wreck was, but it would appear that it was probably a Hanomag-Henschel, perhaps from the late 60's or early 70's. The truck was so damaged that I couldn't positively identify the model, but my best guess is that it looked something like this, but with a cement mixer on the back:
There is something interesting about seeing this cement truck slowly rusting away. It will take a very long time, but eventually it will disappear into the ground. Only a few bits of plastic and glass will remain as a trace of this yellow monster. It was easier than I expected to get back up the hill; I retraced my steps and pulled myself up using the trees.
I can't wait to go see Antoine and show him these pictures! With luck he'll know of another treasure hunt I can head out on! I was tempted to take a souvenir, but decided against it in the end. The truck isn't mine, and it's best to leave it untouched for the next automotive adventurer who wants to rediscover this wreck.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

An Ode To Fiero.

We all like marking milestones, and today I mark my 100th blog entry. I've really enjoyed sharing my stories, and am happy to see a small but seemingly interested group of people to share them with. I have a head full of other stories and a folder of pictures to go with them, so I don't see myself stopping anytime soon.

As I look over what I've written up until now, one thing shocks me: I have yet to mention my favourite car! Those that know me well can guess what it is... and there's even a hint in my email address (paul8488). I owned one in 2003, and while it didn't last very long (engine failure was a known problem with some of the early models, and mine was no exception!), I still consider it my favourite car.
Enough suspense, my childhood dream car that remains to this day a smile-inducing mash-up of steel, plastic, rubber and glass is the Pontiac Fiero. North Americans are usually familiar with the Fiero, though rarely for the right reasons. The 2-seat, rear-engine sports coupe is often the butt of jokes, and the irony of the "O, fire" anagram still stings 26 years after it went out of production (after a 1984 to 1988 production run).

But first the good stuff. The Fiero project started at the end of the 1970s, and has become a bit of a legend for fans. Apparently Pontiac wanted to create their own 2-seat sports car, but the Corvette people at Chevrolet (another GM brand) didn't want competition to their iconic coupe. The Fiero project eventually got approval, but only after Pontiac agreed to build it as an economical commuter car, and on a very tight budget.
A clean-sheet car wasn't possible, so Pontiac had to pick and choose from the GM parts bin where they could to save development costs. The rear engine and drivetrain was from an exisiting front-wheel drive platform at GM, and was simply moved to the rear of the car. The front suspension and wheels were taken from another exisiting car. Where Pontiac did spend their money was on the design of the ultra-modern spaceframe and plastic body, which would be copied on future GM models, and truly was a revolution at the time.

When the Fiero finally hit the streets, it was an attractive, stylish little car with several hidden compromises. The performance didn't match the racy looks, as the only engine available at first was a lightly modified 2.5L 'Ironduke' 4-cylinder with less than 100 horsepower. The handling wasn't up to snuff either; while the car was entertaining to drive thanks to the low center of gravity and weight of the engine just behind the cockpit, the borrowed low-grade suspension bits didn't offer any precision, or a particularly inspired feel. 
And then there were the fires. Time has blown the story up (no pun intended), as in the end the fire rate of the Fiero actually wasn't significantly higher than the industry average. The spectacular nature of the fire's however, and the fact that it happened on a newly introduced model, painted the Fiero as a fiery deathtrap from the start, and it was never able to fully shake that reputation.

Several different models were produced over the five years it was built, from the base 2M4 4-cylinder model to the Ferrari-like GT version with fast-back style looks and a more powerful V6 engine. While I was happy with my 2M4 (for the short time I had it), to this day I dream of a red GT...
Someday, someday. Most people dream of exotic sports cars or collectible convertibles, but not me. If I was to put a poster up in my bedroom today it would be the same one I had up 25 years ago, the flawed but charming Fiero.

Hopefully for my 200th blog entry I'll be able to share pictures of my own Pontiac Fiero GT!

EDIT: I found a picture of my actual Fiero that I added to the post; this was before the era of digital photos, so it's always nice to find old photographs; even if the quality is a bit lacking!