I thought I’d sum-up French week by picking apart their achievements and asking, where did it all go wrong?
Sometimes I pass the time of day musing on the big questions, just to entertain myself and distract my thoughts away from the inevitable decline of all I hold dear. One recent thought was spurred by having to buy a toilet seat for the downstairs facility at my international headquarters building. Now in truth, I did not make the purchase myself, but she who did became rather addled when it transpired that the product that had gained good reviews turned out to be badly manufactured rubbish requiring an immediate refund. This was another piece of evidence to prove my assertion that virtually nothing is made with any pride any more – not even a toilet seat which is the simplest grade of engineering. What hope then for the complexities of a car? The toilet seat shop is near to a row of car showrooms, and I suspect the car dealers set out to poach the highest performing toilet seat salesmen on a monthly basis, for a new and glittering career due to their ability to blankly transact mediocre consumer products that nobody really cares about. A car purchase should be an experience with some emotional investment, but it seems to have become a joyless business solely enabled by universal access to virtually free credit. If you had to scrimp and save for a vehicle, I’d expect you would take some care over selecting one, however, if money has no value then why should the product? This is the best explanation I can come up with for the current state of the car industry, and whilst most countries churn out literal boatloads of uninspiring doppelgangers on a minute by minute basis, there is one country that disappoints me the most based upon what should have been.
The French were automotive pioneers way before the rest of the world woke up to the possibilities of self-propelled vehicles. Frenchmen had already produced contraptions enabling personal transport way back in the 18thcentury and a hydrogen powered internal combustion engine was in existence by 1807. By mid-century, a petrol engine had sprung to life and following a wait that was a literal half a lifetime, the first petrol powered car hit the road in 1884 at the hands of Edouard Delamare-Deboutteville. Quite what Karl Benz fans make of this is up for debate, as conventional wisdom has the German taking the honours of “first car” in 1885, but that’s not the French version of the story. Controversial stuff. Either way, the French wasted no time and by new year 1900 names we recognise were in business and serving the fledgling market; Panhard & Levassor, Albert de Dion & Georges Bouton, Emile Delahaye, Armand Peugeot and Louis & Marcel Renault. This industriousness propelled the country to the number one spot amongst car makers by 1903, churning out nearly 30,000 cars in that year alone, an incredible 50% of worldwide car production. By 1929 production would hit a quarter of a million and five years later the total French fleet comprised 1.4m registered cars. It wasn’t just about the numbers though, there was some proper engineering going on which would set a trend for the decades to come.
Citroen were the most adventurous of the Gallic big three and it pays to remember how advanced their cars once were. The 1934 Citroën Traction Avant was a revolutionary design equipped with front wheel drive and monocoque construction that set the template for the modern car some three decades before most others caught up. The 2CV was a masterpiece of simplicity and re-mobilised the post-war nation. The 1955 DS brought hydropneumatic suspension and disc brakes to the market, wrapped in space age styling that was streets ahead of the conservative offerings from across the Channel. The mid-size GS took similar cues but also attempted a radical upgrade of the powertrain with the experimental Birotor rotary engine. If neither of those was unusual enough, the Maserati powered SM coupe certainly would have satisfied even the most ardent futurist. By the 1970s Citroën were producing some unmistakable and interesting cars, but failing to make enough money and urgently needed a financial prop. That came in the state directed merger with Peugeot and the formation of the PSA Group.
Peugeot were everything that Citroën were not, and focussed on making traditional cars that happened to be well engineered and dependable, rather the possessing any particular wow factors. There’s a reason that Africa is still littered with their solid saloons from the 1950s onwards – cars such as the 403, 404, 504 and 505 were rugged, reliable and classically styled rather than intricate and flash. This made them simple to repair and cost effective to operate, and the fact that the later models still regularly serve as taxis across the former French territories is testament to their longevity. Peugeot and Citroën were strange bedfellows in this regard, so perhaps the biggest surprise is that PSA was operationally viable at all. It was during the necessary cost reduction programme of the 1970s when component and platform sharing really started to be explored, and the 1982 Citroën BX arrived on the scene with a Peugeot derived engine. Still outwardly a Citroën, the BX would however be the point when the homogenisation would begin to creep in, inoffensively at first but a sign of things to come. Peugeot turned around their fortunes in the early 80s with a badly needed shot of driver appeal in the form of the 205, which inspired a whole range of lively cars such as the 309, 405 and even the 605. Their image was transformed and a new breed of buyer flocked to the showrooms.
Renault had developed a comprehensive range of cars during the 1920s and 30s, but encountered what might be termed as a difficult World War 2 during which the factory was heavily bombed, liberated and then requisitioned by the French government. Louis Renault had ruled the organisation in a somewhat heavy handed manner, and old grudges came to the fore in 1944 when he was accused of collaborating with the enemy forces and thrown in prison, where he died in murky circumstances whilst awaiting trial. The government nationalised the company and started cranking out the rear engined 4CV in 1946, which had been on the drawing board throughout the conflict. This set the template for a series of cars with the same mechanical layout from the Dauphine and Floride onwards to the R8 and R10. The front engined and more conventional Renault 4 debuted in 1961 as a rival to the already ageing 2CV, and helped Renault explore developing markets in Africa and North America. Crucially, in 1965 the R16 arrived with upmarket pretentions and a revolutionary hatchback, which allowed the company to tap the potential of the body style that would quickly become the default for the family car. The 60s were a period of growth for the company and they hit the 70s with optimism. The new Renault 5 supermini was launched just in time for the 1973 oil crisis, and was therefore a perfect example of having the right car at the right time. Collaborations and agreements with the likes of Dacia, Mack Trucks and the American Motors Corporation broadened Renault’s global reach, and the revenue it created spawned a confidence that was reflected in their product line up. The angular R17 coupé, wild rear engined Renault 5 Turbo and the striking Fuego coupé were not the mark of a shy and retiring organising. Learning from racing and rallying exploits, Renault became an enthusiastic adopter of turbo charging and by 1984, 10% of all turbocharged European cars were Renaults, with Saab being the only other mainstream manufacturer embracing the technology to such an extent. Then, seemingly out of nowhere came the Espace multi-purpose vehicle which didn’t just join a marketplace; it created one. With styling influenced by the TGV express train, it offered revolutionary flexibility in the passenger compartment, and used lightweight materials and panels to ensure that contemporary road tests reported a car-like driving experience from this minibus-sized vehicle. The Espace genuinely changed the definition of the family car forever.
There are other cars I haven’t mentioned so far, but not through any fault of their own. The Facel Vega was the quintessential transcontinental express, far more competent than other low volume niche products from the likes of Bristol. The Vega offered genuine transatlantic punch in a distinctive and beautifully detailed shape. At a lesser price tag there were the lightweight and aerodynamic Panhards, typified by the 24CT coupé which had the appearance of a concept car owned by an astronaut from the near future. The company’s air cooled flat twin engines offered unlikely levels of pace and economy when coupled with the intelligent design of the aerodynamic bodies, and Panhard dominated the “Index of Performance” classes at endurance races such as Le Mans for several years. Similarly interesting engineering came from the Dieppe factory of Alpine with the A110 and A310 offering real poke in featherweight fibreglass with stunningly purposeful styling. And if we’re talking lightweight materials we shouldn’t forget the Matra Rancho which didn’t quite establish a new niche in the way that the Renault Espace did, but can you think of anything quite like it? I should also mention the Renault 21 Quadra and Peugeot 405 Mi16 4×4 for those who wanted a more French take on the fast saloon market defined by the Sierra Cosworth. Ok, they may not have been quite as accomplished as the Ford, but let’s give them the benefit of the doubt here, because in isolation they are both interesting and rare cars now.
So what happened? The advent of cheap credit during the 21stCentury made premium brands more affordable. Instead of persisting with quality and worthwhile innovation, the French brands sold out in pursuit of market share and ubiquity. Renault tried to appeal with ever increasing electrical complexity and last ditch madness such as the Avantime and Vel Satis, but they didn’t sell so the focus turned back to making over complex Lagunas and Meganes with less than reliable results. The next step seemed to be to build the Dacia brand by bringing the Renault nameplate down to the level of the Romanian cars rather than the other way around. Citroën became normalised under PSA and the Xantia and C6 represented the last gasps of Citroën identity. As for Peugeot, the decline started with the transition from the 306 to 307 and plummeted steeply from thereon. Every modern Peugeot I have driven makes me despair that a company who perfected sharp and lively cars, so rapidly lost their way with awful, bloated, ugly cars offering no driver involvement whatsoever. It was such a sharp fall that I struggle to follow the thought process that allowed it. Most modern cars are flaccid and cynical and I appreciate that they are generally overly complex trinkets, regardless of their origin. However, proper engineering when done correctly can produce fabulous cars if only a little care is taken. It just makes me sad that the French motor industry had it entirely at their command, and then so comprehensively threw it away in such a short time. I expect blandness from most other nations, but sorry France, you blew it big time. It’s not that I’m angry, I’m more disappointed. France, you’ve let us all down, but more importantly – you’ve let yourself down.