Est-ce l’amour?


I don’t really get the French. You raise the retirement age a whopping 2 years to keep the country from plummeting into economy crippling bankruptcy and people riot. They have this view of Americans as fat lazy swines (as I snack on Cheetos) yet it takes them 2 hours to eat half a sandwich for lunch on a work day. They love us, they hate is, love us, hate us. Thanks for the Statue of Liberty and yes, I still call them french fries despite the fact they’re not. I don’t think we really understand each other. I certainly don’t understand French cars, but they do fascinate me.

Over the past couple years I’ve started developing a taste (and trust me, its acquired) for French cars. In 1992, I lived on a little street in Vienna Virginia. There were many boring looking cars on the street between Chryslers and Toyotas. My mom had a 1986 Ford Escort. There was one car that really caught my attention though. We had a neighbor who kept a dilapidated Citroen SM under a car cover. The car was probably the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen in my life. It had a small back end and the front was wide and flat. Under the hood there were interesting spheres and I could just make out “Mase” on the valve cover. It was a badly faded plum color. A couple years later, we moved, the owner passed away and its likely so did the car.

Over a decade later. I’ve seen the light and realize Ford isn’t the only auto manufacturer that matters. Late model Toyotas are still really plain. Saabs are tiresome as I work on them or see them every single day. Most everything else isn’t all that interesting. What is an auto enthusiast to do? What do I do to keep the boredom at bay? I go to Ebay or Google and immediately search for anything French.

The Citroen SM I told you about… Well the “Mase” continues into “Maserati.” The car came with a Maserati V6 from the factory because it was the quirky French front-engined cousin to the Maserati Merak. The engine gives the “ugly” car a beautiful rich throaty sound with pretty decent power. Those spheres? Hydro-pneumatic suspension accumulators. Further, the car when in good condition has an absolutely beautiful interior. The cylindrical shifter gate is awesome to behold. The European models had swiveling headlights that turned with the front wheels. All really cool stuff from a car from the early seventies. When you see it first you will think its ugly, but it will grow on you. Over time it has become sought after and even fashionable in a classy sense. It was  featured in a Janet Jackson music video. I would have loved to been with her in that car…anyhow…

Its not my favorite car from that period though.

That place is taken by the Renault Alpine A310. What a car!  The early models are okay (dating back to 1971), but the later models are just plain awesome to look at. It is to me a slightly-tame french take on something like a BMW M1 or a Lancia Stratos. The car saw competition (though limited) throughout the the 70s and even a won French rally championship.

Renault Apline A310. Not an Airbus A310.
Renault Apline A310. Not an Airbus A310.

The car itself was initially a sporty looking rear engined coupe. It came with a 1.6L  4 cylinder engine initially. How it managed to accelerate with it is beyond me. It wasn’t necessarily a heavy car, but it wasn’t light either. Thankfully in 1976 it was swapped out for the 2.7L PRV V6 engine. Yes, the same engine that is downright dismal in the Delorean DMC-12. Thankfully Apline tuned the engine for the A310 and at one point with the help of Weber carbs reached 200hp in factory models. Some owners have tuned the engine to near 400hp or have gone as far as (you guessed it) turbocharging or swapping in V8s. A 5 speed manual was the only transmission offered throughout its production. The lines of the car are just ridiculous. The GTs look awesome with the massive wheel arches and spoilers. The headlights encased behind the Plexiglas look menacing. It has a rather large butt thanks in part the engine being in it. The 2 seat interior has the feel of an old airplane with lots of gauges and an of the era steering wheel.

Speaking of Renault. Who can forget the Renault 5 Turbo? I mean when you’re given the horrible front engine, front drive Le Car here in the states, you can’t help but dream of driving the mid engined turbo’d dwarf while struggling to accelerate your Le Car out of its own way. The 5 Turbo was one of those cars that came about as a racing requirement to produce a certain amount of cars in order to compete in a race. Similar to the Lancia Stratos, Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution, Ford RS2000. the car is essentially a box with an engine in middle, HUGE wheel arches (more like housings), 2 seats, headlights and cigarettes. Such a cool car. It would later inspire the mid-engined Renault Clio V6. Peugeot had the 205 GTI which was much along the same lines as the 5 turbo, but came a couple years later and with blistering capabilities in rally form. Making a name for Peugeot in Rally.

Nowadays, the French still have some quirkiness, but I feel like most of it has gone. In concept most cars are gorgeous and Peugeot released the RCZ recently which looks like an Audi TT I’d actually buy. Most Citroens look bloated, and Renaults are just about the last ones that interest me. Even they aren’t much more interesting than a Volkswagen though. I wonder. I think instead of taking their month long vacations, maybe they could take a month to get back some of the quirky identity that has been running dry. Maybe they could use those extra 2 years before retirement to develop the next “ahead of its time” car like the SM. Instead of 2 hours to eat half a sandwich they could be mounting an engine in the middle of a Renault Megane. All I know is I do love their older cars. Classy Citroens, wild Renaults, blistering Peugeots. One day I will own one.