I’ve just spent a few days and 2,500 km driving around Eastern France. In that time, I saw two Citroën CXs, a Renault Dauphine, a Renault 12, a Simca 1100 and a Peugeot 504. And I also saw an Onze Legere Traction, but that was UK registered. Those staple cliches for the location director setting an episode of a popular UK TV series in France, the DS and the 2CV, were nowhere to be seen, save for a battered Snail sitting on the roof of a scrapyard. Of course a French person visiting the UK would notice the dearth of Morris Minors and Rover 2000s but, somehow, the homogeneity of the modern French industry is so much more depressing. Even a Peugeot 406 and a Renault 21 were almost cheering sights, being pretty Gallic compared with today’s eurocars.
In 2009, I wrote a piece on the website of “The World’s Best Car Magazine” about the French industry. Maybe a bit whimsical, it was based on long-term, but open-eyed, affection for the three major manufacturers, which I have backed up over the years with hard cash. I had no particular insight but it was obvious that, although seeming to be having a modest creative renaissance at the turn of the Century, they had got lost again, most worryingly of all solid, dependable Peugeot.
But the French industry is now always in flux and, lacking the coziness of British hedgerows, long journeys on French roads give you expansive views and are always conducive to thinking, so my thoughts revisited those of five years ago.
Once upon a time, in France, there were three brothers, three very different characters, but whose futures were inextricably linked.
The youngest brother was Citroën. He was brilliant and he was good-looking. And he was pretty popular, especially with the ‘smart-set’, who could sit in cafés listening to him for hours, although they never really understood a word he was saying.
The middle brother was Renault. Everyone liked Renault, he was fashionable, always full of ideas and he was pretty bright too, though not in the way his young brother was, and people couldn’t help noticing that he could also be a little shallow and unreliable.
Then there was the oldest brother, Peugeot. Like many elder brothers, he was ‘the sensible one’, always elegantly turned out, but completely disinterested in fashion and careful in everything he did. He wasn’t unpopular, in fact you could bump into him practically anywhere, but he always sat on the edge of the crowd and hardly ever spoke.
As time went by, many people’s fears for the two younger brothers were realised.
Renault was always jealous of his brilliant young brother. Sometimes this was good, and it spurred him on to do interesting things, sometimes it was just plain stupid. In the end he let down one too many people, got into trouble and had to be put into state care. There he stayed for many years and he emerged, it must be said, a better man, though people do still sometimes worry about that shallowness.
Citroën’s brilliance was never matched by his wordliness. He had so many clever plans that he wanted to realise that it filled his head to bursting. Of course he neglected everything else and, in the end, he got into the worst possible money trouble and had to go running to his elder brother for help. Now Peugeot was not an intentionally cruel man and, in fact, he was fond of Citroën, but he did resent how he got all the limelight whilst Peugeot just got on with things. So he gave Citroën a small allowance and told him to carry on, as before, but to ‘try to be more like me’. With so little, poor Citroën had no choice but to comply, even putting up with the indignity of being given Peugeot’s hand-me-down clothes. Everyone felt so sad for Citroën, though he put on a brave face and they always hoped that he would recover that youthful brilliance. But, if they are honest, when they look into his eyes they can see that spark had gone forever.
Which leaves us with the older brother, Peugeot. His innate conservatism vindicated, at first he just seemed to get on with business as before. But the tragedy was that there was no-one to look out for Peugeot, although, in hindsight, many people did ask themselves why they didn’t see the signs. But it came so subtly, so slowly. You can judge a man by the quality of his tailor, they say, so maybe there should have been warning bells when he dispensed with the services of the skilful old Italian, who had served him so well for so many years. His new method of dress hardly attracted attention at first, but it became more outlandish as Peugeot tried so hard to look ‘trendy’ in his attempt to make new young friends. In truth, the more discerning of these people laughed at him, whilst the rest just tolerated him, as long as he paid for the drinks.
All this was made even worse by the fact that Peugeot’s personal habits became more dissolute. His self-control and bearing had once been a byword, now he hardly seemed to care and he could sometimes be seen swaying down the road, laughing loudly and passing wind in public with all the other ne’er-do-wells. Their excuse was that they knew no better, but no-one understood how Peugeot could look at himself in the mirror.
So, dressed inappropriately, with a stupid grin on his face, Peugeot still carelessly roams the streets whispering ‘Drivesexy?’ into the ear of anyone he sees. His old friends shun him, but he seems not to mind, just content in the company of whoever he wakes up in bed with. Where it will end, no-one knows, but it doesn’t look good. Maybe if we had all let him know how much we cared, he wouldn’t have gone off the rails. But there you go, he was never the type you felt you could say ‘I Love You’ to, and it will only be when he’s gone that we’ll realise how much we’ll miss him.
What I wrote about them in 2009 Is no longer really accurate.
Renault now seem a bit more lost. Back then, they were stung by disappointment at the reception of the bold efforts of the previous Megane, the Vel Satis and the Avantime. Now they seem to have learned a lesson, only not the right one. With those cars, Le Quément’s team tried, with various degrees of success, to come up with distinctive and interesting concepts. My own view is that they were all kissed with the legacy of the brash Louis Renault. There have certainly been worthy and ground-breaking Renaults – the 4, 5, 16, and the Espace and Scenic – but many others have just been showy and insubstantial. Le Quément was let down by cynical, banal engineering as well as factions within the company. The Megane was a disappointment to drive. So was the Vel Satis though, admittedly, it would have had to be a stunning drive to overcome its odd proportions. The Avantime was a far more attractive concept than the BMW X6 but, whereas BMW naturally ensured that their high-riding, ill-proportioned lump defied dynamic expectations, the Avantime was a ponderous drive. So Renault have now changed their stylist but seem to employ the same engineers – a remarkably unimaginative bunch unless you ask them to do a hot hatch or a Formula One engine. Only the new, rear-engined Twingo intrigues and today’s Avantime is, I suppose, the Captur which, being cheaper, appears to be selling according to my arbitrary census, but its mediocrity is shown up by the Citroën Cactus.
Louis would be proud of the opportunism shown in the Fluence ZE where, in order to produce a distinctive EV for sale in Europe, they adapted a conventional model available elsewhere. Not that Renault’s brave step as pioneers in producing a credible range of electric vehicles doesn’t deserve credit, but how are they doing? Most my driving was in rural and provincial areas so, not unsurprisingly, I saw neither a Twizy or Zoe. The Fluence is remarkably unremarkable but, with only 4,000 sales worldwide over nearly 3 years, it was unlikely I missed one, even if I wasn’t paying attention. Maybe the electric Kangoo is doing better, since its virtues are most obvious. Bearing in mind the excitement generated by the BMW i3, were Renault right to be so conservative with the styling of their electric range – excluding the Twizy (and, fun though it might be for 20 minutes, I’d always exclude the Twizy)? I’d say no since, although it lacks the outright performance, the Zoe compares favourably with the all electric version of the BMW in doing most of what the average EV buyer might wish, but far cheaper. Had the car looked more radical, it might have done better – where was Le Quément when you needed him, Renault?
Citroën, who back then were blustering on about recapturing their ‘Créative Technologie’, have done very well with the DS3, selling it to punters who want a bit of that MINI feeling on the cheap, but have struggled with the rest of their upmarket range. Anxious to differentiate the DS territory, they have produced two wilfully ordinary cars in the standard C3 and C4. In between these, however, they do seem to be establishing themselves as suppliers of intelligently conceived and stylish practicality, with the Picassos and the Cactus. They have wisely dumped oleo-pneumatics, since none of their current engineers seemed to understand what to do with them anyway, so we can finally stop looking to them to pull another Déesse out of the hat and stun the world for a further 50 years, though there is an online petition you can sign if you lack my feeling of resignation and closure. Their ambitions now seem quite modest, but they are producing cars with a distinctive character that even relentlessly sceptical people like me might want to own.
For those of you who think André Citroën might still be rolling in his grave, can I point out that the only radical car he ever conceived or oversaw was the Traction? Doing that ruined his company and his health and, had he survived, he might well have kissed that car a premature farewell and sworn never to tread the unconventional path again. Just speculation, but I do think he would have been reasonably pleased with the Cactus. One point made in defence of the French industry’s dumping of the traditional compliant ride, is that French roads are now so good. I assume that is said by people who only take Autoroutes. I travel a lot of D roads and they seem as bumpy and potholed as they always were. I am looking forward to seeing if the Cactus’s much touted lightness will have allowed Citroën to bring back a bit more ride comfort. My very positive opinion of that car is based on what I know of it so far, all monitored by Citroën’s PR so, when it becomes available later this year, I guess there is still time to be disappointed.*
Peugeot, who in 2009 were still reaping the rewards of both dumping Pininfarina and losing their engineering edge, and thus producing a bunch of unpleasant looking and averagely performing cars, have decided that, just as they were once the French Mercedes, now they will be the French VW. Whereas the former was entirely a positive judgement bestowed on them by those who appreciated their excellent engineering and restrained styling, the latter is a ploy entirely contrived by them. However, they have made a good effort and the 208, 308 and 508 are decent looking cars that should be perfectly satisfactory to rent from Avis and will sell adequately enough to ensure that the company is attractive enough to be entirely taken over by the Chinese. Because, until last month, Peugeot were, on one level, also the French BMW, being controlled by a single family but, unlike the Quandts, la famille Peugeot allowed their company’s reputation to go down the drain and have now ceded control. So, to modify what I said almost five years ago, it is now probable that Peugeot will stay around in some form – but I will still miss it.
Plus ça change …. as they say in Britain.
* and, indeed, I was disappointed.