It’s time for a bit of sweeping generalisation. Let me sweepingly generalise about French cars.
You’ll have to forgive the broad brushstrokes here. That’s how I like to start before thinking about the curlicues and details that put nuances on a rough outline. France’s automotive values emerged from the soup of French culture. That is itself a richly complex thing which has attracted the attention of the rest of the world for as long as wine, olives, cheese and berets have been cultivated in the mosaic of terroirs that make up the nation.
Renault, Citroen and Peugeot are the remaining inheritors of an automotive tradition that included Panhard, Simca, Marot-Gardon, Amilcar, Alcyon and scores of others. In recent decades the specific cultural values of French cars have become muted but they are still there: a certain view of economy and lightness, of artistic expression and democracy. We can see these values more clearly if we wind the clock back to the post-war years where a blend of Modernism and a wish to democratise transport gave rise to the 2CV, a cheap and serviceable vehicle suited to uneven roads and a predominantly agricultural way of life.
Renault offered the 4CV which suited the same sorts of customers that bought Morris Minors and Beetles in Britain and Germany respectively. While the 4CV ceased production in 1961, the 2CV carried on into the 90s, embodying low-budget chic. Renault offered the 4 as a more modern alternative. Peugeot, always more bourgeois, addressed the needs of more affluent buyers with their 203 and didn’t really provide a cheap small car until the 104 of the 70s. That part of their values is still alive and quite well.
For the most part, French cars have been quite middle class. Bugatti briefly shone but there have been few cars analogous to Jaguar, Ferrari or Porsche or Rolls. The notable exception was the DS which emerged from the same stables as its polar opposite, the 2CV. It did adhere to Citroen’s company values of technical daring and stylistic flair. Renault and Peugeot in contrast tended to offer more restrained designs. And this cleavage is quite interesting because both modesty and flair are characteristic French values even if they appear at different times and among different people. The flair gives us artistically-considered meals, works of artistic merit and landmarks such as the Eifel Tower; in later years I would consider the TGV to be a mix of technical daring and engineering diligence, both making a statement about national capability but also being democratic in its intent. The modesty gives a reserve about ostentation, it gives us the quiet good taste of Charvet and dark, blue Dior suits.
The democtratic ideal has also had a downside. Surely it was wish for a certain equality that legislators exterminated the large-engined car through their tax codes. Good perhaps for the soul of the working man but in the long run this has denied France the capability to match the engineering feats of Italy, Britain and Germany. The astonishing DS laboured with an antediluvian and under-powered four-cylinder engine unworthy of the rest of the car. Our old friend the 604, so close to greatness, made do with a shared V6 of questionable virtue. Renault’s large cars have never had enjoyed the prestige of comparable German and British cars, in part because their engines have never been quite so good. Jaguar engines might have been ropey but when they worked, they were fast.
The French taste for modernity and economy has also, in my view, undermined the ability of their firms to provide cars of enduring robustness. It might be practical to say nobody expects a car to endure but the perception of frailty has been gnawing away at customer’s minds for decades. Nothing so much as the whiff of unreliablity really finished the 604 as a competitor in the large-car class which is such a pity as it had so many fine attributes. All those Renault 4s have dissolved while the somewhat leaden and lumbering Beetle is still a common sight. Nobody keeps Lagunas the way people keep Cortinas and 316s. The Renault 30, 25, Safrane and Vel Satis all fell victim to perceptions of unsufficient status. It turns out that the world at large does not want overt modernism of the French sort – and that is not something I applaud.
And so we find ourselves in the present day where the Espace is doing service in the role of the taxi in my part of the world; Citroen’s largest car is not fit for Presidential duty (though it was used in such a role, unhappily) and Peugeot’s largest car is in the repmobile class, a long way from even from the sober, seriousness of the 505, 605 and 607.
Whither France, one might ask? That is not really a question for automotive thinkers but sociologists, historians and economists. I would argue that France needs a new vision of modernism backed up by the attention to detail that is now expected at all levels of automotive production. Why this has yet to emerge is an open question. Until it is resolved, we may find interesting small cars, and refreshing mid-sizers but the standard-bearers of French automotive culture will not emerge until it is answered.