Le roi est mort, vive le roi!

The proud, if patchy tradition of the French grand tourisme didn’t quite end with the Citroën SM. 

(c) Houtkamp.nl

The French relationship to automotive luxury is similar to how Germans deal with fine food. Just as those stemming from east of the river Rhine tend to be more willing to spend a fortune on engine lubricants, rather than extra virgin olive oil, their more occidental counterparts usually gain more pleasure from visiting a fine auberge on a regular basis than a car showroom or garage. How he or she gets to said auberge is a secondary concern, too.

Yet, just as there are Germans who care deeply about fine food (Fritz Eichbauer being a particularly striking example of this), the French aren’t totally immune to the charms of decadent motoring either, as the erstwhile success of proud names like Bugatti or Facel proved. It was only some time after the war, and due in large part to stringent domestic luxury taxation, that the French GT found itself on the wane.

Needless to say, the bang with which the grand tourisme eventually went out, in the shape of the inimitable, unforgettable Sa Majesté, was so considerable that it could and should be considered a most appropriate farewell to a special kind of automobile.

And yet the way of the French GT didn’t quite end in 1975, when the last examples of the Citroën SM went off the Quai de Javel factory’s production line. For while the production grand tourisme indeed went the way of the dodo by that point, the concept remained alive for some more time – albeit solely on the show stand.

In 1998, three years after the brand had shown a rather convincing take at a grande berline, Renault unveiled Vel Satis. While by no means sporting the traditional long bonnet/large prestige gap/sloping rear that marked most GTs, Vel Satis translated the grand tourisme ideals into an unusual, contemporary variation on the theme.

(c) carnewscafe

Ostensibly front-wheel driven, Vel Satis’s form turns the supposed disadvantage into a virtue. Arrow-like in its profile – despite a very long front overhang and cab-forward architecture, the coupé challenged preconceptions not unlike the SM did in impact terms, almost three decades prior.

While it obviously didn’t enter series production, Vel Satis did leave some traces on cars that did. In terms of its concept, the (in)famous Avantime MPV coupé could be seen as a taller, larger take on Vel Satis. The four-door car of the same name boasted some stylistic details (particularly around the front end) borrowed from its GT progenitor, but none of its grace – despite being penned by the same designer, Florian Thiercelin. The astounding second-generation Mégane also took a few cues from Vel Satis.

However, for four years, Renault’s modernist GT remained without concrete consequence. Until the 2002 Paris Motor Show, when Citroën – possibly spurred by Renault’s grande tour(isme) de force – unveiled the C-Airdream, the brand’s first proper take on a GT since the SM.

Part of Citroën design’s revival under chief designer, Jean-Pierre Ploué, the C-Airdream could be seen as the coupé counterpart to the C6 grande berline. Despite sporting a Kamm tail and shooting brake architecture, C-Airdream’s appearance – penned by Mark Lloyd – is rather more conservative than Vel Satis’ and not aiming to emulate the SM through any overt retro cues.

(c) Mad4wheels

Again, despite spawning no production model, C-Airdream acted as a precursor to some other production cars, as some of its design details would later on be found on the 2004 C4 coupé and 2007 C5.

With coupés since having lost most of their status as exceptionally prestigious members within a car makers’ hierarchy to various SUV variations – not to mention the French marques having finally given up on trying to enter the ‘premium’ sector, it appears unlikely that we’ll get to see any future takes on the grande tourisme in the foreseeable future, whether in concept or production car form.

Against this backdrop of a distinguished, storied class of automobile’s decent into meaninglessness, to lament the fleeting nature of both Vel Satis and the C-Airdream appears somewhat feeble.

The unrealised dream of the past, it would seem, is an awful lot more worthwhile than the dreams of today turned reality, after all.

 

The author of this piece runs his own motoring website, which you are welcome to visit at 

 www.auto-didakt.com

Author: Christopher Butt

car design enthusiast // the mind behind www.auto-didakt.com // contributor to The Road Rat magazine //

54 thoughts on “Le roi est mort, vive le roi!”

    1. I believe Dave is correct. Diane Dors’ Delahaye was a postwar car, likely a 175. The prewar cars were similar looking, dating back to 1935-36.

    2. Just to illustrate how varied tastes are, I feel obliged to point out that I’d take either one of the more recent GTs over the Delahaye.

      The craftsmanship and materials used would obviously be outstanding, rendering even the SM a mass product by comparison. But the baroque streamline aesthetics are simply not for me. At all.

    3. Your point being, Angel?

      Personally, I don’t choose what I like based on what the organisers of some concours deem worthwhile.

    4. Interestingly and surprisingly, Ms Dors’ Delahaye was one of the first of that marque to be made with LHD.
      It’s a 175S by Saoutchik and is still around and being auctioned for vast sums, Delahayes having become more collectible than once they were.

    1. Good morning, Guy. I think Christopher means the four-door Vel Satis production model. The prototype was a fascinating car, futuristic and elegant, with subtle Art Deco references (or is that just my perception?) but the design theme translated poorly into the two production models.

      The Vel Satis was an interesting looking design might have made more sense as an MPV, had it been 150mm taller, but was far too controversial for the conservative executive car market into which it was pitched. The Avantime was, well, just bonkers!

      The styling theme did work very well on the Mk2 Megane with the bustle tail, which was unlike any other C-segment hatchback, and very much the better for it. It’s a shame it didn’t prove more versatile or, more likely, Renault had cold feet about using it further up the range after the tepid reaction to the Avantime and Vel Satis. A B-segment hatch in that style would have been fun.

      Speaking of Art Deco, the Saoutchik bodied Delahaye above is fabulously over the top and flamboyant, rather like Ms Dors herself!

  1. Was there a way for France to save its domestic Grand Tourisme segment by adopting a slightly more lenient post-war displacement-based tax limit of say 4-litres or even 3-litres for 6-cylinders along with 4-litres for V8s and above instead of the blanket 2.7-litre limit?

    It would likely still be a challenge for French carmakers wanting to break into this segment whilst seeking to be competitive against non-domestic Grand Tourers, yet would still be considered progressive and later on even in line with the norm people are familiar with in the present.

    1. The punitive engine displacement taxes were only part of the problem. Under the Pons Plan, which was the post-war statist strategy created by the French gov’t of the time, access to raw materials, especially steel was severely restricted.

      Luxury producers like Delahaye were not on the “priority producers” list, and were limited in access to steel and other raw materials.

      Post-war Delahaye ran into suspension and powertrain failures due to lack of access to high strength steel that they had used pre-war.

      Consumption of steel by small specialist producers like Delahaye would have been insignificant by weight. And most of the output would have been exported anyway. But “conservation” of steel wasn’t really the point.

      The Pons Plan red-circled politically favoured companies for survival, and deliberately drove the rest out of business.

    2. None of the domestic French manufacturers of the post-war era appeared to give the slightest thought about export markets, at least outside of what might have been termed French protectorate nations – certainly not when it came to major growth markets like the US. In the immediate post-war years, all European countries experienced similar privations when it came to raw materials, and most of them adopted varying forms of socialist-leaning governance. Yet both the Italian and British car industries established fairly successful and lucrative export businesses to the New World (despite Italy having its own often punitive capacity-related taxation regime), while the French carmakers seemed to maintain a domestic-centric mindset.

      Like many things in life, there are multi-faceted reasons for just about everything. Suggesting that the French government drove certain carmakers out of business out of some politically motivated form of class-related spite is not an opinion I would subscribe to, nor particularly wish to see being put forward on these pages. Not without a good deal more academic rigor on the proposer’s part at least.

      As to Pebble Beach: No they would probably never show a lowly Renault there, regardless of its design quality, largely because their the organisers are for the most part a collection of status-obsessed, badge-fixated snobs, with a predilection for over-restored, often barely-running trailer queens. In concours d’elegance terms, Pebble Beach is a bit of harmless fun, but antacids would be recommended.

    3. “Suggesting that the French government drove certain carmakers out of business out of some politically motivated form of class-related spite is not an opinion I would subscribe to, nor particularly wish to see being put forward on these pages.”

      The French gov’t restricted access to steel, and wouldn’t allow them to import it. It just happened, “coincidently”, to be all the luxury car manufacturers who could not get steel.

      The consumption of steel by luxury marques making a few hundred cars per year was but a tiny fraction of total steel usage of the volume manufacturers in a week. What more evidence do you need ?

      Don’t like Pebble Beach ? Museum of Modern Art, then.

    4. ‘Don’t like Pebble Beach ? Museum of Modern Art, then.’

      Again, Mr Martin, what exactly is the point you’re trying to make? That people who don’t ‘get’ the Delahaye are ignorant philistines? That your tastes are perfectly aligned with those of the people who run highly elitist presentations of automobiles? That only the taste of people who run highly elitist presentations of automobiles matters?

      You can enjoy, adore, worship the Delahaye to your heart’s content. It’s alright. But don’t tell me what I should and shouldn’t appreciate.

      Speaking of the MoMA, I’d rather doubt the Delahaye would make it beyond the gates of 11 W 53rd Street. If you pay attention to the cars they do or did show there, you’ll realise that they generally adhere to a more modernist ‘less is more’ approach than displayed by Saoutchik’s design.

    5. “The consumption of steel by luxury marques making a few hundred cars per year was but a tiny fraction of total steel usage of the volume manufacturers in a week. What more evidence do you need ?”

      I hate to sound pedantic, but I really couldn’t call that evidence.

      I don’t profess to know a great deal about this subject, but I would imagine there were other imperatives operating at the time. An urgent need to restart France’s major industries and get people (especially surviving servicemen and women) back into the workforce, coupled with the necessity to motorise what was a predominantly rural nation. Note also that Citroen experienced severe shortages in raw materials, contributing to the necessity to redesign the TPV (2CV) from all0y construction to steel.

      Another potential factor which may have played a significant role in the allocation of resources during that period is the likelihood that any business suspected of collaboration with the Nazi occupying forces were unlikely to have been viewed favourably in the post-war Republic. I have no idea if any of these carmakers were thus suspected, but the manner in which Louis Renault was treated suggests the judgements meted out (rightly or wrongly) were harsh.

      But all of these are surmises on my part. As I say, I am not an authority on the subject (anything but). Hence I would attempt to avoid making sweeping unfounded statements. I might council others do likewise.

    6. This article doesn’t discuss the steel starvation of the small luxury/bespoke manufacturers. But it does cover the political machinations of how favoured companies like Renault and Citroen were able to benefit from the Pons plan while not abiding by its restrictions.

      In Renault’s case they were supposed to build medium sized cars. Instead they pressured the bureaucrats and politicians to let them do the 4CV. Citroen was supposed to do large cars. They pressured the bureaucrats/politicians to let them do the 2CV as well. Simca executives tried to exit the small car project with Panhard.
      https://www.persee.fr/doc/hes_0752-5702_1999_num_18_2_2042

      Not covered in the article. Smaller, politically weak companies like Rosengart and Mathis and Salmson got excluded from the Pons plan and disappeared. Their assets were picked up by Citroen and Renault. Since Mathis was jewish and spent the war in America, I don’t think “Nazi collaboration” was a factor in him being frozen out.

    7. In the immediate post-war era, a lot of carmakers struggled to transition. Some had managed to obtain lucrative government contracts which helped tide them over during hostilities, but those who had not – for a host of reasons – found themselves in difficulties, in France and elsewhere. Enzo Ferrari is believed to have emerged from the war in severe difficulty, as did Bill Lyons, for example.

      Furthermore, many of the more upmarket carmakers were also saddled with outdated hardware, which they struggled to redeploy in a radically changed retail environment. Many simply were unable to understand the fact that both tastes and demographics had changed. In addition, a good number of their traditional customer base had either been killed or had lost everything in the ensuing melee.

      Perhaps one could posit the viewpoint that France didn’t necessarily need Salmson, Mathis et al (sad as their demise might have been), but did require 2 and 4CVs. After all, the non-affluent Frenchman already knew from his history that a diet of cake alone was not going to cut it.

    8. Again, Mr Martin, what exactly is the point you’re trying to make? That people who don’t ‘get’ the Delahaye are ignorant philistines? No

      That your tastes are perfectly aligned with those of the people who run highly elitist presentations of automobiles? No

      That only the taste of people who run highly elitist presentations of automobiles matters? No

      You can enjoy, adore, worship the Delahaye to your heart’s content. It’s alright. But don’t tell me what I should and shouldn’t appreciate.

      > I’m not. All I am saying is that 50 years from now, neither the Val Satis or C-Airdream is going to be a major attraction for their styling at car show or a museum the way the 1930’s luxury GT cars from France are now. The V-S and C-A are not even readily identifiable as luxury GTs, the viewer has to be told this.

      Whatever design deficiencies the Streamline Moderne era GT cars have, no-one mistakes them for anything other than a luxury GT.

    9. “Perhaps one could posit the viewpoint that France didn’t necessarily need Salmson, Mathis et al (sad as their demise might have been), ”

      I haven’t quoted Wikipedia because people don’t consider it to be an authoritative source. The problem is that the primary sourcing for the Wikipedia articles on Rosengart and Mathis and Salmson is in French, and not online.

      For anyone who is willing to accept Wikipedia as a source, it is very clear that all of the above companies as well as the luxury manufacturers were forced out of business by restricted access to steel via actions of the French State.

      Now, if people want to believe that the politicians and bureaucrats of the Fourth Republic were motivated only by non-political and non-partisan considerations of “good government”, that’s fine.

      I think the historical evidence indicates anything but. And the evidence of the nature of the Fourth Republic covers many more areas of gov’t activity than just the Pons Plan.

    10. Mr Martin,

      this will be my final response to you in this context, as you’re obviously only interested in your view being considered authoritative, rather than engaging in a proper discussion. I’ve made my position clear, as have you.

      Neither you nor I know which cars will be shown in a museum in 50 years’ time.

    11. Getting back to the subject it seems post-war marques like Facel-Vega and Monica might have benefited from more lenient post-war displacement-based tax limit in line with norm (3-litre 5/6-cylinders and 4-litre V8s/etc), perhaps others like Citroen (e.g. SM V8 prototype), Simca, Renault and Peugeot would have benefited as well. Especially the latter two in terms of the PRV V8 reaching production as well as the fact Peugeot apparently had a similar reputation to Mercedes-Benz at one point prior to WW2.

      Not sure about Delahaye, though perhaps Salmson (which some liken to a French Alfa Romeo) and Bugatti (had Ettore’s plans for a smaller 4-cylinder model been heeded in place of the Type 101) were the most salvageable of the pre-war marques in the right circumstances (if their respective Deadly Sins articles on Curbside Classics is any indication).

  2. Quite a nice little history of the SM, below. I never realised it had rain sensing wipers; amazing for 1970.

    1. The SM had intermittent wipers with a relay coupled to a thermal resistor in the electric line to the wiper motor. When the wiper motor absorbed a high current because the windscreen was dry the resistor would make the relay change to a longer interval. The sensitivity of the whole mechanism was mechanically adjustable by the driver.

      The SM is the triumph of technology over common sense…

    2. For absent friends … any item on DTW regarding the SM, however always welcome, is missing something without the experience and insight of Mr Trowbridge making a comment. I still have a photo of his car on my soon to be vacated office at work. Please pass on my regards, should the opportunity arise (Eóin/ Richard).

  3. I neither like nor dislike Pebble Beach and other similar “concours” shows, I’m merely indifferent to them because the vehicles on display are largely irrelevant to the broader history of the motor vehicle. They are certainly rare and usually beautifully built (but not necessarily beautiful). However, such “cost no object” vehicles rarely if ever led the mass-market in terms of engineering innovation. I’m far more fascinated by “ordinary” motor vehicles that were designed and built to a tight set of constraints driven by cost and the demands of series production. It is those constraints that really challenged designers and engineers to innovate.

    1. Good luck in finding one, Richard! (I’m not talking about the Fragoni, that’s comparably easy…)

    2. Autoscout24 has eight examples of the Fiat Regata. For 2500 there is a tasty metallic grey over beige in Holland with under 80,000 km on the clock. It´s just sumptuous.

    3. Richard you are leading me astray. I’m not tempted by a Regata, no matter how sumptuous, but just look at the pre-facelift, original Pandas. Palm Beach eat your heart out, Northern Italy here I come!

    4. As ever, the costs of a good one are far higher than you´d ever expect. I´d insist on full Waxoyle treatment for the Regata any any such vehicles. Can I say I was driven around in a Regata in the 1990s. I recall it was a very tatty car even though not more than a decade old. Bits were falling off inside the car.

    5. Adrian, that’s funny – when Richard mentioned the Regata, my first thought was the Panda as well. If someone know a pristine first generation car for little money… I nice Ritmo would also serve. I’ll leave the notchbacks for Mr. Herriott.

    6. While I admit the Panda and Ritmo have their charms, the Regata is a delicious mix of the very obvious and wholly inexplicable. Pandas are ten a penny in souther Italy. I am sure Simon could obtain one for under a thousand euros including travel and fuel.

    7. Well, most Pandas I see are younger examples, that means late first generation. Most of them are pale green – seemed to be the standard colour in these years. But try to find one with the original, closed grille.

    8. I certainly agree that the Regata has a certain fascination, as Richard describes it pithily, “a delicious mix of the very obvious and wholly inexplicable”. For me, one of the more inexplicable aspects of the car is that Fiat went to the trouble of engineering completely new doors as part of a mid-life facelift. It did so to remove the distinctive upticks at either end of the DLO, presumably to distance it from the soon to die Ritmo and align it more closey with the just launched Croma. Heres the pre-facelift model:

      And post-facelift:

      I think this was successful up to a point, but the consequence of giving the car a rising shoulder line is that the sharp crease running from nose to tail, which was parallel to the original shoulder line, now looks a bit droopy and appears to be falling towards the rear of the car. Proof that altering one detail of an existing design can have unwelcome consequences elsewhere.

    9. Wow. That detail with the doors never occurred to me. This story clearly confirms the general notion of poorly executed Fiat facelifts. While this one at least didn’t do any harm (it went unnoticed from me so far), I’d say they spent a lot of money for something that looked the same as before. Only if you look very carefully you can see that it has become slightly worse.
      The Croma you mention was subject to a very thorough facelift as well – going from clamshell bonnet to an ordinary one, thus demanding new wings. While it looks a tad more modern, I think the overall appearance of the old model was more consistent.

    10. You’re right about the Croma, Simon. The original one at least had the design symmetry of both clamshell bonnet and hatchback. The facelifted one lost this merely for a more generic front end.

      Speaking of Cromas and facelifts, can you believe that Fiat actually bothered to revise the very slow selling 2005 model with new headlamps, bumpers and front wings, from this:

      to this:

      Here the intention was to create a family resemblance to the 2007 Fiat Bravo, the replacement for the Stilo. Did Fiat think it was worth spending money on this, when the Croma was already dead in the water in terms of sales? Did the company really believe that a questionable facelift would transform its fortunes? All these individually small but cumulatively very costly poor decisions led FCA to where it is today, the lame duck of Europe’s volume automotive industry.

    11. All this discussion of the late Regata (which was for linguistic reasons known as the Regatta in Sweden) reminds me that just last week I came across a well preserved example of the model which some enthusiast had imported from the UK. I haven’t seen one in many a year due to their being Fiats and had to do a double take on finding one proudly displayed with many other classics, as very ordinary cars have so often become.

    12. I’m in complete agreement Simon – a first generation pre-facelift Panda, or Ritmo would be just lovely. Autoscout24 has several Pandas that fit the bill, but cheap, and thankfully for Mrs Tebby far too far away to drive back to sunny Devon.

  4. Spooky!

    Yesterday I was in Cambridge (England) with my family. Specifically, I was in Heffer’s, the large bookshop there and came across a book called ‘Cars – Driven by Design … Sports Cars from the 1950s to the 1970s’. I had never seen it before and flicked through it. Mentally, I noted the SM didn’t feature (I more hoped than expected), but then it probably doesn’t classify as one – if anything it’s a GT.

    Beyond that, I enjoyed what I read of the book and its insightful commentaries on some legendary and truly beautiful cars. Included was a lot of content scribed by one … Christopher Butt. Surely, there can be only one!? If so, bravo, and very nicely done!

    If so, did you consider, at all, including the SM? (Albeit, that’s unfair of me as someone else had the overall editorial control).

    1. I had little say in the cars chosen for the exhibition, and hence the book.

      The only car that made its way into the museum due to me exerting what limited influence I wielded was the BMW Turbo. Originally, the curators wanted to show a BMW M1, but I suggested a Lotus Esprit S1/S2 (being Giugiaro’s ultimate wedge) or the Turbo instead – the latter I found interesting in the context of juxtaposing it with the Mercedes C111, which is the BMW’s contemporary and superficially similar, but really an altogether different beast.

      There were quite a few GTs included too (Maserati 5300, Facel Vega), incidentally, but it was very difficult to champion any non-classical designs. Believe me that I tried my best to have a more affordable take on sports car design (Fiat 850 Spider/X1/9) or more avant-garde takes on the GT concept (SM, Porsche 928) on show too. It simply wasn’t to be.

  5. Hi, thanks for the gentle ribbing, I needed that! A bit of a failure of the grey cells there! I do remember that piece now, cheers.

  6. The Panhard PL17 came out in 1953 or so made all out of aluminum because of steel shortages. For some reason I love that car’s looks and its giant-fighter mien – medium size but run by a mini 850cc opposed twin engine with some actual guts. Two model years later, they changed most of it back to steel when that was more available and far cheaper. Used to correspond with a restorer who had a lovely website a decade or more ago – his poor English and my terrible French made for emails that were hilarious but all in good fun. Clever structure that Panhard had.

    “Vel Satis translated the grand tourisme ideals into an unusual, contemporary variation on the theme.” Now just how would you define “grande tourisme ideals”? Because that is one awkward looking car and tagging it it with a GT moniker did not once occur to me 20 years ago, or now. Where’s the presence?

    Fiat Regatta? You have to be joking, Richard. It’s a dowdy VW Jetta copy made to even less exacting standards than VW could muster in the early 80s. Not a decent line in the thing. It’s downright mournful to gaze upon.

    1. Grand Tourisme ideals… a discussion that has to arise every time the “GT” is mentioned. I think its some version of Godwin’s Law…

      Classically, of course we think of larger coupes, two-door, with long bonnets hiding an appropriate engine, RWD, chrome, etc. This somewhat narrow definition of course excludes anything like SMs (too outré) or Vel Satises (no prestige gap). If we come more from the purpose side, it might look different. As a purpose, I’d define motoring with a certain comfort, but also some sporting capability, in the engine output as well as in the chassis. This somewhat opens the field and makes room for less classical designs. Now, I don’t know how engeging a drive the V.S. would be, so I can’t judge it GTness really. For the SM, I’d argue that it applies. Plus, it also offers a certain degree of distinction, probably not in the classical sense for the status-conscious, but much the better for me, for example.

      By the way, if we’re talking about prestige gaps… The only prestige gap that has any relevance for me is this one:

    2. Oh, something went wrong here. That was meant to be a link to a wikimedia image. Maybe this works:

    3. Does this mean that loose door trim, worn seats and sagging headlinings are necessary GT ingredients?

    4. Haha, well it’s probably not the best example of a CX Prestige that serves as standard picture at Wiki – as ususal.
      But what I’m trying to convey is my list of priorities that ranks passenger comfort higher than the question how far the front door is spaced from the wheel. And I’m not saying that I consider the CX to be a Grand Tourisme (although I actually owned a CX GT some years ago).

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