Bruno Vijverman looks back at a time when not only were cars objects of wonder, but the buildings that housed them.
On my first trip to Tokyo, one of the must-visit locations would probably not have made much sense to the typical tourist, but it did to me, being not only a car lover but in particular a brochure collector: Toyota Amlux.
This huge flagship showroom, housed in an equally impressive building, showcased all Toyota’s cars over six floors. Each one employed a different
theme- for instance there was a floor with only SUV’s and one containing luxury cars.
It was always relatively easy to obtain brochures at car dealerships in Japan, but at Amlux – where you could not buy a car anyway, so it was devoid of nosy salesmen- you simply walked up to one of the immaculately dressed young ladies at the counter and asked for any brochure you wanted.
Your brochure was then inserted into an Amlux branded envelope and handed to you, there seemingly being no limit to the amount of brochures you could have. Naturally, I repeated this ritual shamelessly on all floors.
You will notice I speak of Amlux in the past tense, as unfortunately it was closed in 2014.
Predating Amlux by six decades was another large flagship showroom, this one from Citroën. And no, it is not the Grand Magasin on 42 Champs-Elysées (named “C42” these days). However impressive 42 Champs Elysées may be there once was an even grander one on 32-34 Rue Marbeuf, a side street off the Champs-Elysées. Its name was – granted, not very original – Garage Marbeuf.
Like Amlux, it had six floors and was large enough to show the entire range of vehicles on offer. The almost twenty meter high facade was made up of eighteen huge glass panes offering an unobstructed view of the cars and the lovely art deco cutout-shape of the floors. At first glance it may have looked like a fancy parking garage but it really was a showroom.
Of course, a building like this in a prestigious location doesn’t come cheap, which is where Maurice Bunau-Varilla came in. Bunau-Varilla was the main shareholder of one of the best known French newspapers, Le Matin. He was also one of the people who believed in André Citroën and his grand ideas to change the European car manufacturing landscape forever. He lent Citroën considerable amounts of money, becoming a shareholder in the company. In return, Citroën gave Bunau-Varilla the concession rights to open and run a dealership right in the heart of Paris.
Bunau-Varilla ordered the famous architect Albert Laprade and his partner Louis-Emile Bazin to design and build the new showroom. Construction was started in 1928 and the design fitted right in with the Citroën style of marketing in those heady days, perhaps most memorably expressed by the emblazoning of the Citroën name on the Eiffel Tower with over 250,000 lightbulbs.
The showroom was finished in 1929; hardly ideal timing as a worldwide recession would soon hit the world economies hard. Indeed, in 1934 Citroën went bankrupt. Not just because of the financial crisis but also because of Citroën’s rivalry with Renault and the lengthy and costly development of the Traction Avant that had crippled the company and arguably also its boss. Fortunately, Michelin stepped in and saved the company.
As a result, Garage Marbeuf was closed and converted into a combined cinema and parking garage. During the second world war the building was confiscated by the German army. After the war, Marbeuf was -like many other sites in France – worse for wear after four years of occupation. In 1952 only the cinema downstairs remained but the rest of the once magnificent building was torn down.
Today, there is a structure with a large atrium in its place that also features a glass facade. But it is only a shadow of its former self, but much as when a beautiful painting is removed after gracing a room for decades, the outline of its frame can still be seen on the wall.