The Prewar Amlux

Bruno Vijverman looks back at a time when not only were cars objects of wonder, but the buildings that housed them.

(c) Citroën

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.

(c) Citroën

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.

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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.

8 thoughts on “The Prewar Amlux”

  1. Bravo Bruno! An excellent insight. I knew of the Amlux from a Car report by James Rupert back in the 1980’s. He too was the child in a sweet shop, grabbing brochures galore. I knew of the Champs- Elysees garage but never heard of the Marbeuf before. Amazed the occupying Germans left anything but modern building ideas seem more destructive than armies. Citroen dealerships these days appear far more lacklustre affairs. As time goes by…

  2. Good morning, Bruno. Thank you for showing us such a beautiful and elegant building, one that would look contemporary if built today, unlike the rather quaint cars it displays. It’s a thought that occurs to me every time I see a photo of a modernist building from the 1930’s to the 1960’s with contemporary vehicles in the shot. Here’s an example that will be familiar to DTW’s Irish readership:

    The Dublin Busáras (central bus station) was completed in 1953 and caused huge controversy at the time because of its cost and dramatic, modernist design, the first such building in the centre of the city. It was loved by modernists and caused outrage amongst traditionalists, who saw it as an affront to the Georgian elegance of the nearby Custom House, a classical building in the Palladian style. Note the cars (and lamp posts) in the photo, which appear to come from a different age.

    In the history of the automobile, there are relatively few mass-market vehicles that stand out as being emphatically ground-breaking in design terms, to the extent that they caused a collective gasp of amazement when revealed. The Citröen DS was, of course, one such exceptional vehicle. Likewise, the Mk1 Ford Focus. Both represented dramatic leaps of faith by their manufacturers and were controversial at launch.

    By and large, car makers are a cautious bunch and design tends to be mainly evolutionary. Often this evolution leads the manufacturer down a dead-end, which is where Audi and BMW, for example, find themselves today, each new design merely to serving to highlight that the outgoing model was cleaner and less ornamented.

    When the evolution runs out of road, so to speak, the step-change is often not revolutionary, but merely picks up other manufacturers’ currently fashionable design tropes. The latest Focus is a mainly competent piece of work, and breaks away from the six-light style of its three predecessors, but it advances automotive design not a jot and is entirely generic. I can understand the “if it ain’t broke” commercial logic of this approach but, my goodness, it’s dull!

    Does electrification offer the promise of more radical design changes, given the different packaging requirements of EV drivetrain? Well, BMW tried to be bold with the i3 and i8 models, but both faced significant resistance and, apparently, the company’s next generation EVs will be more conventional looking.

    What other cars would we identify as truly ground-breaking designs? The Mk1 Golf, although very conventional looking now, was a properly “modernist” design in 1973, so would make my list:

    My judging criterion is simple: “How would it look parked outside the Busáras?”

  3. Regarding 32-34 Rue Marbeuf, there is a glazed six-storey atrium that does pay homage of sorts to the earlier building, but this was not part of the original design. Here’s the atrium:

    and here’s the right-hand wing of the building before the atrium was added between the two wings:

    It is nowhere near the architectural distinction and quality of the earlier building, of course.

  4. I cannot thank you enough for bringing this delightful piece of automotive history & architecture to my my attention, Bruno!

    It seems as though there’s no end to the creativity of Citroën, during the company’s glory days.

  5. Here it is, a beautiful, modernist building:

    And a contemporary advertisement for it:

    The current building does try to reference the strong horizontal elements either side of the atrium, but it has none of the original building’s elegance. It’s merely a weak facsimile.

  6. Thanks Bruno for pointing out this piece of Citroën history to me. As a long time fan of the marque I still was completely unaware of this building – or I might have read about it an then forgotten. I like the integrated “MARBEUF” lettering a lot.
    As Daniel states, sadly the building today doesn’t have anything of the former elegance and originality, and we can’t dispute that this reflects the state of Citroën quite accurately.

  7. The spiritual descendants of the Rue Marbeuf Citroën showroom are these “coin operated” car vending machines. Most of Carvana’s transactions take place online, you can have your car delivered or pick it up yourself.

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