Sandy on Assignment:
Retromobile in Paris

February 20, 2013 Comments (1)

Where Everyone speaks “Auto”

by Sandy Cotterman

On the smorgasbord of motorsports adventures, Retromobile in Paris is definitely on the list. Paris in February—well, that’s a tough sell, but for me it was ideal. I was on my way to Nairobi to visit my daughter, who, like her mother, is all about the adventure. A layover in Paris, why not! Little did I know this adventure would follow me to the heart of Kenya.

If you want to do Retromobile, I’ve worked out the logistics. Most red eyes from the States get you to Paris in time to catch a full day of planes, trains, and automobiles. My suggestion is to start with opening day, Wednesday, when you can virtually walk right in. Keith Carlson, from our Jaguar Association of New England, joined me on Thursday, thinking day two would be light. Not so.There were thousands in line, making Keith’s online ticket purchase worthwhile. It’s very inexpensive to walk through the doors of Retromobile, 14 euros.  Once inside, the coat and baggage check is another bargain at 2-3 euros. With a two-day Metro pass for 17 euros, I could come and go as I pleased on the line to Mairie d’Issy, getting off at the Porte de Versailles and following the crowds to the Par des Expositions, Retromobile. Hop back on in reverse, with a transfer at Concord, and you’re one stop to the Champs Elysees Clemenceau and the Grand Palais for the Bonham preview and auction. Of course, the bargains stop here. You’re in Paris!

I had no clue what to expect from Retromobile. Celebrating “38 years of passion and dreams”, I would say it’s a giant international luxury motorsports flea market. Armed with a huge schematic floor planfoldout, the Guide de Visite, you’re pretty much on your own to map out a plan of attack. The booths and displays are eclectic. The atmosphere is frenetic. I’ve never seen so many men get so excited over boxes of car parts, miniature model vintage cars, and rusted advertising sign … and this is only the shopping section, located in Pavillion 2.2! Thinking of going to the Goodwood Revival? This is the place to get outfitted with tweed blazers, knickers, goggles, gloves, and hats! My antennae were up for anything Bugatti, and sure enough, I spied a book on the marque, one of the few in English.

Who would have guessed men love to shop?

Something for everyone

The people are just as outrageous as the cars.

The press release said there were 400 exhibitors, including 100 multi-marque car clubs and associations, both very popular in Europe, and over 500 cars on display. Pavilion 3, where most are located, is transformed into a gentleman’s playground.  If you’re a rallyist, or a wannabe, like me, this is the place to scope out exotic adventures with price tags to match! Looking for that rare classic car to add to your private collection or museum? Companies to help are on hand. Once you’ve found the perfect find, there is a plethora of European restorers to turn your barn find into a Concours winner.

If you want it there is a company to find it

If only I had the car to restore

The creme de la creme for Artcurial…this 1936 Talbot-Lago T150 topped sales coming in just under 2M dollars.

With only two days to see it all, I was especially grateful to SCM for hosting a wonderful first day gathering within Retromobile at the Café Jambon a la Broche for its magazine subscribers. It gave me a chance to stop, relax, and chat with fellow English speaking enthusiasts, many from the States.

I wouldn’t say I was overwhelmed; I was just intrigued by Retromobile.  There were enough displays of the unusual to hold my interest, since old car parts and memorabilia really aren’t my thing. In fact, the Artcurial Motorcars and Bonhams auction catalogues were my prized souvenirs.

Speaking of unusual, have you ever heard of a Helica? Designed a century ago by Marcel Leyat, only 23 of the half-plane, half-car hybrids were built, and I’m betting those remaining were at Retromobile!

Five Helicas on display

There were special tributes this year, one being the 50th anniversary of the 911 Porsche, my dream car, so I thought it was rather fitting that I was in attendance. Celebrating the 100th anniversary of the first crossing of the Mediterranean by air, tributes to Roland Garros were prominent. On exhibit was the type H-plane, “Morane”, along with the famed 5-liter “Roland Garros” Bugatti. I was familiar with the Roland Garros tennis stadium, but didn’t realize Garros had nothing to do with tennis, but rather was a pilot and motorcar enthusiast.


The FFVA supports vintage car clubs and museums throughout France.

The car to drive in the 1908 French Grand Prix - a Benz.

One in the pair - the Prince Heinrich race car.

One of the Prince Heinrich racing cars was the highlight. Apparently two were discovered a few years ago, tucked away in storerooms of the Mercedes-Benz Museum and the Louwman Museum, all intact except for the bodywork. The idea of restoring them emerged, and the two museums collaborated on the project. Although most of the Benz archives were destroyed during WWII, photos, drawings, and original plans were found that identified the two cars!  On June 10, 1910, no fewer than 10 Benz cars took part in a 1900-kilometer race across Germany and part of France, named after sportsman Prince Heinrich, the brother of Kaiser Wilhelm II. In view of road conditions at the time, I thought it was pretty impressive that they drove at top speeds of 130kph over that distance.

France’s love affair with the Citroen was evident over this Paris weekend, with special honor to the Citroen DS, which made its debut at the Salon de Paris in 1955, receiving a hefty 80,000 orders to fill. Already at 17 varied models on display, Artcurial Motorsports brought an additional 11 Citroens and Bonhams added another three. It looked like aliens beamed down for Citroen mania.

Everyone is working a deal during Retromobile.

The 1931 Bugatti Type 54 is very famous and very pricey, commanding a 2M euro Bonhams hammer price and 12 page catalogue spread.

Speaking of Bonhams and Artcuria auctions, previewing both and stepping back in time for the Bonhams auction held at the Grand Palais on Thursday evening was the highlight of my layover in Paris. The moment the hammer went down on the actual aircraft made available to Universal Pictures for the filming of Out of Africa, the 1929 metal-framed De Havilland Gipsy Moth, I had no idea I would be living its memories almost 24 hours later. Sipping coffee on the veranda of the Karen von Blixen Coffee Garden just outside Nairobi the next day, I heard a plane overhead. I looked up and saw a small plane flying … probably on its way to safari over the Ngnog Hills. It was magical!

Filmed in Out of Africa, the Gipsy Moth sparked my next adventure to Kenya.

Bonhams at the Grand Palais


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Comments (1)

  1. Keith Carlson:
    Feb 22, 2013 at 08:13 AM

    Excellent report, Sandy, both text and photos. You well captured the event(s) and many readers should be enticed to add it to their list. Very much enjoyed sharing it with you. The coincidence of the following day made a terrific tag to the story. Look fwd to seeing you again at PB & Monterey (and others), and to seeing your reaction to the Goodwood Revival.

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