I've always felt that there's a list of automotive touchstones around the world a person needs to go to or see in order to consider themselves a true enthusiast. The 24 Hours of Le Mans makes the list, as does the Indianapolis 500. The Pacific Coast Highway is a pretty important drive, as is the Stelvio Pass in Italy. Most would put Pebble Beach and the Monterey Historic Races on their list of car events, although my own preference would be the Amelia Island Concours and the Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix. After last weekend, I have a new event to put on my list-a car show that takes place at the end of January and affords me an opportunity to travel someplace warmer than the icebox that is Minnesota in the dead of winter. If you think I'm talking about Arizona, think again.
The 2010 version of Retromobile in Paris marked the 35th anniversary of the 10-day classic car show. Held under the roof of the enormous Pavilion 7-3 of the Paris-Portes de Versailles Exposition Center in the 15th Arrondissement, Retromobile pays homage to the history of locomotion, with a particular emphasis on automobile and motorcycle transportation. For anyone who likes cars and bikes, it overwhelms the senses with a kaleidoscope of colors and shapes, representing any and all manner of vehicles from more than 100 years of transportation.
On my first day at the show, it took me more than two hours just to walk the perimeter of the indoor Pavilion. There was so much to see: car manufacturers, car dealers, car clubs, booksellers and publishers, artists and art dealers, parts suppliers, clothing purveyors, racing teams, and model makers and sellers all had booths that ranged from a few square feet to half a city block in length. It was as if the entirety of your local shopping mall had been taken over by a bunch of rabid car guys.
There were cars from every era. This being France, Citroën was much in evidence. Everything from the delicate Cloverleaf models of the early 1920s, through the stylish Traction Avant and the ruggedly simple 2CV models, to the amazingly competent DS and incredibly complex Maserati-powered SM from the early 1970s. Bugattis were also thick on the show floor, including enough Type 35s and Type 37s to form a full racing grid, and several more luxurious examples of Bugatti's touring cars that culminated in Englishman Tom Weathcroft's perfectly executed replica of the mythical Type 41 Royale. Peugeot was one of the event's honored marques, 2010 being the 200th anniversary of the firm that started as a metallurgical company in 1810. Peugeot brought examples of its bicycles (which began production in 1886), motorcycles, mopeds, and automobiles that provided a real perspective on the company's dedication to transportation.
Alfa Romeos were also greatly in evidence, as Retromobile celebrated the 100th anniversary of that marque. Sporty pre-war six- and eight-cylinder sports cars vied for attention with such delectable eye-candy as a 1952 Spider Disco Volante by Touring, the 1963 Giulia TZ1 by Zagato, and the limited production (just 500) 2008 Alfa 8C Competizione.
There was more. Retromobile added in a ton of racing red Ferraris, several Gullwing Mercedes coupes, a few pre-war Bentleys, a drop-dead gorgeous 1954 Lancia D25, Jaguars, MGs, Austin Healeys, Maseratis, a Hispano-Suiza, a couple of Voisins, Aston Martins, Morgans, and a collection of microcars from more than a dozen different manufacturers. Mixed among these were racing and touring motorcycles spanning more than 100 years of two-wheeled mania. There was also a big-time auction, put on by the Bonhams auction house, for those who just couldn't return home without having purchased an automobile.
If you were looking for parts-particularly used parts from obscure European makes that also happened to be French-this was the place to be. How often do you have a chance to buy a radiator for a Chenard-Walker, an axle for an Amilcar, or a Lalique hood ornament for your Rosengart? There were piles of axles and wire wheels and brass lanterns and radiators and even an unrestored Bugatti chassis, complete with corroded straight-eight engine and characteristic horseshoe-shaped radiator.
The two most affordable things at the show were model cars and car books. Although "affordable" is somewhat of a misnomer with the value of the dollar weak against the euro, and if you bought one or two model cars and a couple of books it would be hard to have any change back from a $100 bill. (There's always credit cards.)
Traveling to Paris is probably as easy as it has ever been with direct flights available from most major U.S. cities. Taxis are expensive, but the Paris Metro public transportation isn't and is easy to figure out. It goes just about anywhere you want to go and has a stop at Paris-Portes de Versailles. Hotel rooms in Paris range from expensive to breathtaking, but, traveling with another car-guy friend who split the bill, we were able to stay at a small hotel just a short walk away from the show for about $120 a night for a double-occupancy room. It wasn't fancy, but most of our time was spent at the show.
Despite what you might have heard, the people in Paris are friendly and helpful, even if you aren't fluent in their language. Attitudes have changed over the years as a younger and more globally savvy generation has replaced the previous, which had a reputation for being surly and obstructionist if you didn't speak French. Inability to speak the language shouldn't keep you from traveling to France to attend this show.
Retromobile costs €13 for an adult day pass for admission (there are no multi-day passes available); €7.5 for children between six and 12 years old; and children under six get in free. If you can get a group together (more than 10 people) the adult rate drops to €10 per day. I spent three days there and felt like I saw all that I could possibly absorb in that time. Details are available at retromobile.com.
So I've now got a new experience to place on my "must-do" list for true car enthusiasts. Should you go? Even with the weak dollar and the high cost of pomme-frittes, I think you should. Just walking the streets of Paris is like being in a rolling automotive exhibit of cars that don't come to our shores. More importantly, there's nothing like Retromobile here in the U.S. No matter where you live in the States, for the true aficionado of European cars, spending the last week of January in Paris is an excellent place to be.