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Porte de Versailles, 5th - 9th of February

This year's RĂ©tromobile was held on the second weekend of February. As in recent years the 39th edition of the oldest classic car trade fair in Europe opened its doors on Wednesday morning after the media preview for the visitors who were waiting impatiently in long queues at the entrance. With ever increasing popularity both of visitors and exhibitors the RĂ©tromobile did its first change since the timely reduction from ten to five days a few years ago by changing to the biggest hall on the exposition grounds. Although part of the concept of the trade fair is its exclusivity and therefore high quality a lot of potential new exhibitors had to be turned away in recent years due to the lack of space as most of those lucky enough to get their spot already booked for the next year during the show. With an increase of about 25 % the 41 thousand square metre of exhibition space welcomed several new attractions and made more room for the numerous special exhibitions and to make things short without any loss of quality that was feared be some seasoned visitors.

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One of the annual attractions are the mentioned special exhibitions with changing themes, this year the machinery of the first World War, the Alpines of Jean Rédélé, the cars of the Maharajas and the history of Lancia.

One hundred years ago Europe saw its first war of the 20th century and with the ever increasing industrialization the machinery also found its way into the modern warfare. Although still very much a combat head-to-head the first tanks entered the battlefield and both material and wounded were transported on specially developed motorized tansportation. The new layout made room for a huge 4000 sqft diorama showing some fine restored examples of military and civil used exhibits of this period.

Less violent by not less archaic are the two examples on display of the land speed record cars in between the wars. As long as people are building cars they were used for all sort of competition and speed record were a question of national prestige and not few lost their life by achieving ever increasing records in simple chassis layouts powered by huge engines. The most popular victim might be Bernd Rosemeyer whose obit was in late January 1938 but he shares this fate with many others just as the story of “Babs” shows. Built by John Godfrey Parry-Thomas this special was powered by a 27 litre V12 Liberty aero engine and took several records before its final run in March 1927. After Parry-Thomas lost his record to Malcolm Campbell in his famous Bluebird he took Babs to a last record run on Pendine Beach in Wales were the 600 hp monster flipped at about 270 kph instantly killing him. The car was buried at the beach to be resurrected in the late 1960s to be restored to running condition as it is displayed today. It was just seen at Paris alongside one of the earlier Campbell Bluebird record cars that was challenging Babs, the 350 HP Sunbeam of the National Motor Museum.

Always very interesting themes are the cars of the Indian Maharajas whose extroverted and exotic taste led to the creation of some of the most exciting designs. After the long history as British colony it is not a surprise that most of these Maharaja cars were based on Rolls-Royce chassis, namely the Silver Ghost and the various Phantom that were considered to be the best available in their time. The RĂ©tromobile showcased some examples ranging from representation cars to the popular hunting cars. But not all were based on Rolls-Royce as was shown by the Mercedes-Benz SS Tourer or the Alfa Romeo RL both brought by the factory museums. The most interesting car on display was without doubt the 1938 Delahaye 135 Figoni&Falaschi brought over from Oxnard (California) by Peter Mullin. This car spend the first 40 years as part of the collection of various Maharajas and today is one of the centrepieces of Mullins collection of French designed cars, the car was already awarded Best of Show at the Retromobile in 1989. Not part of the Maharaja display but with the same theme was this year booth of the Louwman Museum showing the two Swan Cars that were also part of the Maharaja Car display in Pebble Beach two years ago.

As the Rétromobile is the French classic car fair certainly a special theme dedicated to some special French cars could not be missed, this year the work of Jean Rédélé was showcased with an impressive line-up of 13 Alpines ranging from the sports prototype M63 from 1963 to the latest A310 that run in Group 4 in 1979. Today the Alpines are very popular in various classic car events, the prototypes will be seen again at this year’s Le Mans Classic, and the A110 is a very popular choice for the Tour Auto. These two events organized by Peter Auto were omnipresent at the Retromobile as many cars were advertised as eligible especially for Le Mans and apart from the driving events Patrick Peter just introduced the new concours in Chantilly in September that will bring back the traditional concours d’Elegance to the country of the coachbuilders Figoni, Saoutchik and Chapron after the loss of the famous show at Bagatelle several years ago.

Being the premium trade fair in Europe the RĂ©tromobile is also important for the manufacturers, not just the French ones represent themselves in stylish displays. Most of them choose a theme presenting a round anniversary of one of their most iconic models or introducing a new model into their heritage. Renault for example showcased the 30th anniversary of the Espace and although maybe not the most glamorous this became one of their most important models over these year, a special show version is even powered by one of their F1 units. It was displayed alongside the funny Type 900 that looks like a normal fastback turned back to front.

More sportive were the displays of the two companies from Stuttgart (or better known from Untertürkheim and Zuffenhausen) with both Mercedes and Porsche celebrating their sporting heritage. Whereas the Mercedes display showed the long history of the oldest manufacturer in all sorts of racing ranging from Grand Prix, Sports Cars races to the modern Tourenwagen series including the streamlined W196R and the Sauber C9 (that came home second behind its sister car at Le Mans in 1989 at the peak of the Group C) the smaller opponent from the other side of the town themed especially Le Mans were they will be return after an absence of 16 years in the top prototype class. Still the most successful manufacturer on the winners’ board with no less 16 victories Porsche has to face the dominant Audi Team this year. Porsche started early in Le Mans but the small company was just competing for class victories in the beginning with cars like the Type 550 that was displayed in Paris in Carrera Panamericana livery, the first overall victory came in 1970 with the famous 917K, the Martini livered 917K (with lightweight Magnesium Chassis) repeated this victory the year after, the last Porsche to win at La Sarthe was the 911 GT1.

Unlike a the Techno Classica next month were the Volkswagen Group and Mercedes-Benz span over an entire hall the works displays are more down-to-earth in Paris leaving enough room for the various dealer, restorer and club displays showing some of the most exciting classic cars on the market.

Especially Lukas Hüni and Gregor Fisken are always a highlight of the show with large displays of blue chip cars, Hüni also featured again a special display, after the Citroen DS last year this year’s theme was Lancia. This line-up included several key models including the Aurelia, the Flaminia and the Stratos alongside the pre-war examples of the Lambda and Astura. Star of the display was without doubt the original D24 that won the Targa Florio in the hands of Piero Taruffi in 1954. The D24 was designed by Vittorio Jano who became famous with Alfa Romeo before the war with the straight eight-cylinder engines in the 2.3 and 2.9 litre.

Just opposite to the Lancia display Hüni had his own booth that features some examples from his clients’ cars, cars he takes care of or dealt in the past. Unlike at most of the other dealer booths few of them were for sale showing more the potential quality of cars he is dealing with including a trio of Aston Martin and Ferrari. Back in the 1950s after the company was acquired by David Brown Aston Martin went the long way to win at Le Mans; first serious attempts were made with the DB3S that was both entered by the company itself and privateers. The car on display was the 9th of the factory cars (out of 11) and came as close to the desired Le Mans victory as none of its predecessors with a second in the hands of Moss and Collins in 1956 just a lap behind the winning Jaguar D-Type. It took three more years for Brown to finally win with the DBR1, the car on display was the earliest of the five cars completed and helped to win the World Sportscar Championship in 1959 with Moss winning the 1000 km at the Nürburgring. After Brown achieved the desired overall victory at La Sarthe he went on to compete in F1 but the DBR4 was no success and finally Aston Martin quit racing.

Alongside the Aston trio was a display of three road going Ferrari, a more common 275 GTB and 250 GT Lusso as well as a very interesting 250 LM. Although the LM was designed to compete at Le Mans (hence the name) three cars were converted for road use including a leather trim to quieten the noise and a plexiglas cover over the engine and even an air condition to cool down the heat coming from the mid-engine. Also to be mentioned was a trio of iconic pre-war machinery including a very well patinated Bugatti T35 C, the wonderful Alfa Romeo 8C 2300 Pinin Farina Cabriolet and a Bentley 8 Litre.

The Bentley also spans the bow to the Gregor Fisken display as there was another example of the biggest Cricklewood chassis, together with the example at Artcurial no less than 3 out of the 100 produced could be seen at Paris these days. After Bentley started with the 3 Litre 4-cylinder engine in 1919 soon a 6-cylinder version was introduced with the 6 ½ litre to carry heavy coach built saloons and limousines. As the 3 litre was later enlarged to 4 ½ litres the straight six became an 8 litre in its final version. Introduced in 1930 with the depression in full swing the 8 litre was too expensive to be sold in large numbers and just 100 examples were built when Bentley was taken over by Rolls-Royce. Fortunately several original bodied closed 8 litres survived and the three cars on show might be some of the most elegant examples made. More sportive (although also a tourer) was the 4 ½ litre by Harrison on the other side of the display. Further pre-war cars were the Bugatti T46, this model is often referred as the “small royale” and this one even featured the famous elephant as mascot, a very rare Turcat-Méry and the Invicta 4 ½ Litre. The display also featured one of three Ferrari Daytona Spyder in Paris, a Ferrari 275 GTB/2 Alloy and a rare Aston Martin short chassis Volante. Centrepiece was the Jaguar D-type, the Williams FW07 and the Talbot-Lago Grand Sport.

In previous years the third of the large displays was provided by British race car specialist Hall & Hall that was missed this year but others were more than happy to take over. An impressive line-up could be seen at the booth of Tradex SRL including the much awaited appearance of the Ferrari 330 P4 (chassis 0858). Few cars were discussed more hot-blooded in recent years since the car was first on sale at Maranello at the RM Auction back in 2009 when still in CanAm configuration. The car started life as a Scuderia Ferrari entered P4 and raced both as Berlinetta and Barchetta with success (2nd at Le Mans and Monza) before it was converted in a 350 CanAm to compete in the US. After two more years in competition the car ended in a private collection for almost 4 decades. Although this was the last remaining example of the CanAm version the car was not sold that day in Maranello, this version did not seem to attract enough to achieve the requested price. As Ferrari mentioned back then that they would not certify a conversion back to P4 configuration this did not help as well. For some years the car was offered and even displayed at Maranello but it still was not sold when finally the decision was made to convert it back. Under the guidance of David Piper who is familiar with the prototypes and who had some parts for the conversion the car is now back in P4 configuration. Since the restoration was made public a lot of discussion came up how much of the original material could be saved during this process as a lot of things were altered for the CanAm version. Certainly 0858 is not the first car getting this treatment as it shares this fate both with its sister cars 0860 and 0844 but it seems that this was more controversial as this was the last surviving CanAm example. The car was now offered at Paris and displayed on the back of an original Ferrari race transporter just as on the pictures of Le Mans 1967 (although this was a different transporter).
But this was certainly not the only car on display as there was also a Competition Ferrari 250 GT SWB available and a Maserati Tipo 63. After the innovative tube-frame of the Tipo 60/61 nicknamed Birdcage the final versions had the engine in the back, first with the 2.9 litre 4-cylinder engine, later with a 3 litre V12 that also powered the 250 F seen on Max Werner’s and Jan B. Lühn’s booth just around the corner. Chassis 006 was entered by the Camoradi Team and was driven without success by Stirling Moss and Masten Gregory in Sebring 1961.

Also linked to Stirling Moss was the second Birdcage in Paris, the Tipo 60/61 Streamliner that went also to the Camoradi Team after a few races as a works racer. This chassis (2451) was brought to Paris by Austrian dealer Peter Wiesner and is known for competing in various historic races including a couple of Le Mans Classic outings. A vivid memory is the car racing in the hands of Hans Hugenholtz for its then owner ten years ago during the night races against the 1959 LM winning Aston Martin DBR1 changing lead every lap. The Wiesner booth had some more highlights of the RĂ©tromobile with the Dino 206 SP (016) that just came out of a long time ownership and is freshly restored and certified by Ferrari as well as an early Maserati A6 1500.

Very popular in recent year are the sports racers of the Group C era. Although not easy to campaign they are on top of the shopping list of a new generation of collectors who saw them racing in their active days as one had the choice of a Sauber C11, the Peugeot 905, a Jaguar XJR-14 or a Lancia LC2. On the complete other side of the spectrum one of the stars of the RĂ©tromobile was the 1924 Bentley 3 Litre VdP at the small official Bentley/Bugatti booth. Chassis 582 was the car entered at Le Mans in the (private) hands of John Duff and Frank Clement to bring home the first victory for Bentley. This convinced W. O. Bentley to enter a works team in the next years leading to another 4 victories making Bentley the most successful team in its short period at the toughest race in the world. Today the car is back in the exact configuration of its biggest success.

Certainly there were lot more interesting cars to see, a lot of French coach built examples from Delage, Delahaye or Bugatti. As mentioned above the increase in exhibition space did not affect the quality and more than 90,000 visitors enjoyed the many high quality cars plus the tradition large exhibition of automotive art that has its own display area. The RĂ©tromobile is also very well known for the various scale model builders who display their miniature master pieces and not few visitors come over especially to see them. Together with no less than 3 auctions during the days (Artcurial , Bonhams  and RM ) Paris is well worth a visit in February and most of the major collectors even from overseas could be seen these days. The next RĂ©tromobile will be held from the 4th to 8th February 2015 at the Porte de Versailles and one could be curious what highlights the 40th edition will see.

Images & Report: Peter Singhof