July 14, 1789, and the citizenry of France storm the Bastille, lighting a fire that resulted on August 26 in the abolishment of France’s feudal system, in its place, the Déclaration des Droits de l'Homme et du Citoyen (Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen). The Republic of France was born.
Twenty years earlier, Frenchman Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot built the Fardier à vapeur, the world's first full-size and working self-propelled mechanical land vehicle. In other words, Cugnot had built what was effectively the world’s first automobile.
France’s automotive history is rich and long and for a time, France enjoyed the status of the world’s leading manufacturer of motor cars. In 1903, though still a nascent industry, France produced almost 50 per cent of the world’s cars, its production of 30,124 cars easily eclipsing the USA’s 11,235 cars produced.
In 1903, current mainstays Peugeot and Renault are already in existence, starting production in 1896 and 1898 respectively. Citroen would join them in 1919, adding to a vibrant list of car makers that already includes Bugatti, Delahaye, Panhard, Delage and Hispano-Suiza.
Since those heady early days of derring-do, France has produced some of the most iconic vehicles to ever grace the world’s roads. Some are notable for their exquisite beauty, others for breathtaking design, others still for featuring technological advancements ahead of their time.
In honour of Bastille Day and to celebrate all things French, here then is our list of some of the most iconic cars to ever come from l'Hexagone.
And it starts with the Delahaye 135. The 135 was a massive departure for the French company which had, until 1935, built staid and sensible cars. But all that changed with the 135, a drop-dead gorgeous coupe with performance to match from its inline six-cylinder engine.
But, throwing the 135 underpinnings open to any number of coachbuilders led to an onslaught of beautifully designed cabriolets and coupes. The most notable was the ‘Torpedo’, penned by famed French coachbuilder, Figoni et Falaschi. Striking from any angle, the 135 ‘Torpedo’ followed Figoni’s fascination with aircraft design and aerodynamics, its flowing tear-drop shaped lines straight out of the aviation playbook of the day. Gorgeous.
In a similar vein, the Citroen DS seemingly borrowed heavily from aviation and aerospace design, its sleek, distinctive body unlike anything seen in 1955. It has become an icon, the definitive French car, instantly recognisable around the world.
But more than just an exercise in outlandish design, the DS was a technological marvel, its centrepiece the hydraulic self-levelling suspension that afforded the DS a ride unlike anything experienced before. Or likely, since.
Its one weakness was the original 1.9-litre engine carried over from the pre-war Traction Avant which proved underpowered for such a large and luxurious car. Citroen made amends with a new fuel-injected 2.3-litre engine that gave the DS the power it needed from the beginning.
Power was never an issue for another Citroen, the gorgeous SM. A child born of the takeover of Maserati by the French giant resulted in a capable grand tourer coupe with the heartbeat of a Maserati V6.
Performance for the day was adequate, the Citroen SM neither particularly fast or slow. But it made up for it with exquisite lines and the same technological underpinnings as found in the DS including self-levelling suspension and self-levelling lights that changed direction in line with the steering.
Other technological advancements included variable assisted power steering, disc brakes all round and intermittent windscreen wipers, all ground-breaking at the time, commonplace today.
The SM’s crowning achievement though was as a comfortable grand tourer, capable of sitting at 200km/h all day long. Contemporary reviews stated the SM had "that rare quality of being a nice car to be in at any speed, from stationary to maximum”.
By the time the SM’s days were numbered, hot hatches were beginning to make a play for the performance hearts and minds of boy racers everywhere. The Peugeot 205GTI might have been late to the hot hatch party, but it arrived with typical French flair. Weighing just 805kg, the GTI became the benchmark for the segment, despite its 1.6-litre engine with a meagre on-paper 77kW.
But, what the GTI lacked in outright power, it made up for with exquisite handling and dynamics, thanks to its lightweight figure enhanced by larger wheel arches and motorsport-derived front and rear bumpers. It looked fast standing still, and got properly fast (0-100km/h in 7.8 seconds) when Peugeot stuffed a 1.9-litre under the bonnet for the 1987 model year.
By the time Peugeot retired the 205 GTI in 1994, it had already entered the Pantheon of hot hatch greatness.
A hatchback of a different kind also deserves the recognition of ‘greatness’. The Renault 4 enjoyed a longevity most cars can only dream of, in production for 31 years between 1961-92. In that time, Reggie sold over eight million of the humble workhorse and anyone who’s been to France in the 21st century will know there is still an armada of them running through the countryside.
The ‘4’ hold several distinctions, most notably recognised as the world’s first ‘hatchback’. It was also the first front-wheel drive family car produced by Renault.
A direct response to arch-rival Citroen and its 2CV, the Renault 4 was targeted at rural Frenchies, combining practicality (the back seats could be removed to increase load-lugging ability) with rural ruggedness (its softly-spring suspension was designed to deal with French country backroads that could best be described as merde).
Speaking of 2CV, Citroen’s iconic deux chevaux combined go-anywhere capabilities (thanks to its long suspension travel) with an economical and durable air-cooled two-cylinder engine. Like its Beetle counterpart from Volkswagen, the Citroen 2CV was designed before the second world war with the aim of bringing cars to the people.
But, that same conflagration saw production halted, and it wasn’t until 1948 that the 2CV made its long-awaited public debut.
It remained in production until 1990, by which time over three million had been sold and its status as an automotive icon assured.
Less of an icon, but a pioneer nonetheless, the Matra Simca Rancho blazed a trail that still resonates today. Widely regarded as the world’s first crossover, the Rancho blended off-road styling, but without the capabilities. Sound familiar?
Based on a humble Simca 1100 delivery van, with the addition of rear seats and serious glasshouse, the Rancho appealed to buyers looking for the rugged on-road stance of a four-wheel drive without the commensurate price tag.
The ride height was raised fractionally over the 1100 van, but the donor vehicle’s front-wheel drive layout and asthmatic 1.4-litre engine 60kW engine remained. But, some 57,792 buyers didn’t care, lured by the Rancho’s practicality and rugged looks.
And we’re not saying Land Rover borrowed from the Rancho when it created the Discovery, but the original ‘Disco’ launched in 1989, five years after the French soft-roader went out of production.
At the other end of the automotive spectrum,. The Facel Vega Facel II epitomised French style of the 1960s. The product of a low-volume Parisienne carmaker, the Facel Vega threw everything at the Facel II to try and stave off bankruptcy.
‘Everything’ included a stonking Chrysler sourced ‘Typhoon’ 6.3-litre V8 making an astonishing for the time 265kW. Despite weighing nearly two tonnes with passengers on board, the Facel II was no slouch, faster to 100km/h than contemporaries such as the Aston Martin DB4, Ferrari 250GT and Mercedes-Benz 300SL.
Its Achilles heel was its price, the Facel II selling for around three times the price of a Jaguar E-Type. Just 140 were made, ensuring the Facel II enjoyed classic status by the time the company closed its doors for good in 1964.
Another classic but for a different reason is the Renault 5 Turbo, that decidedly mad mid-engined, turbocharged hot hatch capable of dispatching the 100km/h benchmark from standstill in under seven seconds. In 1980.
The 5 Turbo was the brainchild of Jean Terramorsi, Renault’s then vice president of Production, who tasked Reggie’s skunkworks, Alpine, with creating a sportier city car.
Yeah right. By the time the Alpine tinkerers at Dieppe had finished with the 5, it had lost its rear seats, gained Bosch fuel injection and a Garrett AiResearch T3 turbo, and now made a decent 118kW at 6000rpm and 221Nm at 3250rpm.
Its outlandish body styling helped it stand out as well as providing much-need air to the intercoolers while a double-wishbone suspension set-up pilfered from the Alpine A310 lent it dynamic capabilities not usually associated with humble city cars.
Better still, the Renault Turbo 5 provided the inspiration many years later for another slightly unhinged hot hatch, the Renault Clio V6.
When Renault unveiled the concept Clio V6 at the 1998 Paris motor show, it was overwhelmed by public response to the V6-powered mid-engined hyper hot hatch. Reggie quickly turned to Tom Walkinshaw Racing to develop and build the concept, and by 2001, production versions of the 169kW hot hatch were rolling off the line.
The 3.0-litre V6 crammed into the middle of the Clio hatchback was sourced from a Renault Laguna, while nearly every body panel was bespoke to the Clio V6. It seems cramming a V6 into the back of city-sized hatchback required a fair bit of remodelling to the body.
How much remodelling? Compared with the donor car, the Clio V6 measured in 171mm wider while its front and rear tracks were 110mm and 138mm wider respectively, while those spunky and fat wheel arches accommodated staggered rubber and wheels.
Once all screwed together, the Clio V6 made 169kW and could knock over the sprint to 100km/h in 6.2 seconds. That improved to 5.8 seconds with the Phase 2 Clio V6, thanks to a reworked V6 making 190kW. Madness.
France’s automotive history is liberally sprinkled with iconic vehicles that defied the norms and reimagined what cars could be.
The original Alpine A110 took the idea of light weight to another level while the Citroen Traction Avant, that mainstay of the silver- and small screens (according to IMDB, the Traction Avant has chalked up over 1300 appearances in movies and television) pioneered crash-resistant unitary monocoque body construction.
The Renault Espace, meanwhile, is widely regarded as the first multi-purpose vehicle (MPV) aka people mover, so every time you are blocked on the road by an ageing Toyota Tarago or new Kia Carnival, you can thank the French. Merci.
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