Le Chateau de Savigny-Les-Beaune

By: Bob Jenning, Photography by: Bob Jennings

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Le Chateau de Savigny-Les-Beaune is an eccentric treasure trove of classic cars, bikes and aircraft deep in rural France, a little over 300km south-east of Paris...

Le Chateau de Savigny-Les-Beaune
Le Château de Savigny-Lès-Beaune

 

LE Château de Savigny-Lès-Beaune

It began, as good things do in France, with a quest for lunch. Rarely a hardship, especially in Burgundy, but this occasion involved escaping tour buses and tracing spidery routes along the roads less travelled on the Michelin map.

Savigny-Lès -Beaune read the sign on the outskirts of a village, with the road not unusually following a stone wall around the extensive grounds of a  château and past a gate through which we naturally peered. What could be more archetypally French than topiary, turrets, and a MiG-23 fighter bomber parked among the trees? Brake, reverse, observe sign declaring this was the Château de Savigny-Lès-Beaune with a museum housing 35 Abarth racing cars, 250 motorcycles and 100 jet fighter aircraft.

Lunch first, then a peek at the château whose proprietor, Michel Pont, must be one of France’s most bizarre collectors, in addition to being a wine-maker of some renown. The château was built in 1340 but was "dismantled" in 1478 in punishment for the then-owner siding with the wrong mob in a stoush with King Louis XI. It was rebuilt early in the 17th century and bits have been added from time to time, including the massive two-storey stone barn off to one side which houses the first of the exhibitions. NOS château spares are clearly tough to source these days.

Up some dark, rustic stairs to the first floor, dimly lit only by grimy windows and gaps in the tiled roof until the timer lights are turned on. As they flicker into life, we realise we’re standing in an Aladdin’s cave. There, under a light patina of dust, are Abarth racing cars of all shapes and sizes and being Italian, mostly red. In front is a brace of those beaut little Fiat 600 conversions which came with 750cc, 847cc and even bigger engines, flared guards housing big wheels and obscene air-scoops under the noses for big radiators. Then there are the racing FIAT-based sedans, sports-racing prototypes, single-seaters and Alfa Romeo coupe-based racers.

Trophy cabinets and photographs line the walls. It turns out that M. Pont was a racer who enjoyed a fair degree of success in France, most of his extensive competition being in the Abarth cars which are displayed, pretty much in as-raced condition.

Carlo Abarth was a good fit with Michel Pont, our well-heeled amateur racer. Abarth was born in Vienna, Austria, on November 15, 1908 and began his mechanical career in Italy designing and building motorcycles. With close links to the Porsche family, Abarth did work for Cisitalia but after that company folded, sadly before he got paid, Abarth took it over and began producing cars under his own name and with the scorpion logo, his birth sign.

Although Carlo Abarth died in 1979, the company prospered and continued building racing and rally cars until the 1990s, when its fortunes flagged and its products lost their lustre. It wasn’t until 2007 that Abarth’s fortunes revived, with new premises near Turin and a close and profitable relationship with FIAT re-established.

It seems the château is used as the headquarters of the French Abarth Club with Michel Pont, now in his 80s, providing a living link with the past.

On the wall of the display area is a stone plaque dedicated to Jean-Pierre Wimille, one of the Grand Prix racers-turned World War II spies commemorated in F1 journalist Joe Saward’s book The Grand Prix Saboteurs.

Wimille was a top racing driver in France during the 1930s, driving for Bugatti; he won the Le Mans 24-Hour at his first attempt in 1937 with Robert Benoist. Wimille learned to fly and after a period designing a road car, he was recruited into the Resistance by Benoist. They both played an active part against the occupying Nazis until they were captured; Benoist was executed by the Nazis in 1944 but Wimille survived.

He continued racing after the war and built road car prototypes using a Ford V8. But before production began Wimille died in a racing crash in Argentina in 1949.

But what’s the plaque doing in Chateau-des-Savigny? There’s no obvious link between Wimille and the Chateau, or even the region. Enquiries by Swiss-Australian F1 journalist Paul Treuthardt came up with a simple explanation. The plaque was bought at a flea market in Paris, having probably been nicked from a grandstand named after Wimille at the Reims circuit, unused for more than 30 years.

Heroes are honoured in strange ways sometimes.

Running off the Abarth display area is a long, narrow wing of the barn, yet another in a long list of gobsmacking moments. There, parked neatly in rows against the walls, were dozens of ancient motorcycles, most in unrestored, as-found condition. Rusty, worn, some without tyres, most dating back to the 1930s, 40s and 50s, it was as if the calendar itself had also sputtered to a halt at some point in their undocumented past. Separating them was a long row of display cabinets, jam-packed with motorcycle models.

Blinking in the bright sunlight we continued our walk through the château grounds, following the arrows to a modern barn, passing a couple of blokes with a forklift, casually shifting the nose cone of a Vought Crusader. The barn contained rows of prototype vineyard mechanical equipment and fire engines, but off to one side were carefully-labelled jet engines, armaments and the nose sections of a couple of jet fighters with complete cockpits.

We thought we were beyond surprise until our walk through the grounds took us over a rise by a small plot of vines. There, in neat rows before us, were the promised 100 jet fighters, some on their wheels, others incongruously propped up on wine barrels. A row of MiG-15s served as the backdrop to a couple of de Havilland Vampires and a Venom, the naval version.

Alongside the MiGs were several of their Korean War nemeses, the North American Aviation F-86 Sabre. One side of the area had a pretty much complete set of Dassault Mirage fighters, as well as Mystères, F-104 Starfighters, and Super Sabres. The stunning English Electric Lightning, a SEPECAT Jaguar, the heavyweight Republic F-105 Thunderchief and the delicate V-tailed Fouga Magister all sat in the open, cockpit canopies yellowing in the sun, dust dulling fuselages and wings. Why? How? Walk on…

At the château proper, a grand staircase led upstairs. A tiny sign said ‘Motos’ and directs to an entire first storey devoted to the display of even more motorcycles, although most have been restored, some impressively. In the turret of one corner of the building was a circular display area, stuffed with Manx Norton racing motorcycles. At the other end of the gallery, where more of the 250 motorcycles are displayed, is another turret, this one devoted to
immaculate Vincents. There’s an obsessive, almost random mania to this collecting on a grand scale. Only Michel Pont knows the stories behind these acquisitions and he’s not telling.

He’s not a big self-publicist either. Following this accidental visit, the remarkable thing was how few people knew about the museum. The château barely ranks a mention in tourist material available in Burgundy. It has a website that offers but the tiniest passing nod to the aircraft. Former Wheels editor Peter Robinson hadn’t heard of it and nor had any of my other car nut, Euro-tramping mates. Get there before it disappears.

 

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