The French Connection – Blackbourn 381

By: Rob Blackbourn, Unique Cars magazine

Presented by

Rob shares his love-hate relationship with anything Gallic

The French Connection – Blackbourn 381
Renault 10 - one of many French lessons in how to delight and outrage all at the same time.

What does mention of France bring to mind for you? Perhaps the Le Mans 24-hour, fine Bordeaux reds, neo-classical Empire clocks – or Juliette Binoche. Whatever, there’s no denying that nation’s significant place in the grand scheme of things.

From the very beginning, yes, even before there was a Bugatti Veyron, the French were important players in the automotive world. In early-1950s Australia, though, French cars were ignored by all but a few local Francophiles. Performance here in those days was pretty much about Healeys, Jags, TR2s,supercharged- MGs, twin-carb Holdens and Zephyrs and hotted-up Ford Customlines. That was until a Peugeot 203 seized victory in the first Redex trial in 1953 – "Mate, you’re bloody kiddin’ me, aren’t ya? Is it a ‘Pew-Joe’ or a ‘Perr-zho’? There’s gotta be more than 1290cc under the bonnet. Surely? And, where did you say they’re from?"

Thanks to this doughty little foreigner’s successful queue-jumping leap to the top of the Redex podium, mainstream Oz motorists began to think again about French cars. They included the cute rear-engined Renault 750 (known elsewhere as the 4CV) and the immensely capable Traction Avant Citroen – remarkable also for carrying its distinctive 1934 styling (from its launch year) more or less unchanged through to the end of its run in the mid-1950s.

This new-won credibility saw French makes claim a greater following over the next couple of decades. Peugeot’s subsequent 403s and 404s did well. The 504 was a real clincher. Renault’s Dauphines, R8s, R12s and particularly the R16 gained rusted-on fans. At its launch in 1955 Citroen’s DS was at least 10 years ahead of its time both in engineering and styling. I also recall the slightly odd Panhard Dyna making a tentative but very brief appearance. Simca’s Aronde also won many hearts. While it was actually a competent, quite sporty, small four-door sedan, it was better known for its factory fitted lay-back seats. The proportion of Simcas at the local drive-in movies on a Saturday night was much higher than their market-share.

Mainstream acceptance seemed complete when Wheels magazine bestowed its first Car of the Year Award on the Renault R8 in 1963.

Gordini Renaults became the performance flagbearers with highlights being a win in Class C in the 1962 Armstrong 500 and the 1970 Australian Rally Championship title.

Part of the charm of French thinking for me is the Vive la différence factor that happily accommodates contrasts, even contradictions. Take the Citroen factory’s pairing of the modern and sophisticated Goddess model with the primitive, anachronistic little 2CV. Then there’s Simca offering the Aronde and the Vedette Beaulieu from the same showroom floor in 1958. The Aronde’s engine was a modern, responsive OHV four with an alloy head. While the Holden-sized Vedette’s styling was contemporary, its engine was a 2.2-litre sidevalve V8 based on a Ford design from 1937 – amazingly Simca continued to use ancient sidevalve V8 power for its Marmion 4WD military trucks until the early ’70s.

At times, though, Gallic engineering charm can wear thin. Take my wife’s little pocket-rocket Peugeot 205 GTi. A glorious little goer, a lovely car – except when you’re replacing the water pump.

Years ago I would have allowed an hour to swap a water pump on say a Holden 186, and galloped it in. Working by feel a lot of the time on the 205, in the cramped space I could barely get my hands into, it took most of the day. While I knew the cam-belt had to come off, the real bugbear was having to duck out and buy an 11mm socket to suit one, yes one, of the water-pump bolts. Bugger the différence. Why didn’t they just standardise on 12mm fasteners?

Sign up to our free weekly newsletter for more unique car reviews and features plus see the latest unique and classic cars for sale.

Subscribe to Unique Cars magazine
- Print edition
- Digital edition