Guest Opinion: French Roast

Some sources of adolescent tittilation are obvious.  To a teen in the early ’80s, there were two posters that every male was required to hang in his bedroom:  Cheryl Tiegs in her pink bikini, and the Lamborghini Countach.  Never mind that the Lamborghini was dreadful to get into, impossible to see out of, and broke down every other Thursday – it was a celebration of creative genius that turned car design on its ear and the impetus for a thousand young men to finish medical school.

So you will forgive me if I admit that I never had a Countach on my wall, in my locker, or festooning the front of my Trapper Keeper.  My lust was directed to different points entirely.  To things which consigned me to a high school career filled with scorn and sideways glances.  Things that have never been and likely never will be accepted deep in the heartland of red-state America.  There comes a time when a journalist feels the need to make a frank and moving confession to his audience, to clear the air and start with a clean slate – this is one of those times.  Yes, dear reader, I loved the love that, d’aprés Oscar Wilde, “dare not speak its name”.  I loved French cars.

My Francophilic flaw can be traced to when I was eight years old, and my father found a 1959 Renault Dauphine for me to use as shelter against the winter chill while waiting outside for the school bus.  The car had been sitting behind a local body shop, unmoved for the past ten years, and Dad traded an old spray gun for it.  It wasn’t until much later that I realized that falling for French cars on account of the Dauphine was like becoming a Wilson Phillips fan because you thought Carnie (pre-gastric-bypass) was hot.

With its mad, bucktoothed face and ass-engined chassis, the Renault certainly met its quota of French quirkiness.  At only .84 litres, the Dauphine’s water-cooled inline four displaced slightly less volume than the super-sized Coke you had at lunch, after taking a few sips.  Its meager thirty-two horsepower was enough to propel the screaming frogbox to sixty in a little over half a minute, but once at that speed you were faced with the problem of bringing it back down to zero.  “Braking”, for lack of a better word, was accomplished with the aid of a Week-At-A-Glance scheduling calendar and such copious amounts of faith that a rosary should have come standard, hanging around the gearshift.

Not that any of that mattered to me, because I owned a freaking car at a time that most kids were only just outgrowing their Underoos.  When I was eleven, I tried taking the Renault down the street to buy an ice cream bar at the Sinclair station.  Dad was waiting for me when I returned home, a pulsing vein in his forehead threatening gory eruption.  He drew a Maginot line in the sand, and had my car towed away by the salvage yard. I later learned that the 1,400-pound body had brought $5 from the crusher, about one-fourth the take from a Chevy Impala of the day.

The 1980s came, and brought with them aviator sunglasses, Flashdance, and a bevy of new machinery from the land of a thousand cheeses. The R5 Turbo, essentially a frumpy Le Car hatchback with a race-bred turbo four mounted amidships, routinely ran mid-fourteen-second quarter-miles – rocket-ship performance when the Firebirds of the era came standard with two-digit horsepower ratings.  When they were introduced in 1983, the Renault Encore and Alliance were declared Motor Trend’s “Car of the Year”, at the time the most prestigious award advertising dollars could buy.  Peugeot wagons of gas and diesel flavors were beloved by a great many liberal English teachers, to the degree Peugeot seriously considered offering the Noam Chomsky quick-order group, a special option package for the North American market consisting of hornrimmed spectacles, a meerschaum pipe and a tweed coat with suede elbow patches.  The sharp-edged Alpine-Renault A310 was also on sale, but if you were to gather everybody who actually purchased one new you still couldn’t field a football team.

For a number of reasons, French cars never caught on.  First, they were different.  The shadetree mechanic would look at an injection electronique with all the same understanding as differential calculus.  Second, they were French, so like structuralism, Sartre, and escargots, the Anglo-Saxon mind had a problem with them from the get-go.  By the end of the 1980s, sales had flatlined and French manufacturers pulled out of the United States entirely.

Which is a shame for someone like me, the kind of man for whom Ronin is a pornographic film.  It’s also a shame for Americans, who think of Brigitte Bardot and Audrey Tautou as France’s only beautiful exports.  The Renault Espace V6 could go toe-to-toe against the likes of the Mazda MPV and Dodge Caravan, exuding high style without the high weirdness of the Nissan Quest.  The Peugeot 206 is desperately needed in a market where the citizenry freely associates the words “good hatchback” and “Chevrolet Aveo”, and the 607 could shake up a midsize segment dominated by two Japanese sedans that are prescribed as sleep aids.  The Citroën Xsara should be imported solely for the humor factor in hearing otherwise reasonable people improperly refer to it an an “ecks-sarah”.

Sadly, I know that the chances of my walking into a stateside dealership to buy a new French car are, at least in my lifetime, slightly worse than my chances of scoring a date with Renée Zellweger.  But if the opportunity arose, would I sell my German ride for a Mégane Cabriolet?  Merde yeah!  And I’d set off for the nearest coastal highway, the retractable glass hardtop down and the stars above winking silently.  Just me, my machine, and Renée.

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