As potentially some of you might have noticed, I dropped off the scene and was replaced by a robot – had to get away, had a summer vacation to go on.
France – yeah, I know, an odd choice, but there were a bunch of conspiring factors.
Why write about it here?
Filler – besides, there’s freaky car-related shit that happens in France.
Have you ever looked at the suspension of a Citroen DS?
Seriously, have you?
Anyway, I decided to write, as an adjunct, what I saw from a car guy’s perspective over there.
Come with me this way, to a land where most NASCAR fans would fear to tread: France.
There’s this rep that France has, or actually has had, for about the last 60 years, and some of it is true.
The girls are cute, the women are gorgeous, and the men look like they’re a nanosecond away from either laughing or taking a sharpened knife to you or both.
It’s a society that seemingly exists on bread, cheese, ham, cologne ads, cigarettes, newspapers, and indignation delivered by “trucks” that look like something from Theodor Geisel’s last hit of blotter.
Paris is a city more than a thousand years old and is seven stories high.
It’s webbed with a network of “roads” that would make a German traffic safety engineer faint dead away and a London cabby ask for a map.
The roads come in two kinds:
Broad boulevards (in the strictest and most accurate meaning of that term) where you could fit 4 cars side-by-side in each direction, bordered by trees that have been there since they were used to hang some of the nobility in 1438; smooth, lined with raised cobblestone, a good sportscar could blast down these at incredible speeds – and they would, oh they surely would, because the French are stone speed freaks – but for the fact that for every long, broad, tree- and pretty girl-lined boulevard, there comes the second type of Parisian road.
This is a thing that is little wider than an alleyway, called something like the Rue de la Tombeau, and there are eleven Frenchmen hell-bent on getting there first, and you’ve got to go from something like flat out to on the brakes and keep in mind that not all of the people vying for that piece of tarmac are in “cars,” oh no, it’s you versus (on average) two guys on BICYCLES, five guys on scooters (and these aren’t all little Vespas either), a BMW motorbike, at least three guys in hatchbacks, and a delivery truck loaded with either: 1. rocks, 2. sand, 3. bread, 4. Eau de Sauvage cologne posters or 5. gendarmerie riot cops.
Guess which one usually wins?
That’s right, velocity & tonnage.
Or one of the cyclists –
The things I saw people pull on the streets of Paris would give Nader an infarction.
There are all the things any “normal” American driver would expect to see on the road in their hometown. There’re stripes and lanes and lights and crosswalks and OHMYGODLOOKOUTFORTHATDELIVERYGUY!!!
Your average American put down in this situation would crash within a block and a half.
Don’t talk on your cell phone.
Don’t argue with the kids in the back seat.
You better drive – you better pay Attention … if you don’t pay attention, there will be Hell to pay.
Stuff that would get you thrown into an “anger management program” in the States is not only commonplace behavior (when things go wrong in traffic), it’s just the First Stage of what happens when things go wrong in traffic.
If you don’t heed the warnings of your fellow street users (and remember, this includes everyone on the street at any one given time, not just cars, but people like little old ladies and even worse, tourists), their dire predictions will be followed by The Thump of you hitting something big and solid.
And it gets even worse.
You would tie up traffic.
And woe be unto you for doing something like that.
You know the first 25 minutes of Saving Private Ryan?
It’s like that, only with amazingly cheap and delicious breakfasts.
I once read of Phil Hill (America’s 1st World Driving Champion and multiple Le Mans 24 hour winner) using the term, back in 1964, of “worthless little French heap.”
I knew just what he meant then, and I knew just what he meant when I was standing on a street corner in Paris about 4 days ago.
The French made frighteningly tiny little cars that look like they were made from downspouts and rain gutters back in 1964, and two out of three of their cars still look like they do today.
At first glance, they look like death traps, little better than what Louis Blériot would fly around in. At second glance, you nod to yourself and say, “Jesus! These things are little better than what Louis Blériot would fly around in!”
Then you notice the neat use of crush space and the little signs on the dash and the seats and the A-pillar and the headliner saying AIRBAG.
It (the Bacchanalian use of airbags) must be the only thing that keeps these people from dying like the populace of, well, Paris during the plague years.
I’ve seen less risk-taking at the local go-kart track.
I’ve seen sturdier engineering in a kids’ couch-fort.
Yet these fools fly into alleyway-sized streets like Sebastian Loeb flying into a tunnel on The Col de Turini – hey, wait a minute – kind of explains Loeb, doesn’t it?
Anyway – yet these fools fly into alleyway-sized streets like Sebastian Loeb flying into a tunnel on The Col de Turini, seemingly blind to what’s on the wrong side of that “you’ve got a 99% chance of – ” statement that would be running through my head, and come out the other side unscathed and unruffled.
Slam on the brakes.
Squeeze it into a parking space the size of a shopping cart.
“Bonjour!” to their girlfriend/boyfriend/co-worker/friend who is an artist/writer/painter/philosopher and always impeccably dressed.
Walk over to where they are sitting at the outdoor café waiting for them.
Get a café (did you know they have Starbucks in Paris? What the Hell’s the point of that?) from the amazingly efficient yet infuriating waiter and sit down and talk about whatever it was that was so damn important that they had to drive like a certifiable maniac, struggling to “beat” two guys on BICYCLES, five guys on scooters, a BMW motorbike, at least three guys in hatchbacks, and a delivery truck loaded with either: 1. rocks, 2. sand, 3. bread, 4. Eau de Sauvage cologne posters or 5. gendarmerie riot cops.
into a corner.
You’d think this would be it, the whole nut so to speak, but this is just what occurred to me on the 5-kilometer taxi ride from the TGV station to the hotel.
So I got a lot more to say.
A town with 50,000 people, two traffic lights, and seemingly 45 roundabouts Getting from here to there on Roman roads – tailgating as a foreign concept – The yield sign, properly used – bad karma with a scooter –
The first part of the trip was actually spent in the south of France, in this little town called Frejus (which is a French interpretation of the town’s original Roman name, Forum Julii, go figure).
It was a nice little resort-like town that was located between more famous places like Nice & Cannes. A thousand years ago, it had everything a Roman could want: an aqueduct for water, a coliseum for entertainment, and a forum, for business.
Now, a thousand years later, there’s a French town imprinted on the top of all this, and streets that were designed and built to handle oxcarts and horses now have to handle modern cars and trucks and buses driven by Frenchmen and tourists.
One of the ways they handle this was particularly impressive: there were only two traffic lights.
Think about that for a bit. A town of 50,000 people, and not without considerable traffic at times, and they don’t have more than two traffic lights.
The answer? Roundabouts.
I’ve always enjoyed roundabouts since they’re sort of like public skid pads, but a lot of Americans look at them with a certain amount of fear. There’s something about being “stuck” in the inner lane forever that freaks some people out … I’ve also noticed these are the same people that have trouble with yield signs and merging onto freeways.
Anyway, that’s Frejus’ answer to traffic: Roundabouts.
They’re all over the place. Small, single-lane ones about the size of a normal intersection up to big, boulevard-accommodating designs that are 3 or 4 lanes wide.
So getting from one part of town to another is really a pretty quick deal since traffic is always flowing. You might have to slow down and yield to get onto a roundabout (they have the right-of-way, you do not), but you rarely have to come to a complete stop.
Another thing that I noticed in their driving behavior: tailgating is an alien concept.
Regardless of speed, it seems like it’s an unwritten requirement that you set 18 inches off of the bumper of the car in front of you. So, you see packs of Renaults and Peugeots and Fiats easing up to rotaries at 30 MPH, blending in, then each of them peeling off to go on their own way. Sometimes you’ll see the same pack of 4 or 5 or 6 cars merge onto a freeway and stay bunched up as they drive off into the distance.
I have no idea what drives this behavior, but it’s fairly obvious that each driver is paying attention, and they’re not doing this out of absentmindedness.
It’s also pretty damn clear that they’re paying attention to not just what the road signs say but how the roads are best used (a novel and alien concept for Americans).
Take that whole roundabout deal I mentioned before. Say you’re approaching a two-lane roundabout with both lanes occupied, and you’re facing a yield sign; what do you do?
If you’re a doofus, you stop and wait for a gap … if you’re an average French driver, you do just what the sign says, you slow down, and then you blend into the flow of traffic. That way, the people on the roundabout can get on with their business, and you don’t bunch up people behind you (which is a bad mistake, and they’ll let you know it), and everyone gets down the road quickly and efficiently.
That yield sign business also works at normal intersections … and also at crosswalks. They always, always, yield to pedestrians. And crosswalks are not right at the corners in intersections, but set about one car-length back; so when you are driving, and you go through an intersection, you have got to pay attention until you are way clear.
It is, however, not a perfect system since imperfect people have to use it.
One time we were going from here to there, and we come up to this roundabout. As we approach, there are two French kids on a scooter already on the roundabout (about 40% of the vehicles are scooters). They are in the inside of the two lanes. We pull up to the yield sign and start to merge in, just as the scooter pulls from the inside lane to the outside lane, without signaling.
This is a huge mistake on their part, even though they do have the right of way, and Renee (who was driving and should have noticed) continues on into the roundabout. Now there’s a scooter a foot from the right front corner. The rider guns the engine (as much as you can with one of those things), and now he hits his turn signal. The passenger on the back starts gesticulating with one free hand and kicking at our car with his right foot, talking loudly in French. 35 feet after we entered, there is another road, which the scooter, with gesticulating passenger still on the back, takes, and they ride off into the sunset, a tragedy narrowly averted (although Renee seems blissfully unaware of the whole proceedings).
It’s tempting to want to apply this idea of fewer lights/more roundabouts to America, but I fear it would never work – or at least not initially. Maybe in 10 or 20 years, after numerous accidents, acrimony, and bad car karma, it would finally sink in, and our traffic would flow better, but that 10 or 20 years would be terrible, and we’d probably never make it past that.
Worth thinking about, though…
The power and the glory that is the TGV – especially when it utterly fails. Chicago to NYC in 6 hours For $125 – Choke the Mister – Even at this speed, Avignon still give me the willies – “They don’t know what the problem is” –
France has a truly impressive train system.
In addition to the local trains that run on roadbeds hundreds of years old, there is the power & the glory of the TGV. TGV stands for Train Ã Grande Vitesse, which translates as “high-speed train.” What it is, in point of fact, is a totally workable, cheap, and efficient means to get from one end of the country to another.
The TGV is electric powered, and, given that France gets 99.8% of electric power from nuclear plants, you can see how this a very advantageous system; contained emissions & pollution, no dependency on foreign oil supplies, noticeably cleaner train stations, etc…
They were also really clever with the track layout. When you talk about making a system like this in America, one of the first negatives that pops up is the supposed need to lay all-new track and make new stations etc… The TGV gets around this by using existing tracks at most destination points, which allows the use of preexisting rail stations, and it then diverts onto its own, newer, limited access lines when they really stand on the gas. And there’s no rail crossing on these lines either; they’re overpass/underpass things for dealing with other tracks and autoroutes.
They can get these things cranking along at 320 clicks an hour, as fast as a Ferrari 360 Modena.
What can I say? It’s fun. You’re out in the middle of the French countryside, sitting in a cabin closer to an airliner than a train, and you are flat out booking for hours at a stretch.
Getting on the train?
That’s fairly easy … unless you’re complete louts like we were. See, we screwed up massively getting on the TGV in Charles de Gaulle airport (and how much of a no-brainer is having a train station at the airport?), which had a comic/tragic knock-on effect, but I’ll get to that later. Anyway, here’s how the ticketing and boarding procedure works:
You go and buy a ticket from a nice lady at a counter. She’s usually well dressed, smells nice, and distracting attractive (usually). You can get the ticket days in advance or within minutes of the train pulling into the station. You walk about 100 yards to the platform where your specific train will pull up. You get in your assigned car. That’s it.
No metal detectors, no security theater, no bans on liquids, or any of that other BS that helps nothing but makes flying more and more of a complete pain in the ass.
If the TGV was up and running in America, you could get from Chicago to New York City in around 6 hours for a cost of $125.
Think about that for a while … and the next time you run into a politician, ask them, “Hey, why don’t we have a train system that’s as good as the French have?”
Like all other trains, there’s a bar car, but since this is food in France, there’s none of this 13 day old tuna salad sandwich in a triangular plastic box for $16.38, oh no. Wine, bread, cheese, all that sort of thing. My wife turned me on to this kind of open-faced sandwich deal. Since I don’t speak French, I can’t accurately recall, let alone spell, what its name is, but it literally translates as “Choke The Mister”* and they aren’t kidding. It’s two pieces of bread layered with cheese and ham and takes up the area of half a laptop computer. It comes on a plate, and you have to eat it with a knife and fork since there’s cheese and ham all over the place.
This is what the French regard as the sort of food you eat when you have to, just to get by because there’s nothing proper to eat.
No water, though, unless it’s bottled. The French still haven’t figured that whole tap water thing out.
So, there you sit, ensconced in a comfortable seat, trying to finish the last of your “Choke The Mister,” blasting through the countryside at 180+, and, more or less, just taking in the view.
The French countryside looks like something from a World War I movie set. 90% farmers’ fields about an acre in area, boarded by hedgerows or low rock walls; every so often, there’s a little village made up of two and three story buildings made of stone. It looks like the sort of place where you could hastily land the Neuport after that Hun got off a luck shot from his tri-plane and holed your crank case.
Every so often you’ll go through a bigger town or city.
On our way south, we passed through Avignon. It sits astride a river, thoroughly modern and up to date in the downtown area, but upon the hill, there’s a castle and a cathedral and all that. When I saw the cathedral it gave me the chills. For a while, there were two Popes, and one of them was based out of that building. He came up with all sorts of nifty ideas on how to make the world a better place (once he wrested control from the other Pope). Ideas like The Inquisition. You had best be towing the party line if you were hanging around Avingon a thousand years ago, or you would have come to a very sticky end.
So, we were somewhere beyond Avignon, just outside of Marseille, completing the first part of our journey, when all this wonderful, high-speed technology of the TGV goes CLANK!!!
We weren’t going all that fast, but the long and the short of it was that the train slowed to a stop.
We sit there silently for a few minutes. Everyone is doing what they would have been doing had the TGV been in motion; no one seems all that upset.
Then there is a distant, far-off banging and clanking and clattering and hammering.
The PA crackles to life, and a voice says, “nous sommes désolés qu’il semble y a un défaut de fonctionnement avec le systÃ¨me d’entraÃ®nement si vous nous donnez un certain temps pour le fixer que nous sommes sÃ»rs que les choses seront meilleures ont en attendant encore plus de vin et le fromage tout est normal tout est bon ne laissent nous seul aucun vraiment filon-couche de chose soit bon il est probablement quelque chose avec les enroulements d’entraÃ®nement des roues et ces rats arriÃ¨res au dépÃ´t de réparation dans le should de Paris ont pris Ã soin de ceci, garçon, nous les fixera sure.”
The guy sitting across from us that looks like either a Proust scholar or a shoe repairman translates, without the slightest inflection or emotion, “They don’t know what the problem is.”
So we sit there for another five minutes or so, and in the far background, there’s this banging and clanking and clattering and hammering.
Then the PA comes on again, and this French voice says, “Désolé, mais lui semble comme lÃ pourrait Ãªtre quelque chose vers le haut avec du fromage distribuent sur la piÃ¨ce avant de la voiture du numéro deux et elle effectue défavorablement le rendement du panneau de commande électrique qui vraiment devrait avoir été fixé par ces singes en arriÃ¨re Ã Paris, mais du moins dit au sujet de ces types le meilleur. Quoi qu’il en soit, nous espérons avoir tout mis dans son endroit légitime, et, Dieu voulant, nous serons sur notre chemin dÃ¨s que sera humainement possible. Ainsi nous vous remercions de votre patience.”
And the guy across from us translates, without the slightest inflection or emotion, “They don’t know what the problem is.”
More bangingthumpinghosingpoundingclanking, and then a really frustrated voice gets on the PA and says, “C’est tout le défaut de ces imbeciles arriÃ¨res au dépÃ´t Ã Paris. S’il y avait n’importe quelle justice dans notre république, ils pendraient tout des arbres Ã ce moment mÃªme. Pourquoi nous mÃªme devons accepter ceci pendant que les professionnels de chemin de fer est au delÃ de moi, mais lÃ de vous ayez-le. Ainsi nous presserons “MARCHE” et nous obtiendrons le problÃ¨me résolu dans aucun ordre court, puisque nous l’avons maintenant tracé vers le bas Ã un défaut dans la transmission magnétique pour rouler le numéro soixante-douze ou au fait que le singe de conducteur auxiliaire est devenu lÃ¢che et a arraché les boulons retenants avec ses mains nues.”
And the guy across from us translates, without the slightest inflection or emotion, “They don’t know what the pro-“clang-THUMP!!!
And the TGV starts to move, slowly, ever so slowly, down the track on the way to Marseille. We get up to a speed of what seems like maybe 30 MPH, and hold that speed for about 10 minutes until we coast into the Gare de Marseille (that would be the Marseille train station).
By now, though, we are horribly late to catch our connecting train on to our final destination.
We pull into the station just in the nick of time. Uniformed TGV personal stand on the platform yelling “Go-go-go!!” urging us forward so the train can leave, and we all, en masse, run out and into the parking lot.
My wife and I realize this is not where the connecting train to Frejus will be boarding, hang a quick 180, book back into the Gare, run the in the opposite direction from where uniformed TGV personal are still standing on the platform yelling “Go-go-go!!” urging people forward, just in time to see our connecting TGV silently, powerfully, pulling away from the station without us on board.
By now, we had been on the road for 36 straight, sleepless hours (two plane flights and one almost complete TGV run) and were facing the possibility of having to spend the night in Marseille (look up the history of crime in Marseille, and you’ll see why this was not the best of possibilities).
I don’t speak French, but my wife does, and she did, in great quantity, to the uniformed TGV personal still standing happily on the platform, thinking they had done a great job.
A few phone calls and an hour-long wait in the parking lot (I won’t go into the rats that were eyeing me and my luggage like I was dinner) resulted in Peter, my father-in-law, showing up to drive us the last bit of our journey.
So OK, they kind of screwed up there at the end … but other than that, it was a great way to travel. And the two other times we used the TGV, a non-stop blast back to Paris, and a run from Bordeax back to Paris as well, it was as flawless as could be; wine, Choke The Misters, met an actor, saw some great scenery, all that kind of stuff.
Like I said, the next time you run into a politician, ask them, “Hey, why don’t we have a train system that’s as good as the French have?”
Maybe sometime this country will get its act together …
* Note: As it turns out, the name of the sandwich does not translate as Choke The Mister; it actually means Crispy Mister (which is even funnier). My wife, who speaks French, got it wrong while we were on the train and only realized it when she was looking up the recipe on Wikipedia. So, indeed, it is Crispy Mister.
Scooters In Paris … Vespas are a rare site – Maxis. high speed, high HP – that sounds like more than a 250cc – Apart from bad weather and the whole crush-space thing, they make a whole lot of sense –
As you would imagine, scooters are a widely used form of transportation in France. You see them in the countryside, and in small towns and around colleges, but where they are most plentiful is in larger, urban areas. As just a rough guess, I would say that about 10 to 15 percent of the vehicles on the roads of Paris are scooters of one sort or another.
Being small and maneuverable, they work well in the city’s heavy traffic and hard-to-find parking spots, and since gas is the equivalent of $9.80 a gallon, using something that gets 70 miles per gallon seems like a smart move.
The first thing that I noticed on the scooter front as the lack of Vespa. The brand that pretty much defined what a scooter was is noticeably absent from the streets of Paris. In the whole time, I was there, I saw only two Vespas. One seemed to be new-ish and fairly well maintained, and the other looked to be from the 60s and about ready to burst into flames, just sitting silently at the curb.
Although Parisians are nightmarishly fashion conscious, they’re not that over the top. A new Vespa, here in the states, goes for around seven thousand dollars; God knows what it goes for in Europe. That’s a lot of bread to be dropping on a scooter (Hell, for that price, I bet you could find two 1st-gen Miatas in decent shape).
For considerably less than that, you can get a more modern scoot of the Japanese variety. Has all the benefits of a Vespa (minus the style) for probably 1200 Euros or some such. These make up the bulk of the scooter population, but coming in a close second is what is referred to as a Maxi scooter.
Maxi scooters were first designed by Honda, with its groundbreaking Helix model. It had a bunch of novel features (a wheelbase longer than a Harley’s offering a smooth ride, a trunk, etc.), but its two most notable ones were size and power. Dwarfing the available scooters of the day, Honda’s Helix was about the size and weight of a small motorcycle, and it featured a Huge (for a scooter) 250cc engine.
Since then, the Helix has been used as a jumping-off point for making even bigger maxi scooters. You see the current Honda maxis all over Paris, but you also see maxis from other companies as well, such as Yamaha and Piagio, and Peugeot. Yes, that would be the same Peugeot that makes cars.
All maxis seem to have the same distinguishing characteristics: Big, plastic, high-tech dashes, seating for two (but only rarely used that way), quieter than you’d expect, and also much faster than you’d expect.
I’m not sure what the biggest ones are using for mills, but they sure as Hell sound much bigger than the 250cc’s that Maxis have around here. Perhaps things are different in Europe, perhaps Honda and Yamaha and Peugeot are putting in 300s and 350s, because the big ones sound like it, and they certainly are accelerating like they have at least motorcycle levels of grunt. Curiously though, I never saw anything but two full-sized motorcycles on the French version of freeways, so I can only assume they are used in town or on the back roads.
So I could see how using a big scooter could be a reasonable answer. They’re cheaper than the auto equivalent in every way – the cost of entry, maintenance, running costs, etc. – so why, if you had budget and space limitations, would you not think about running one of these?
I mean, apart from bad weather and the whole crush-space thing, they make a whole lot of sense.
Your Average French Car …. Comparing the size of your car to everyday objects – special editions – Picasso and xBox? – that design makes sense from the inside – half as thin as Mercedes sheet metal –
Your average French car is, as you would expect, small, weird, ostensibly underpowered, demonstrably over-designed, space-efficient, even more fuel-efficient, and work far, far better than your average American would think of at first glance.
The first thing I noticed was how much smaller cars were in France. A two-door VW Golf was clearly a mid-sized car in comparison to what else was on the road. You saw a ton of two and four-door hatchbacks on the road. As a matter of fact, of the privately-owned cars on the street, I would say the biggest majority would be hatchbacks.
Most of them were VW Polos, Honda Fits, and seemingly countless Citroen, Peugeot, and Renault city cars. There were so many French cars that keeping the individual model names or designations straight in my head was next to impossible.
The hatchbacks were, essentially, the bottom end of the food chain, and this brings up the first really odd thing I noticed: There are no small sedans in France.
You know how over here, there are things like Honda Civic sedans and other cars about that size? Well, there aren’t any in France. It starts out with small city cars & hatchbacks, then there’s a gap, and then you start seeing things about the size of Audi A6s, VW Passats, Citroen, Peugeot, and Renault “mid-sized” sedans.
Right about at this size of the vehicle, there are a surprising number and type of minivans running around the streets of France. So surprising, in fact, that I’ll deal with them in and of themselves in a separate article.
Full-size cars, things like Mercedes S-Class, big Audis, and the like are rarely seen, maybe about 5% of the car population. And most of these seem to be attached to impressive stone buildings, with drivers waiting at the ready … so all I could think was that they were provided by work or the counselor’s office for diplomatic needs.
Large sports cars are almost never seen, and if you are trying to make a statement along the lines of “I’m rich and powerful, pay attention to me,” you generally drive some sort of mid to large coupe. Citroen made a very stunning coupe about the size of an A6, but I never saw any badging, so I’m unsure of the model.
But big coupes are rarities, and most of the cars you’ll notice are small hatchbacks. One of the more popular, seemingly entry-level cars is the Renault TwinGo. Low and squat, they seem to be the minimal answer to a question no one in their right mind would ask. Sure, they get you from point A to B, and they seem to have all the modern conveniences (like airbags), but they’re tiny and tinny. When I was down south in Frejus I happened on one of the things, parked, on our way back from buying bread for the day (no really). I was carrying the baguettes, so it was easy for me to see that the TwinGo was as wide as two baguettes. That’s about the size of a coffee table.
It’s not like the French is into practicality overall (if that were the case, they’d be Germans), and like many other countries, they have their own versions of “special edition” cars.
For example, Citroen has a Minivan-like thing called the Xsara, some of which had “Picasso” labeling on the flanks, or maybe that is the name for all of them; it was hard to tell. Also, given that Paloma has been hocking the family name out for quite some time to anyone with enough cash, I wouldn’t put it past her to sell it to Citroen as a complete model name (she needs to read up on what happened to Halston).
I also saw a Renault (I believe it was a TwinGo) that was labeled as an xBox edition. This one was black (they might come in other colors) but had that xBox green as pinstripes on the body, piping on the seats, and used as a highlight color on the dash. Each seat had an xBox logo embossed near the headrests.
This co-branding thing was something I had never seen used on cars in America before (apart from that Levi Gremlin that AMC made), but it wouldn’t surprise me to see it sometime in the near future.
Somewhat surprisingly, there are SUVs in France – may be about one in ten cars is an SUV. Almost all of them where VW Touaregs or Porsche Cayennes, and just like in America, they all seemed to be driven by moms with kids.
One time, my wife and I were walking up the Boulevard du Montparnasse and what should come driving by but a Hummer H2. I mentioned this to our friend Antoine, who immediately replied, “Was a guy with long black hair and a big nose driving? Was it a big gray Hummer?”
“Oh, that was Pierre Accomplissez-Secousse. He’s a television star. Everybody thinks he’s a complete jerk.”
There’s more than one Hummer in Paris, sadly, but everyone knows this guy, it would seem.
How would you like that to be you? A city of 4 million people the size of Chicago, and you have one of the few Hummers in town, and everybody thinks you’re a jerk.
Overall, the design of French cars is puzzling and disorienting to most Americans. When viewed from the curb, the majority of cars seem oddly proportioned, and the details seem haphazard at best. It’s only when you sit in a French car that they begin to make sense; all those windows that seem strangely placed and shaped turn out to be in just the right spot to do away with this blind spot or that. A lot of French cars are (seemingly) designed from the inside out. You’re sitting in one of the things, a great view of the road, ample vision through a tracery of windows, knobs and switches and whatnot right where they should be, and plenty of headroom, shoulder room, a long reach over to the passenger door … and then you get out, and the car seems to be about the size of a refrigerator, and looks like 7 fishbowls stacked on a lumber cart.
“How can that work?” you mutter to yourself.
The only real fact I can take away is that Hollywood directors should have all their alien spaceships designed by French car companies.
And it gets even more confusing when you start looking at their cars from an engineering perspective. They’re still frightfully light and spindly and made out of sheet metal no thicker than a soup can … yet French drivers pound the crap out of them, driving them at fairly high speeds over curbs and the like, and occasionally getting into accidents, and they hold up surprisingly well, crash-wise, for something made out of steel that’s half as thin as Mercedes sheet metal.
The perfect car for the modern urban driving environment – that counts as the trunk, huh? – This still counts as a Mercedes? – Two Smarts in one space – any color you want, as long as it’s black – get a free car (some restrictions apply) –
As you would expect, Smart Cars are all over the place in France, mainly in cities. For the modern, urban driving environment, they’re just about perfect. They’re small, maneuverable, quick enough, and just big enough for 90% of the tasks that an individual driver has. Think of them as a four-wheeled motorcycle with a roof rather than a small car, and you get a better idea of the mindset.
In a crowded city driving environment, they’re the right tool for many of the jobs you face. Most of the time, cars are about personal mobility. Most of the time, it’s just you, driving in the car, going to your own personal destination. So for a lot of people, a lot of the time, you don’t need things like back seats, cavernous cargo areas, and so on.
Being so small, you can maneuver in and out of traffic with ease in a Smart, you can park it in spots a lot of cars would even think of trying, and the MPG is bound to be quite high.
Until you actually see one of these things on the street, near other cars, you just don’t realize how small they are. I was able to do an informal measurement with one parked at the curb, and it seemed that with my right hand on the front bumper, the rear bumper was only 10 inches away from my left hand. I know they must be longer, but they seem to be about the size of a kitchen stove.
Of course, what comes in handy for things like zipping around double-parked delivery trucks and tucking into bath mat-sized parking spots doesn’t come in so handy when you need to move more than you, a friend, and a couple of briefcases. I was checking a Smart out on the street, marveling at how they were able to squeeze all that stuff into the passenger compartment, when my wife remarked, “that counts as the trunk, huh?”
She wasn’t kidding. What passes for the trunk, a miniaturized version of the rear hatch area in a VW Golf, seems to be about two feet by three feet by one foot; you could maybe fit three paper grocery sacks back there. No trips to Ikea for this ride. Picking up some fencing down at the lumber yard is out of the question. I guess what you save in purchase price and fuel costs is going to be partially offset by delivery charges for everything else you buy in your life.
Even though Smarts are tiny, they are, after all, made by Mercedes. This means they weigh more than you’d first think, are built more robustly than a bank vault, and have the top-notch fit and finish for something that costs about what the down payment for a Hummer would be. This still counts as a Mercedes? You bet. Everything makes sense. There are no little quirks in switch placement or door handle oddness you see in smaller French cars (OK, French cars of any size). Apart from the diminutive size, there’s nothing about the car that would be off-putting to your average American driver.
As you would expect, parking the things at a curb is a snap. Normal-sized parking spaces seem like runways to these things, and it wasn’t uncommon to see two Smarts parked within the length of one parking space. It almost seemed like they’re doing it to flaunt their practicality.
In a very un-Mercedes like move, Smarts seem to be available in a rainbow of fanciful colors. You see them in robin’s egg blue and bright pink and punk rocker’s hair magenta. Or, to be more accurate, you see about half of them in various bright shades. The other half is always gloss black. It seems like Smart owners are divided into two groups: those that have said, ‘it’s cheap, why not have some fun with it?’ and those that say, ‘it’s just basic, simple transportation, I’ll take black.’
Of course, if you’re really, really thrifty, there are other options for the aspiring French Smart driver. I didn’t get the details, but supposedly there are fleets of Smarts owned by ad agencies in Paris. You can, if you aren’t very picky about things like color and graphics, get a Smart for FREE if you live in Paris – but as the man said, some restrictions apply.
In this case, you get a Smart that is covered in some sort of loud graphics or advertising package. There seems to be no one product they’re pushing. I saw Smarts advertising headache pills and paint stores and video games … it all seemed to be random.
From what I heard, the prospective owner looking for a free Smart has no choice in the matter, and the graphics you get splattered all over your car is completely random. Relatives of the friends we were staying with France went to check the deal out for their son (the son having a new driver’s license burning in his hip pocket). Supposedly, the guy at the ad agency/Smart dealership said, ‘Yeah. The next one up for grabs is that one right over there.’
They turned and looked and saw a bright pink Smart car emblazoned with the logos of Frances best selling tampon.
The kid, although folded in half with a desire for teen mobility, had his limits and nixed the deal.
A quick walk down to Omaha Beach – seemingly, the British love RVs – what the landed gentry drive to the vacation house – “That engine sounds familiar,” I said –
So one morning, out on the Atlantic coast of France, I get up, and there’s Antoine, my host, down in the kitchen. He’d been up for a while, reading the paper. He looked at me and asked, “Wanna go for a walk down the beach? There’s some interesting stuff down towards the touristy end.”
Sure, why not. I had never been down that way before since the town was in the opposite direction.
It turns out that down that way, along the walking path, separated from the bike path, separated from the road, are a bunch of disused German gun emplacements from the Second World War. You come around this point of land, and suddenly the beach is broad and flat and deep. Anyone with any military sense could see that this was a place where you could land so many boats with so many men that you could easily swamp coastal defenses. No wonder the Nazis were nervous.
Perched above the beach, on the “high” ground was a series of 5 or so gun emplacements. They had maybe a 30-foot height advantage, but hey, you go with what you got.
But that was years ago, and time can change a lot of things. Germany and France were part of one larger super-country that was worth 60% more than America on the open market, judging by exchange rates.
Time also changed the coastline. What was once the high ground, perched at the edge of a 30-foot cliff, was now sea-level sand, and two of the German gun emplacements had tumbled down to sit on the beach at cockeyed angles, stripped of their guns, but still whole, sitting like knocked over children’s toys on a beige carpet.
“Those are the German gun emplacements,” Antoine stated flatly. “There’s other bunkers and stuff if you know where to look.”
You had to look around the two or three mid-sized hotels and the summer homes of fairly well-off British couples. There were already a few of them here; fifty to sixty years old, fat-ish, pale, looking like land developers and car salesmen and pharmaceutical reps from Renton and Evanston and Atlanta, only they were from places like Gilford and Huyton-with-Roby and Hull, and they all seemed to be driving European versions of RVs.
Somehow, for a given group of Brits (and you could tell that they were British, because all of their RVs were right-hand drive, and all of them had stickers on the back that said “GB” or were a Union Jack), they had decided that the cool thing to do was by a vacation house on the French coast, and commute there in their small, Euro-sized RVs.
It was sort of like when you go to a retirement community in Arizona or Florida, and 9 out of 10 cars are all beige Oldsmobiles.
And these guys driving them, they were always guys, mum was always sitting in the passenger seat (or on occasion what looked like wife #2 or 3, 30 years younger than the semi-retired mid-level manager from Islington, blond, too much jewelry), seemed pleased as punch. Like driving around in an RV was as good as it got, vehicular experience-wise.
So Antoine and I keep walking down the path, talking about the tourist crowd, pointing out the shuttered up nightspots overlooking the beach and the ocean, when I hear a large mechanical whirring, like a gas powered sewing machine.
“That engine sounds familiar,” I said.
And up over a rise comes a Corvair Greenbriar van, white with a green stripe down the side scallops. It’s rough, but it’s all there.
“Oh my god,” I say. Seriously, what are the chances?
Antoine looks at me and asks, “What kind of car is that?”
“It’s a Corvair Greenbriar van. My dad owned one for a while that he bought from a Baptist church.”
“Corvair? You mean like Ralph Nader? ‘Unsafe at Any Speed’?”
“Yeah, they made a van version,” I answered, all the while marveling at the van disappearing over a crest, heading in towards town, and that a French guy somehow knew both what a Corvair was and that he’d also known about Ralph Nader’s ‘Unsafe at Any Speed.’