A Racer’s Perspective on the 2014 Tour Auto (2 of 2)
Story by Frédéric Brun, Photography by Rémi Dargegen for Petrolicious
To me, the primary difference between us and the red Ferrari 250GT SWB team behind us, on the Tour Auto Optic2000, is that nobody would tell them, “Fantastic! That was my father’s first car!”
Of course, we would have preferred to hear about boys growing up in the back seats of Aston Martin DB 2/4s or Lancia Aurelias during the 1950s and ‘60s, but the most frequent car on French post-war roads was a tiny four-door: the Renault 4CV.
Despite the fantastic range of dream cars participating in this fantastic French tour, our little blue 4CV was still very popular. Organized by Patrick and Sylviane Peter beginning in 1992 as a retrospective of the Tour de France automobile, first held in 1899, the Tour Auto Optic2000 is an annual rally open to cars that originally competed between 1950 and the late ‘70s. For those who love sports and competition cars, this one is of the world’s most amazing road rallies: an open sky, beauty, speed, and a wonderful soundtrack crossing wonderful French landscapes, historic cities, castles and, of course, the tracks at Dijon-Prenois or Le Castellet.
With the modest 750cc engine mounted in the rear—thanks to Mr. Porsche, war prisoner in France in the late ‘40s, as the legend says and Renault’s engineers contest completely—was not really a competition car. But for young enthusiasts, around 1950, the Renault 4CV was the cheapest way to build a speed machine. Renault refused to sell competition versions, the R 1063, so enthusiasts would buy a simple R 1062 sport and transform it into a desirable 1063 version, with a bigger carburetor, a four speed gearbox, a camshaft with more overlap, or various upgraded elements.
Which is exactly what Mr. Adrien Maeght and his fellow mechanic Mr. Jean Gamot did in 1953 with our 2014 Tour Auto 4CV. With the amusing-to-drive Renault, those two gentlemen-drivers participated in premier road rallies between 1953 and 1955, like the 1953 Tour de Belgique (finishing 2nd, just after René Hugonet’s 4CV), 1953 and ‘54 Neige & Glace rally, a glorious snow race, and 1954 Mille Miglia. As Adrien–the world famous art collector, dealer, and former owner of the Cannes vintage car museum–where his 4CV was exhibited since 1978 until the museum closed ten years ago–agreed to lend Mr. François-Jean Daehn and me that iconic car, we decided to comtest the Tour Auto in our way, just to celebrate the Maeght & Gamot experience and as a testimony of a French passion for automotive pleasures. That’s how we decided that everything in the car must be “Made in France.” With the help of Renault, Monsieur Magazine, and Crooner Radio, we convinced French brands to join the project. From tools by Facom, leather jackets by Chapal, silk ties by Hermes, made-to-measure blazers by Smuggler and fine driver’s moccasins by JM Weston (both hand made in Limoges): everything was French, even our Navarre cigars!
But, in fact, we must admit that François-Jean and I would never have imagined the success of our blue, French car with number one on the bonnet. Why number one? Not because it was the oldest. An oh-so elegant green Jaguar XK120, driven by famous French enthusiast Etienne Raynaud and his brother Guillaume “Ray” Raynaud was from 1950, but certainly because the staff wanted us to be on time at night for the traditional Lanson’s champagne glass.
On many occasions, people came, passing brilliant Alfa Romeos, hypnotic Cobras or the marvelous number two racing OSCA from Argentina, just to ask us about the Renault, and, every time, beginning or concluding with the following, “I had one” or “that was my first car.” The Renault 4CV remains a star in France, carrying family memories and a very communicative popular happiness. And, if by any chance, we needed any advice or a mechanic’s help, there were always one or two people that knew the car perfectly!
On the road, the car is also rather idiosyncratic. It sits close to the road because of the thin wheels and tires, and needs to build momentum to carry on. The engine, delivering a soft and haunting sewing-machine melody, is brave, especially when climbing a hill. I must confess that our best moments were during a speed session on a closed road. Just as if we were competing in a world championship rally race, we were wearing gloves and helmets, stopwatch in hand. The engine roared and the noise was fantastic as the car strained. Somehow in unison, both my co-pilot and I looked at the dashboard at the same moment. The speed was close to… twenty mph! And so we had a good, memorable laugh.
As most of the competition can imagine, finishing the Tour Auto in Marseille, we didn’t had spent the same week as them. Of course, we ran the same kilometers, took part in all the special sections of the race, even on the track. Nevertheless, we had a different experience. For us there was no fight for victory or glory, we just enjoyed a fantastic road, the high springtime sun on France’s most beautiful landscapes, and a lot of smiles. It was just like the ‘50s. We’d open the rear bonnet to refresh the engine after a climb or tune the carburetor beside the road, and each morning we checked the sparkplugs, all the while with a feeling of timeless sensations, pleasures, and habits. Perhaps, thanks to our relative slowness, we have had much more fun than the others, frantically racing on “their” Tour Auto. So we realized with happiness that for a 4cv driver, in 1953, France must have seemed a very large country.
To read the previous article in the series, click here.