Hotel de France: my new must-visit Le Mans-related monument

9

Author: James ElliottPublished:

In the new issue of C&SC there is a fantastically evocative scrapbook of pictures from the back pages of the Hotel de France. I was mesmerised by these candid shots from the moment I first saw them. Well who wouldn't be when you see Astons casually parked up outside the hotel (above) or a 917 setting out from La Chartre-sur-le-Loir's Place de la République in 1970 to drive the 40km to Le Mans on public roads?

Anyway, I am a bit of a nerd about Le Mans, especially British involvement in it, and in particular precisely the sort of motor sport that these pictures illustrate. Regardless of the size of the team, drive down to La Sarthe, stay somewhere en equipe, drive to the circuit, do the race, have a party and then drive home again.

The appeal is that that era was when even the motor manufacturers indulged themselves in motor sport in the exactly the same fashion as clubmen, albeit it on a slightly different scale. Hotel instead of tent, a mechanic instead of a toolbox.

Le Mans and motor sport generally aren't like that anymore, the onslaught of professionalism means that cars are hidden away in closed paddocks rather than parked in town squares. Meanwhile, drivers isolate themselves in luxury trailers getting in the zone rather than playing cards with their peers and larking around.

The death of that 'fun' era of motor sport – and I use the parentheses because both winning and staying alive were still very serious concerns – is when my interest in it became rather less obsessive. When Alain De Cadenet could no longer go and fly the flag against the Croesus-rich factory teams on a shoestring budget or the TR Register couldn't stump up the readies to come to the rescue and enter the twin-turbo Janspeed TR7 V8, the romance was gone.

And somehow those pictures in our current issue place the Hotel de France at the centre of everything I loved about Le Mans in the old days. 

Yet despite my Le Mans geekery, until this month I had never consciously heard of the place. It was just another small-town hotel like so many others in the region that used to become interesting once a year.

All that has changed now. Seeing the cars and all those generations of the Pasteau family mingling nonchalantly with the racing greats has made the Hotel de France a must-visit Le Mans shrine for me.

In some ways it is a shame that the very thing that brought the Hotel de France and its halcyon days to my attention was the departure of that family after more than a century of running it, in others that turns out to be a bit of a bonus.

Not only does old man Pasteau apparently still pop into the hotel every day for breakfast so he can easily be tracked down, but since he sold the hotel it has received a much-needed makeover after falling into what can best be described as a 'distressed' (spelled s**thole according to one friend!) state.

The proposition of it now is even more appealing and its new owner, well-known historic racer Martin Overington, has big plans for it, not just during Le Mans and the Le Mans Classic, but all year round as a base or stop-off for petrolhead tours. Obviously, he plans to make money out of it – he didn't buy a Blower Bentley by being a rubbish businessman – but by bringing this hotel back to life (and in an extremely enthusiast-centric way) I sort of feel that he has done the likes of me a favour and I owe him my custom.

After all, those that call in will not only stay in a beautifully revamped 22-bedroom hotel from €66 a night (which I note with consternation is considerably less than I paid for a cell in a concrete Camponile in the middle of an industrial estate last time I was passing through France), but that motor racing history is now plastered all over it. Literally.

While curiously browsing the hotel's website, and stealing – I mean borrowing – its pictures, I learned that the smartly turned-out rooms are named after the likes of Shelby and Moss and that amazing photographic archive now adorns the walls in the bar. More than that, look closely at the bar picture and you'll see that hotel's history is told via its unique wallpaper. But the best thing about it being taken over by Overington is that he seems to have developed it with the priorities of a true classic enthusiast: secure parking, classic car hire fleet, breakdown recovery et al.

So the template for this clubman's next trip to Le Mans is set: drive down, stay somewhere historically important (to me at least), drive to the circuit, have a bit of a party after the event and then drive home. 

 

Comments

mikeC

What wonderful news that Martin has taken over, and is preserving the history of, the Hotel de France. I first encountered this lovely old hotel back in the 1980s when I stayed there quite by chance during a business trip. I was bowled over to discover the photographs, many of which were under glass on the reception counter, and although I have only been back once since, I never fail to let people know about it if I hear they are travelling through that lovely part of France; I must make the effort to return again!

Chris Martin

Definitely added to my next tour. In between Vallons De Valrugues in St Remy, Best Western at Sainte Nazaire (where Jacques Tati filmed M. Hulot's Holiday) and Couvent de Minimes in Lille before hopping back over to ole Blighty for a week. A good excuse to spend a couple of days in the Loire region.

 

PaulJ

Thanks for the heads-up James.  This looks like a great venue.

In less good news I read that the French authorities are significantly increasing their fleet of unmarked police cars, and that speeding fines are £56 for up to 12 mph over the limit and £3100 for those caught at more than 31mph over the limit.

James Elliott

Even though this is tempting fate PaulJ, I will say it. Somehow, unbelievably, I do not have a single point on my licence and in nearly 30 years of driving in the UK have never been caught speeding. And even though I drive on the continent far more than most, the same can be said for Germany, Italy, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium, The Netherlands, Spain and several others I regularly visit with work. But not France! I seem to inexplicably pick up a speeding ticket every time I am there.

Group Editor, C&SC

Headercase

Perhaps there might be an opportunity to squeeze in a drink/meal there on the Le Mans classic trip in July?

PaulJ

Fingers crossed as ever James. I too was stopped for speeding on my last trip to France, but an understanding policewoman kindly let me off with a warning, following my comically inept excuses and apologies in French.

rsk289

My school library used to have a book, ostensibly by Stirling Moss, entitled 'Le Mans '59''.  I used to read this regularly, poring over the black-and-white photos of the Aston works team, the cars parked in a geranium-lined alley during preparation for the race.  

On our honeymoon in 1985, we toured Northern France and visited Le Mans.  Leafing throught the Logis book, we spotted a hotel not far away and headed for it, finding a stereotypical French town centre hotel with window boxes and a welcoming bar.  Having spouted my schoolboy 'pouvons-nous avoir une chambre pour ce soir', I glanced down at the counter of the reception desk.  There was a photo of Jack Fairman staring back at me.  Next to that, Jacky Ickx.  Then Derek Bell.  I looked around the bar - hundreds of photos of racing drivers.  Having booked in, I wandered round the side of the building, and there were the geraniums and the barn from my teenage memories of Moss's book.  We had stumbled across the Hotel de France at La Chartre.

We've been back several times since, needless to say.  Mme kindly moved her car to allow me to park my Cobra in the only covered garage one trip, which effectively closed the kitchens every time I started it up as the entire staff came out the back to listen.

I have mixed feelings about new ownership.  Over the decades this has been a typical French family-owned hotel, with changes (a swimming pool!) when the son took over, and I think I take exception to the run-down description.  This place had charm, and I know that very recently it still had.  Sounds like the new owner is not French!  I wish him well, and look forward to being there again this year - but I hope it doesn't become an expensive tourist spot for the rich and famous.  I really hope it continues to be a small-town French hotel.

peterthompson

The GT40 Enthusiasts Club is holding an anniversary dinner at the Hotel de France on Sunday 6th June, i.e. at the close of the Classic Le Mans, to commemorate 50 years since the Ford teams were first based there in 1964, the model having been unveiled in the spring of that year.
The square in front of the hotel will be given over to GT40 parking for the evening, but if you would like to join in the dinner, booking is via Classic Grand Touring, www.classicgt.co.uk . By attending you would show yourself to be a GT40 enthusiast, so we might require you to join the club!
Many of the photographs adorning the walls show these cars at the hotel with many faces famiar to us old hands, in addition to those showing the Astons, Triumphs and other competitors who stayed there.

Peter Thompson

simpatico

I found that "Le Mans 59" book in a charity sale a few years back for 50p. Very evocative pictures but Stirling's narrative was a bit "football manager", a journo he is not! Nice inscription inside as a birthday gift for someone's husband who presumably had shuffled off recently, hence it's place in the carity shop, a little sad.

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