The enchanting Rétromobile display that you probably walked right past

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Author: James ElliottPublished:

The inevitability of any of the big car shows – indoor or out – is that while readers can pick and choose from a million reports, every single one of them is likely to highlight pretty much the same stuff. And, more importantly, because of the great irony of the internet – unlike a print magazine there is infinite space to go into great depth, but it seems to be the very place that no reader wants any detail – will also leave out the same stuff. Which means that, if you weren't there to see it for yourself, there will be great content from every sizeable show that might as well have not existed. And that's a bit harsh. 

Take Rétromobile in Paris last week. However much you gorge yourself on reports, you will see a lot of Ferraris and Delages, but probably rather less of the entire corner of one of the halls dedicated to Clement Bayard or the brilliant and fascinating Chausson CHS prototype.

Given this, I feel honour-bound to highlight one of the show's smaller upstairs features, ones that many visitors will have strolled straight past, but which helped to illustrate the efforts that are put into this bonkersly eclectic event.

This stand was a tribute the engineer Victor Bouffort. Who? Well, that was what I thought, too, but through a rudimentary monkey bike, a range of miniature military vehicles and an Outspan-hued Minima car, it became clear that he was something of a visionary. According to legend, this spotlight-shunning engineer came up with the concept of car-sharing, as well as a go-anywhere, tiny city car that was so small it could park at right angles to the kerb – the Minima – decades before it was popularised. 

In 1932, at the age of just 20, Bouffort built his own aeroplane, during the war he was a supply driver, but concealed Jewish children in his truck and ferried them to safety in Switzerland.

It was only in the 1950s that he decided to build his own cars, always ingenious, always affordable. Responding to a commission for a lightweight all-terrain vehicle he came up with the four-wheeled wheelbarrow that is the Citroën-powered Fardier. He followed that with a small tracked vehicle, the Chenillette and later the bigger Bison. His quest to solve the traffic problems in cities started in the 1960s and by 1968 he and Henri Viard had come up with the concept for the Minima, an affordable and economical two-seater that is only as long as a 'normal' car is wide. It was unveiled in 1973… to total apathy. Mass production was shelved and that was that.

Bouffort was one of those who, after a fruitless life of toil, discovered that it was also largely thankless. At Rétromobile, they showed a range of prototypes including the Minima (still with Bouffort's family), his three-wheeled racing car concept that was only recently rediscovered, a Bison, a Chenillette VP90 and an example of his Valmobile personal transport.

It was a lovely tribute, some two decades after his death, to someone who was clearly my kind of engineer. Unshackled and unrestrained, he seemed wholly intuitive and driven to produce what he felt best or what the world needed almost regardless of commercial considerations. It is a huge shame that it has taken until now for this dynamic and creative unknown to be properly acknowledged, but on the other hand it is massively gratifying that he finally has been. And and honour to bring him to your attention, you know, just in case it passed you by.  

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