Most Rétromobile regulars were united in proclaiming this year’s event on of the very best yet. Held in a new, larger single hall at the Porte de Versailles exhibition centre in the French capital, the 39th running of the event from 5-9 February featured diverse attractions including tributes to Alpine founder Jean Rédélé and Thierry Sabine, the inspirational creator of the Paris-Daker challenge; the dramatic coachbuilt cars of the Maharajas; Land Speed Record Titans; Lancia greats; and a poignant display marking 100 years since the outbreak of the First World War. The dramatic Great War-themed diorama took centre stage and was manned by enthusiasts in period battle dress. The convoy represented the ‘Sacred Road’ between Bar le Duc and Verdun, and featured a remarkable collection of trucks, early tanks, ambulances and Taxis de la Marne. The Alpine set was equally dramatic, with an amazing set of French Blue road, race and rally cars, while the star display of the Maharaja cars came, once again, from the collection of great show supporter Evert Louwman: the truly bizarre Brooke Swan car and it’s smaller electric twin, Cygnet, both built for the Maharaja of Nabha.
Among the stand-out attractions this year was this spectacular tribute to Alpine founder Jean Rédélé, featuring a stunning selection of road, race and rally cars with a particular bias towards Le Mans prototypes. The set ranged from 1963 M3, via several A110s to the V8-powered A222.
Demonstrations are a popular feature at Rétromobile, and this year two V12 aero-engined Land Speed Record titans, the 27-litre Liberty-powered ‘Babs’ and the ex-Malcolm Campbell Sunbeam 350HP with its newly rebuilt 18.3-litre Manitou, were invited to Paris. Crowds gathered each day to hear these famous leviathans start up, and spit flames through open stub exhausts.
The celebration of 35 years of the Paris-Dakar rally and its creator Thierry Sabine had an unsurprisingly Gallic flavour. We liked the unlikely Citroën Méhari and wacky Renault 4 with roof-mounted exhaust, but the pick of the machinery had to be this wonderful Peugeot 205 T16.
The Parisian show opened in some style, when an elephant was ridden through the aisles to give a theatrical touch of Indian authenticity to the magnificent display of Maharaja cars gathered from all corners of the globe and set among faux palm trees.
Renault’s celebration of the 30th anniversary of the trendsetting Espace was impressive, with examples of all four generations, plus the V8-powered 1959 Renault Project 900 MPV prototype and the 1981 Matra P18 that laid the groundwork for the Espace. But the crowds flocked to the incredible 800bhp V10-powered Espace F1.
Franco Mieners upstaged his fellow classic dealers with the mighty Fiat 642 RN2 Bartoletti transporter carrying a gorgeous Ferrari 330 P4. Chassis 0858 has recently been turned back from Can-Am spider spec to ’67 Le Mans configuration. “We’ve put the roof back on, just as Parkes and Scarfiotti drove it,” said Mieners.
The ‘Gullwing’ Merc was a recurring theme around the show, with more than 10 of them in evidence. Classic Sport Leicht displayed a pair of 300SLs plus two of the most extreme ‘Gullwings’ of all, one of two roadgoing 1998 Mercedes-AMG CLK-LMs built and a racer – chassis 005 – that was part of the 1998 FIA GT1 championship-winning team.
The French manufacturers always pull out all the stops for Rétromobile, and this year Renault put on a particularly dazzling display. Among the birthday celebrations was 50 years of the Renault 8 Gordini, with a gaggle of racers and classic blue-and-white road car.
The Great War diorama featured not one but two Renault FT light tanks. These two-man early armoured machines featured a 4536cc ‘four’ with 39hp yet were capable of just 7.8kph on the road and 2-3kph over rough terrain.
There were some delectable coachbuilt beauties among the Cars of the Maharajas selection, from the Mullin Museum's 1938 Delahaye 135 Figoni et Falaschi to a 1930 Mercedes SS, Rolls-Royce Phantoms, a 1925 Alfa Romeo RL SS and a 1929 Isotta Fraschini Tipo 8A. But our favourite was this decidedly odd 1925 Rolls-Royce 20hp, used by the Maharajah of Baratphur for tiger hunting.
The Skoda museum brought along a small but particularly fascinating selection of cars, including a unique rear-engined, air-cooled 1935 Skoda 935 prototype that is currently undergoing restoration, and this rather wonderful 1924 Laurent & Klement 210. Originally used by the Czech army, the 210 was unearthed in 1968 and has been displayed in ‘as found’ condition ever since.
Both the main WW1 display and the Renault stand paid tribute to the role of the ‘Taxis de la Marne in the Great War. In 1914, General Gallieni requisitioned some 600 taxis from the streets of Paris to be used to transport troops to the front.