Today, as I meandered my way across the French countryside, I was tailgated by a French driver in a French car. Nothing new about that. If you’ve ever crisscrossed your way along the backroads of rural France, you’ll no doubt recognise a driving style best described as a ‘Gallic shrug’.
Gaulouise in one hand and elbow resting on the open window frame. Front bumper within a few inches of your GB sticker and car in too low a gear for the current speed. The centre white line considered a piece of faded road art, rather than something to keep to the left of the vehicle. French driving goes with the territory.
Only this time it was different. The driver was not at the wheel of a tired Renault 19, a faded Peugeot 306 or smoking Citroën BX. Instead, she was piloting a Renault Captur. The view in my rear-view mirror was like a metaphor for the end of an era. The fabric of the French holiday is being threatened, and there’s nothing you and I can do about it.
Engage Richard Burton mode.
Mesdames et Messieurs, we are witnessing a revolution. Across the gulf of La Manche, manufacturers are regarding French territory with envious eyes. And slowly… and surely… the crossovers and SUVs are drawing their plans against us.
Disengage Richard Burton mode.
The fact is, it’s becoming increasingly hard to find what you or I would call a French gem. The kind of vehicle you’d stop, turnaround or make a detour for in order to grab a photo. French tat or French chod: some with black number plates, others with yellow fog lights, and some with a full quota of hubcaps, although granted, the latter has always been an automotive unicorn.
You know the cars: Renault 25s, Citroën ZX wagons, Peugeot 104s, Renault 12s, Citroën BXs and Peugeot 309s, to name but six. The cars long since given an endangered tag in the UK, but kept alive in France by a combination of an unwillingness to get into debt, a knowledgeable mechanic in every village and, let’s face it, a laid-back approach to life. Why do today what you can put off doing tomorrow… and the next day… and the day after that?
All the while, the French tat/chod/gem <delete as applicable> lives on with the help of cable ties, cheap aftermarket spares and the mechanic who steadfastly refuses to conform to the modern ways. And although the winds of change have taken longer to strangle the old French motor in its native France than they did in the UK, the days of sightseeing endless lines of glorious chod are behind us.
The old French car faces a perfect storm of younger buyers seduced by lifestyle-led marketing campaigns, stricter Contrôle Technique tests, the local independent mechanic forced out of business by complicated modern motors (not to mention retirement and, ultimately, death), along with the sad fact that even a patriotic Frenchie will draw the line at how many euros they’ll chuck at old rope.
It’s not quite the end of days – most villages hold at least a Mk1 Twingo, Supercinq or 306 for your visual pleasure – but the tat is being overshadowed by the cloak of the crossover. This summer, you can look forward to a sea of Captur, Kadjar, 2008, 3008 and 5008.
The one ray of sunshine is the chance to see some of the French cars we’re denied access to in the UK. The Renault Talisman is a joyous spectacle, the Renault Espace is a grand occasion, and the Dacia Lodgy is a quirky delight. Even the Dacia Logan Shatchback is preferable to a crossover.
As a follow-up post will reveal, a French road trip still holds many pleasures – I’ve seen some PetrolBlog favourites today – but anecdotal evidence would suggest that the cars we hold dear are facing a fight for survival. Let’s support our French neighbours by telling them how much we value their dedication to the cause.