LAST Sunday, the skies above the North Shore were steel-grey and heavily pregnant with rain. They loomed ominously, threatening a deluge of the sort that bounces fat raindrops three feet off the pavement and sends folks scurrying for shelter.
Yet, at Waterfront Park, as though in defiance of the threat of downpour, a crowd gathered, and not a small one. It was the umpteenth annual Father's Day Italian and French car show, and thoroughbred Eye-tie horseflesh came pouring through the gate. Ferraris. Lamborghinis. A squadron of finely featured Alfa-Romeo Giuliettas.
From the delicate curves of a 1960's GTV to the hulking brutishness of a brand-new Ferrari FF, if you're into pastarockets, there's something for everyone.
Me? I was a little further afield, searching for that certain je ne sais quoi.
There, skirting the multitude of Mediterranean maids, was a flotilla of French cars. Une beaucoup de CitroÃ«ns. Juste une peu de Peugots. Une nombre des . . . well I suppose I should stop now: that's some pretty atrocious French.
Speaking of which, not every voiture on display was, as it were, d'sport. While the Italian steeds stomped their feet and whickered in the paddock, the French cars were something completely different.
For instance, ouvre le bonnet on this CitroÃ«n and you'll find a constellation of little green spheres. What the heck are those things? And are those headlights swivelling to look at me? Zut alors!
All the major carmanufacturing countries impart something of their national character into the machines they build. Naturally, these days, there's a certain amount of overlap as globalization blurs the lines between cultures, but the stereotypes are still there.
English cars? Quick but quirky. American jalopies? Four hunnered miles long n' three feet wide: land yachts fer cruisin' the highways of this here great nation. German autos? Precision-built speed machines that you should probably buy vis ein extended varranty. Japanese cars? Sometimes humourless, but reliable, safe and efficient.
And the French? Well, their cars are a bit . . . strange.
The French car industry started early. Very early, in fact: French inventors were tinkering with horseless carriages in the middle of the 1700s. Along with early German experiments by Daimler, French car makers Peugot and Renault dug a toehold in the turn of the century auto industry.
To the modern eye, early cars are pretty much indistinguishable: spidery, fragile and clattery contraptions that look much like the horse-drawn carriages from where they sprang.
Still, it's worth mentioning that a small company called Panhard-Levassor was the world's first car manufacturer, in 1890. Former woodworkers, the duo dynamique used a Daimler motor to power their machine, but were technically the first to offer an entire car for sale. The reason you can't buy one today? An early racing accident claimed Emile Levassor's life before the turn of the century.
The reason you can't buy a Renault, Peugot or CitroÃ«n today? Well, that's a bit more complicated. Unlike the British car industry, which folded up shop during the 1980s and '90s, French car manufacturing has been going strong for years. Renault in particular is a dominant player in Europe, partnered with Nissan.
The cars on display at the show were mostly from the '60s and '70s, although there was a beautiful Renault 5 Turbo from the '80s as well. Probably the most-iconic (and best-represented here) is the CitroÃ«n 2CV.
The 2CV is a people-mover that can be compared with the Volkswagen Beetle, the Ford Model T, or the Austin Mini as a defining car for both the nation that produced it, and the time in which it was built. Produced immediately after the Second World War, the 2CV was designed to mobilize the French masses.
It's a simple car, at least on the surface, and looks a bit like a snail built out of aluminum siding - with just nine horsepower in early models, acceleration can be a bit snaillike as well. But the 2CV was no one-trick chevau it could accommodate four people (as long as they enjoyed each other's close company), drive 100 kilometres on just three litres of fuel, and drive across a ploughed field while carrying four peasants and a basket of eggs, without breaking any of the eggs. Try sneaking that requirement into one of today's modern design committees.
Better yet, the 2CV can be fixed by anyone with only the most rudimentary of tools. Yes, it's slow, but compare it to a modern vehicle that might suffer catastrophic electrical failure of some ECU or sensor, and slow-and-steady might just win the race. Sometimes luxuriant complexity is a hindrance.
Speaking of which, here's another iconic French car: the CitroÃ«n DS. Remember all those little green spheres I mentioned? They're part of the DS's byzantine hydropneumatic suspension system. You can get a similar sort of arrangement (although based on compressed air) in a modern Range Rover; the self-levelling system sinks the car down at rest, and raises it up at speed.
The DS's principal attribute, besides its futuristic shape, is comfort. It's as smooth as a cream-based sauce, effortlessly ironing out ripples in the road, imparting the feeling of sitting in Louis' throne rather than barrelling down a motorway.
Is this gorgeous system reliable? Are you kidding me? It couldn't be worse if you'd made it out of brie!
Still, it's not dull, which is why we see these carefully restored models here today, sedan, coupe and wagon. And really, that's the great shame of it.
We don't get French cars here any more as that quirkiness and need for proper maintenance didn't translate well to Canadian roads. We weren't peasants ferrying eggs around and we didn't pop down to Nice for the weekend. We bought trucks and big ol' American cars, and when the gas crunch hit, we bought dull little Japanese cars and never looked back.
Today, French manufacturers build hot hatchbacks like the Renault Twingo and the CitroÃ«n DS3. They still build big, luxurious complicated sedans, but they also build hybrid-electric concepts and reliable diesels.
Italian manufacturers are coming back to our shores with Fiat and new Alfa-Romeo models on the way. Might I suggest a second chance for la belle autos? After all, vive la diffÃ©rence!
Brendan McAleer is a freelance writer and automotive enthusiast. If you have a suggestion for a column, or would be interested in having your car club featured, please contact him at mcaleeronwheels@ gmail.com. Follow Brendan on Twitter: @brendan_mcaleer.
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