Thursday, March 31, 2011


Far, far away, in a sleepy little town in southern France, there was a Motor Festival, which celebrated anything with an engine, old or new, stationary, wet, winged, or wheeled. While Avignon is a modest and picturesque town, best known for inspiring painters (most notably Picasso and his earth-shaking Demoiselles d'Avignon), the local Expo Center transforms annually into Gearhead Disneyland, with the intention of having 'something for everyone', even the kids.
The press kit lays out the facts:  50,000 square meters of exhibit space, more than half covered, 360 exhibitor spaces, 140 clubs, 2500 vintage vehicles, plus parking lots filled with cool vintage cars. All 11 halls were filled to overflowing with new and old motorcycles, trucks, tractors, planes, boats, and military hardware, and this year the main hall was stuffed with a rich mix of Matras and Moto Guzzis. Perhaps the most important display of Guzzis outside Italy, ever?  (More on the Moto Guzzi display here.)
If you have a penchant for French racing hardware on four wheels, the Matra (Mécanique Aviation TRAction) display was comprehensive.  Founded in 1945 to make armaments and planes, Matra Sports was created in 1963 to build racing cars…and by 1969 had clinched both the driver's and constructor's  World F1 titles.  They also won the LeMans 24hours from 1972-74; all of these cars were present, and occasionally fired up, the deafening scream of the F1 engines echoed by the crowd's ecstatic cheering.  Spine tingling stuff inside a covered hall!  
Formula racing cigars and LeMans slippery fish, all French Racing Blue, were a stunning display, and curiously, in the fairly humble surroundings of the Avignon Expo Center, the cars and motorcycles felt completely approachable.  How is it that a relatively unknown Motor Festival in the south of France had such a breadth of fascinating displays? Clearly, somebody is on the ball, and has the connections to bring world-class hardware to Avignon. In days past, Retromobile was the place to see the 'good stuff' in France, but as that show has almost abandoned motorcycles, it seems the party, and the bikes, have headed south.
Plenty of old bikes cropped up individually in ‘car’ club stands, but several local motorcycle clubs had great selections of interesting and rare bikes, from the always-irresistible Lightweight Brigade of 50cc gems, to 70s heavyweights like Ducati round-case 750 Sports and Bol d'Or production racers. The locals have some cool gear.
A true Concours d'Elegance, with 'appropriate' dress required!
Curated parking lots meant the show continued outside, with Renault Alpines and Gordinis, Simcas and Salmsons, 70s Rally cars and Citroens of every vintage, plus hordes of ridden-in vintage motorcycles, which became their own display.
Best of all, the Festival was the hub of the Trophée Jacques Potherat, a two-day vintage sports car tour of the Provencal countryside…which meant, in this case, 8 Bugattis, Alvis racers, supercharged MG ‘K’ cars, Morgan and Darmont 3-wheeler, etc. The lineup was jaw-dropping, and Show cars were conspicuously absent – every car looked to be in regular use, and all ran well, barring a flat battery mid-tour for a Darmont, which was replaced.  Oxidized paint, oil stains, and ancient rally stickers hinted that most of these cars had old-school, long-time owners...and in several cases, the children of these enthusiasts had taken over the wheel of the family Bugatti, treating them as only an old friend might, driving with panache and joie de vivre, accelerating smartly away and tearing up the hillsides with a fishtail growl.
The du Bucheron sisters left a trail of smitten onlookers, driving their father's Bugatti Type37A like the family car it is.
A hoped-for seat on a Bugatti Type 35 didn’t materialize, as I’d placed my order long after the passenger seats were filled. Still, I had the pleasure of following the Tour and taking photos, breathing the tang of vintage exhaust with the off-beat drone of competing supercharged straight 4s, 6s, and 8s. Heady stuff.
It might stretch credulity to describe the landscapes photographed during the day – leaving Avignon and moving south, entirely on unlined roads, we passed through small Provencal villages with ochre stone buildings, the occasional castle, and plenty of sidewalk cafés with sensible people enjoying a warm Spring day. We entered the Camargue, a strangely dry landscape graced with frequent swamps (the Rhone river delta) and populated by wild white horses, little black bulls raised for aréna fighting, with egrets and flamingos(!) fishing in ponds.
Quentin Protherat, son of the eponymous rally patron, driving his father's Alvis 12/70
After dipping our toes in the Mediterranean at St.Maries-de-la-Mer, we stopped for lunch at a Musée du Riz (the Camargue produces a special breed of rice), providing an especially picturesque backdrop for the cars, without the distraction of modern vehicles or thousands of interested guests.  See the photos below.
Huge pans of paella, salad from local greens, and bottomless, unmarked jugs of local rosé meant the volume of the party increased by the hour, with the warmth of a blue spring sky and plenty of flowered green grass encouraged un sieste…although a few took naps in the cozy embrace of their beloved Salmson or Rally.
A drive through the white limestone cliffs and outcrops of the Alpilles meant passing numerous Roman ruins and aqueducts, as our wheels trod over routes in use for millennia.  Bugattis, Roman architecture, wild horses…pinch me.
For those whom 1920s sports cars are too new, the Motor Festival included a rare demonstration of a replica of the world’s first automobile, the Cugnot 'Fardier' steam tricycle of 1769. That’s not a typo; we’ve been working at going fast on wheels for 250 years…and as mentioned in a previous post, it technically falls into the motorcycle camp, having 3 wheels...  In 1990s parlance, to drive the Cugnot is to be ‘stoked’, as the big steam boiler requires a lot of metal-rod poking to build up a head of steam. And while the steam piston engine is familiar in many respects, the rack-and-gearwheel-and-giant-chain drive is unique. The massive front wheel (and yes, the French invented front wheel drive…180 years before the Citroen TA) also acts as flywheel, and while there is no clutch, a meter-long lever controls the steam pressure and releases forward drive.

The Cugnot also bears the weight of the world’s first auto accident, as, in a clear case of driver ‘object fixation’, it lumbered out of control one day and demolished a stone wall, as documented by a period etching, the 18th-century insurance adjuster’s ‘Polaroid’ (below).
Lacking gloss and mega-dollar hype, the Avignon show appealed to everyday motor enthusiasts, who were treated to a mind-blowing array of hardware, at a close, even intimate range.  The unpretentious displays celebrated mechanical intrigue, encouraged respect, and even awe (in the case of the Guzzi V8 and Matra F1cars), while utterly lacking the class-conscious trappings associated with luxury-branded pandering to mega-rich investors/owners.  In short, very old fashioned to the point of time-warp, back to 1970s events, when such vehicles were affordable, and only eccentrics spent their weekends underneath an old car or bike.  See this show before it is 'discovered'!
Farm equipment with olfactory embellishments...
Bugatti steering gear
Bugatti braking gear
New bikes too; the first Ducati Diavel I've seen in person
Lots of superVintage fixies!
Dressed up for the Concours d'Elegance
One of the many gem-like 50s; an ItalJet in this case.
Zundapp military sidecar outfit with howitzers, and Sherman tank!
Not a 16H or M20 - a Terrot military model from WW2.
Brand new Vespa Ape electric passenger trike.
Matra F1; all pipes
Yep, airplanes too.
Who knew painted-up semi's were a 'thing' in France?
Nobody seemed to mind the open pipes...
Amilcar roadster, looking very much like the inspiration for a lot of 50s American hotrods!
The Terrot military engine dep't, a sidevalve 500cc with total-loss oiling system.
250cc Griffon twin with Peugeot panel van
Changing the spark plugs on a Bugatti Type 13
MG-Monaco TA, supercharged, of Michel Loreille, organizer of the vintage Grand Prix de Tours
Bugatti Type 37
A team of desert-tan Ford Model T's invaded the Rally
The immortal Guzzi V8


JMATT said...

Paul you continue to astonish!
Thanks again.

John Duss said...

Paul, You're having all the fun!This event seems a knock-out. A devoted follower, JSD

Anonymous said...


Two beautiful French women in a Bugatti. Are you serious! And you only had two comments for this post. If only my '93 R100 could garner that kind of attention.


occhiolungo said...

hola amigo. I love to read about Cugnot's Fardier in the old books. There is a bit of controversy around it, as some claim it did or didn't run, and some even claim that it did or didn't hit that wall. It's hard to find good info, stories in some 100 year old books were 'corrected' 50 years later by different authors. Who knows the truth? Either way, it is a great invention.

The Vintagent said...

Hi Pete,
I've read the naysayers, but the replica is a faithful recreation, and it works! The 'accident' is neither here nor there, a good story in any case, but the Cugnot's machine remains as it was, at the Arts et Metiers museum...