Ten o’clock on a cool Sunday morning. The sun was still behind the clouds and there was dew on the grass, along with seventy French cars.
What was I doing at the French Car Festival? I felt like a traitor as I parked the 940 under an oak tree beside the road that runs through the grounds of the park, got out, poked my eye on an oak twig, helped the children out, shut the doors, left the car and walked towards the gate where a lady with a PCCV logo on her coat was selling entry tickets. Then on to the greensward where sat twenty or more Citroens, about a dozen Renaults, perhaps twice the number of Peugeots, a few Simca Vedettes, and a couple of oddities, if you allow that all French cars are not oddities. People were poring over open bonnets and gazing at engines, which in the case of some of the Renaults, was at the other end of the car.
The last time I saw this many French cars in one place was in the underground car park outside Baillieu library at Melbourne University in the 1970s. All the academics were Francophiles and often wore berets and smoked Gauloises while they drove their buttercup yellow Renault 16s and burnt orange Peugeot 504s and electric blue Citroen DS21s into Carlton along Johnson Street from Kew. In those days there were more Renaults and Peugeots in the inner suburbs than Holdens or Fords, and they all had bumper stickers reading Shame Fraser Shame or Uranium? No Thank You or We Want Gough or Frodo Lives. All the same message when you looked back on it.
Now, here were the survivors forty years later, on safe ground in a park in Balwyn on a quiet Sunday morning. Some of their engines were running, and it sounded like the Quai des Orfèvres late in the afternoon, just before they open the Calvados bottles in the bars. Kind of old and tired and happy, with a buzz of anticipation.
I had always wanted a French car. They were comfortable and different and suitable for city use and solid enough for long distance touring and they had tall clear glass so you could make eye contact with other drivers and they came in happy colours and they had happy faces. These days, cars are mostly black and sharp and aggressive and purpose-built for road rage. You could never get angry with someone driving a Renault 8.
The best car in the show was this black Peugeot 403 with red leather interior, displayed with its original sales docket. It was delivered new to a Mrs someone-or-other who lived in The Avenue, Parkville on 15 March 1957, making the car 18 days older than me. It was not for sale. I might have left the 940 under the oak tree.
Disclosure: the writer owns an original Peugeot exactly the same as this one. In original condition.