Readers who venture to Paris from time to time will know that there are numerous “Portes…” in the City of Light. Porte means door or gate, and it is a nicer word than barrière or grille. The reasons there are all these gates is because there were once massive earthworks around Paris – and they needed gates to allow people to come and go. What is rather surprising is that the fortifications dated only to the 1840s. Inside these defences they built a military road, so that the chaps in the blockhouses were never short of croissants and bullets.
In time, this road transformed into a ring road, with each different section bearing the name of a Napoleonic maréchal. To be honest, the fortifications were next to useless because the next time invaders arrived (in 1870) artillery had developed a great deal and so rather than storming the city, putting everyone to the sword (and so on…), the Prussians set up their guns on the hills around Paris and amused themselves by lobbing shells over the walls. The Parisians continued to nonchalantly drink coffee with their mistresses, although some were (inevitably) blown to kingdom come.
As an aside, when this was happening the Parisians decided it was time to invent air mail and sent Montgolfiers (balloons), laden with salacious letters, over the enemy lines at night, so that their mistresses in “les provinces” were not completely ignored. This was a little hit and miss, as the balloons were basic and had little in the way of steering. One of them, carrying an urgent message for the Army of the Loire (and lots of eloquent lover letters), headed off carrying the pilot and a marksman, and all was well until daylight came and they found themselves flying over the North Sea. They eventually landed in a snowy forest and wandered around (rather coldly) until someone speaking Norwegian greeted them. If you like a rollicking good adventure, you can read up about it…
Anyway, the point of all this is that having built a useless set of fortifications, the Parisians got lucky because as automobiles became more numerous, they found that they had a nice wide tranche of land that could, with the help of a lot of bulldozers, be transformed into a wide expressway and so created the Boulevard Périphérique, which makes getting around in Paris far less difficult than in other cities. Not only that, but they had a lot of space left over and so created stadiums, sports grounds, exhibition centres, you name it.
One of the things created with all the space available was an exhibition centre, now called Paris Expo Porte de Versailles. It was built in 1923 and while it doesn’t look very Art Deco, it is a huge bonus for the city and holds more than 100 vast shows a year, including the Salon de l’Agriculture, where each year the French President kisses cows, horses and buxom farm girls and eats dodgy cheeses and thus wins the vote of every farmer in the country.
At this time of year, the Porte de Versailles exhibition centre traditionally (if dating from 1976 creates a tradition) hosts Retromobile, a celebration of all vehicles of a vintage nature, including loads of wonderful racing cars and the elegant 1930s creations favoured by Cruella de Vil.The halls are filled with around 600 exhibitors from car companies, dealers, restorers, clubs, auction houses, modelmakers, spare part dealers, event organisers, clubs, artists, booksellers and those who see the chance to flog automotive bric-a-brac. There are usually around 1,000 cars to gawp at, often astonishing and unique machines. If you have a racing soul this is a heavenly place, although the dealers all understand very clearly that those who are passionate are willing to pay more than things are worth. These folk make Liberty Media look like socialists…
Anyway, on the way to the show, I passed the Renault factory at Flins and recalled a time, 15 years ago, when there were plans to turn fields beside this road into a F1 circuit. It was a brilliant idea. The venue would have been 18 miles from Paris and would have been accessible not just from the A13 motorway (the road to Rouen), but by trains from two different Paris stations. This would have made it a bit like Zandvoort, with smelly old cars not allowed in. It would have been perfect for the world we live in today. The local regional authority even voted to spent $170 million to build it all, next to the Renault factory at Flins. Even the then Prime Minister supported the idea. Sadly, the main promoter of the idea, Pierre Bedier, who wanted to turn the area into “La Vallée de l’Automobile”, ran into some difficulties relating to corrupt practices and was banned from holding office for five years. The project faltered because some wily opponent discovered that the fields harboured a vast community of medieval tree frogs (or was it remnants of 13,000-year old houses? I cannot remember). Anyway, that was the end of it. Today France has no Grand Prix, which does not seem right when F1 tramps off to places like Baku and Doha.
When you drive around these places, one does not catch a whiff of the romance of early motoring adventures, one just smells oil.
In France you can never go far without bumping into an old racing circuit. A few miles further down the A13, you reach the Saint-Cloud tunnel, through which Grand Prix cars raced in 1946, on a street track around the town. The race was known as the Grand Prix de l’Autoroute, because it coincided with the weekend when France’s first stretch of motorway (the A13) opened.
While musing on these matters, it struck me that Retromobile has actually played a very significant role in my life because without it, I would not have been in Paris 32 years ago, when a Retromobile weekend led to an unexpected rendezvous and adventures that followed, including marriage, parenthood and the purchase of a Citroen Type H Tube van to relocate furniture… it was cheaper to do that than to pay for a removal firm. Oh, how I wish I hadn’t given the Tube away, given the prices today, in the age of the food truck.
But, in the words of Edith Piaf, “Non, je ne regrette rien”, and motoring into Paris to visit Retromobile was a nice thing to be doing to warm up a frigid winter. There is still a month to go before the F1 cars go racing again and so some automotive porn seemed a good idea. I wondered also who I might bump into because Retromobile is the world’s biggest and best-known collectors’ car show and one always sees someone from the racing world. I did not have to wait long. I bumped into two old Formula 1 photographers in the first five minutes, including the great modern artist of F1 Bernard Asset.
I wandered on looking at vast arrays of parts from old cars, wildly overpriced books and photos and the odd tank.
This being the 100th anniversary of the first Le Mans 24 Hours, it was clear that the theme this year was going to be the great French race. There seemed to be a lot going on at the Richard Mille stand and as I strolled by I noted Alain Prost and was surprised to see Fred Vasseur, given that one might expect him to be busy in Italy fixing Ferrari. But, no, here he was with the French crowd.
I exchanged a few words with Jean Todt, who seemed to be very happy with his life not being FIA President. I spotted Bruno Famin, the man who runs the Alpine F1 engine department in Viry-Chatillon and then I found myself at the Automobile Club de l’Ouest stand, where there was an event going on and I was delighted to see a number of old pals, notably Tom Kristensen, the greatest Le Mans driver in history, with no fewer than nine wins in the event, three more than anyone else. Alongside him was Emanuele Pirro, a five-time winner, who I have known since my very first event as a professional reporter, a European Formula 3 race at Zandvoort in 1983. I won’t bore you with details but that had quite a field, including a Dr Marko, who was running a young lunatic called Berger.
Along with Emanuele and Tom were a bunch of other Le Mans winners and the presenter was saying that together they had won 25 victories in the 24 Hours. That was pretty impressive really, although I was not sure if the count was correct because Tom’s nine and Emanuele’s five, made 14. There was Henri Pescarolo and Yannick Dalmas, who had four each, that’s 22. Gerard Larrousse was there (two) and so too was Romain Dumas, which I reckoned makes 26. Later on I also bumped into Benoit Treluyer, who won three times.
Whatever the case it was an impressive gathering given that there have been 90 races in the 100 years, nine being lost to the war (from 1940 to 1948) and one to a strike (1936). They even managed a race in 2020 (before the pandemic struck) and 2021, although this had to be delayed until September.
The ACO event dragged on (endurance racing seems to require endurance in press conferences), but eventually it came to a close and I had the chance to catch up with Kristensen, who was having a ball, having spent the previous evening driving around downtown Paris in the Chenard & Walker which won the first race. He was most excited by having had a police car to clear a path for him and six police outriders…
There was a rather garish trophy that will be awarded this summer to the winner of the 100th race. It’s in the back of the car in the picture.
The problem with such events is that chatting is complicated as people want autographs and selfies with the stars and it means constant interruptions. The best thing to get some peace is to do something that no-one expects Le Mans winners to do, and so Emanuele and I snuck off to a rather dubious catering outlet and sat on benches at a wooden table and shared a barquette of frites. Almost no-one noticed…
We were gossiping away about the world of Formula 1 – Pirro is one of the driver stewards these days – and were wondering what will happen this season. Who knows? We are just coming into the warm and fluffy season when everyone is launching their new cars and they will all be optimistic (some will be delusional) about how well they are going to do this year. It’s easy to be swept along and wrapped up in all the candyfloss, but the first race will more than likely sort out the wheat from the chaff.
Still, it was hard to avoid everyone and in the end we were spotted by Simon Kidston, a celebrated dealer of super exotic cars, who is also the nephew of the Bentley Boy Glen Kidston. He came over and asked if we would like to have a drink on his stand, which seemed like a fine idea, with a little Parma ham and some parmigano. Simon’s cars were exquisite and the 1937 Alfa Romeo 8C 2900B Lungo Berlinetta, with bodywork by Touring in Milan, was spectacular.
“How much does that one cost?” I asked innocently.
“€27 million,” he replied, without even a blink.
Well, the next time I have €27 million to spend, I will definitely be on the phone to Signor Kidston…
In the meantime, one must content oneself with raising that kind of money and the only way I can think of doing that would be to find the famous missing Bugatti Atlantic, known as La Voiture Noire. Kidston believes that it was probably cannibalised and parts were incorporated into another Atlantic.
It is a wildly complicated story with so many theories and “facts” that may or may not be true.
There’s nothing like a bit of mystery to keep everyone looking for the ultimate barn find, which – so they say – would have a price of at least $100 million if it is ever uncovered. The thing that has made it very hard is that there was a certain amount of trickery going on around such cars, with chassis numbers being switched to avoid paying duty. So the cars were sometimes not what they were supposed to be. The other thing about the missing Bugatti is that it was never sold, as it was used only by the folks involved at the factory.
It was driven a lot by Willy Grover-Williams, a Grand Prix driver, who became a Bugatti ambassador in the late 1930s, and by his friend and colleague Robert Benoist, another extraordinary racer, who became the manager of the Bugatti showroom in Paris. If you read the many stories about the missing Bugatti, you will find mention that Grover-Williams returned the car to Molsheim when he departed France to go to England in 1939. This is simply not true.
I’ve spent half my life studying Grover and I can tell you that he was in France up until late June 1940, where he served as a chauffeur for senior officers in the British Expeditionary Force, based in Paris. When France was invaded he was not at liberty to take the car to Molsheim (near Strasbourg) and pop home on a train. He was busy trying to get the top brass out of France and went with them, departing from Saint-Nazaire.
At the same time, Benoist was serving with the French Armee de l’Air and was ordered to go south when the Germans closed in on Paris in the middle of June. He left at the wheel of an exotic Bugatti Type 57, which is supposed to have been the Bugatti 57C Speciale coupé. This was a car that had a chassis number that had already been used by Bugatti (you see what I mean about chassis numbers). This was done to avoid tax having to be paid on a new car. This car was used by Ettore Bugatti himself in 1938 and 1939 and, so the theory goes, it was put into Benoist’s care before he departed south as his unit had been ordered there.
It was an adventure as he headed down the old Route Nationale 10 with the Germans following on the same route, heading towards Bordeaux (where the French government had retreated to). If you follow the road and look up the dates, you can see the progress they made. Paris fell on June 14, Chartres on June 17 and Tours on June 21. The roads were clogged with cars, carts, bicycles and people walking, not to mention debris from bombing raids and vehicles that had run out of fuel. There were little food and nowhere to stay. Progress was slow. Benoist was on the road when the French surrendered. The day after that happened he was near Poitiers when the Germans finally caught up. They were intrigued by the unusual car he was driving and ordered him to join their convoy. He did not have much choice. That night when the Germans stopped for some rest, he slept in the car. At dawn the next day he was given fuel and they all set off again towards Angouleme, which would be occupied later that day. Progress was slow and Benoist decided that if he had the chance to escape, he would. He must have known that France had surrendered and that the fighting was over. The Germans were telling everyone to go home. So why did he take the risk of an escape? The Germans, of course, liked to commandeer things of value (which is why Ettore Bugatti had bricked up three of his Royales in a building at the Chateau d’Ermenonville, to the north of Paris, which he owned). So perhaps Benoist’s escape was more to do with the car than rejoining his unit…
In any case, when the convoy slowed for yet another obstruction, Robert spotted a side road. He floored the throttle and disappeared into the country lanes. The Germans were taken completely by surprise and by the time they had realised what had happened it was too late.
No-one was going to catch a former Grand Prix champion and Le Mans winner in a car chase…
The Germans were, in any case, in a hurry to get to Bordeaux. So they drove on.
Benoist probably headed east, through the Charente department, in the direction of Limoges. He knew someone who lived out there and he hid the car away in a barn. Where that was? Who knows? Perhaps he had an address book that survived the war.
He, alas, did not. Willy Grover (as you can read in my book The Grand Prix Saboteurs) parachuted back to France in 1942 and recruited Benoist to his network of Special Operations Executive (SOE) saboteurs. Both men were killed in captivity.
After hiding the car, Benoist returned to Paris, presumably by train. The area would not be under German control until the end of 1942, as it was in what was called the Vichy Zone, run by the puppet French government in Vichy.
We do know that after the war the Bugatti 57C Speciale coupé appeared at Bugatti headquarters in Molsheim, although we do not know (as far as I am aware) from whence it came. It was then used by Pierre Marco, the managing-director of Bugatti, until he retired in 1959 when the car was sold to Jean de Dobbeleer, a Belgian Bugatti dealer. Once again there was some jiggery-pokery with chassis numbers to avoid taxes and the car ended up in Indiana (as 57557). It has been in the US ever since.
I have no doubt that the post-war story is all true and there seems to be paperwork to back it all up. But I cannot help but wonder whether it was really the car that Benoist drove towards Bordeaux. The documents suggest that was the case. I seem to recall, probably 30 years ago, seeing a piece of paper giving details of the car that Robert drove, but it didn’t seem important at the time. I have since lost track of his family, as they were not very keen on me researching their complicated history.
But who knows? Who saw the car in which Benoist departed Paris? Who would know the difference between one exotic Bugatti Type 57 and another? Given that the Atlantic was more valuable than the 57C Speciale coupé and was effectively owned by his colleague and mate Willy Grover, might the car he used have been the La Voiture Noire rather than the 57C Speciale?
This at least might explain how a very special car disappeared off the face of the earth.
It is all good fun to speculate about such matters and, perhaps I should add, that if any treasure-hunter does find the car, bricked up in a barn, somewhere down that way, I would very much appreciate a small share of the bounty, to keep me happy when old age beckons… if it sells for $100 million and I helped someone locate it (albeit vaguely), I would be happy with one percent!