Pick any stereotype about the French – their love of good food, deliciously short work weeks, flexible attitude toward romantic entanglements – and recognize that beneath them all lies a simple love of good living.
As for France’s automotive industry, well, if you don’t have a smile on your face when behind the wheel of a French car, please consult un médecin. You may be dead.
Take this 1963 Citroën Ami 6. Her name is Lulu. She is as jouncy as a piece of jocular accordion music, as refreshing on a summer’s day as a serving of citron sorbet. On the inside she smells exactly like a tiny hotel in Le Mans I once stayed in, one with an elevator the size of a shoebox.
Her overstuffed seats make a beanbag chair feel like a church pew, her ribbed steering wheel has but a single spoke, and her gear shift operates as if designed by a manufacturer of parasols. Turn a key, pull a cord marked D-for-démarreur (starter), and a little 602cc two-cylinder engine bursts to flatulent life, with a sound like the taunting Frenchman from Monty Python and the Holy Grail blowing a raspberry.
Lulu corners and accelerates exactly as you’d expect from a product built by the country that invented souffle. In the bends, she leans over like a drunken sailor, and her straight-line performance is positively slothful. With just 22 horsepower on tap, the driver of an Ami may expect to arrive at every appointment about 20 minutes late. Désolé. Perhaps have a croissant while you wait.
The reason for puttering about town in this quirky little car is two-fold. First, it’s nearly Bastille Day, France’s national celebration held on July 14. Second, while French cars have been a rare sight on this side of the Atlantic for decades, they may be coming back. Groupe PSA, a French multinational that includes Citroën and Peugeot, is opening offices in Atlanta this year.
PSA’s stated plan is three-tiered. First, they will offer mobility services via an app called Free2Move, which combines and aggregates existing bike- and car-sharing options. Next, PSA vehicles will be made available on the app, in the same way that Car2Go is mostly Smart Cars. Third, all going to plan, retail sales of French cars will begin again in North America.
Naturally, you may be wondering why they’d want to bother, and why you’d be interested. Fiat’s comeback has fallen rather flat, Alfa Romeo isn’t quite bursting onto the scene with the hoped-for fanfare, and even Volkswagen can’t seem to regain that 1960s magic. North America doesn’t do quirky. We do safe and sensible, like the Camry or the CR-V. In a pinch, we might stretch to a Subaru.
I put it to you that we need cars that embody the spirit of Lulu, as they make the world a sunnier place. On this day, Vancouver’s Stanley Park is full of cyclists and pedestrians, and almost every single one of them wants their picture taken with this homely little economy-minded runabout. Two French tourists ride by, beaming their appreciation. One of them excitedly shouts, “Vive La France!”
Behind me in convoy is John MacGregor, events co-ordinator for the Citroën Autoclub Canada, driving his 1972 ID Safari wagon. MacGregor has more than a half-dozen Citroëns, all of which have names to match their distinct personalities. The Safari is called Pierre (sur la mer) for his gleaming blue-on-white paint and luxury-yacht ride quality.
Let’s discuss this last attribute for a brief moment. While French cars span a range of unique attributes from the economical genius of the original 2CV to the lightweight appeal of the reborn Renault Alpine, all of them are principally designed around comfort. Lulu may look, as she’s cornering, like a cat clinging to a curtain, but her soft-sprung suspension swallows up bumps, ruts, and potholes with aplomb.
The oleopneumatic suspension in a Citroën DS or ID is even more astonishing. Most famously, French PM Charles de Gaulle once survived an assassination attempt in 1962 thanks to the unflappable poise of his state DS. Even with all four tires pierced by a hail of bullets, the Citroën smoothly ferried its occupants to safety.
Some time ago, the definition of luxury changed from personal contentment to dynamic achievement. Blame Nürburgring lap times, blame a mania for huge-diameter wheels, blame auto designers with an inexplicable hate for a decently-thick sidewall. Whatever the case, even compact cars are now expected to swap comfort for an ineffable fun-to-drive quotient, as if our daily commutes were all about squealing tires and hammering along at ten-tenths.
Funnily enough, that’s exactly how French people drive – or at least the Parisians do. But as for the cars they build, most are still focused on maintaining composure over rough ground at the expense of a little handling prowess. If it takes you just a little longer to get to your destination, then so be it.
Every French car I’ve driven, from a Jeep-like Mehari to a swishy DS21, has been a uniquely enjoyable experience simply because it wasn’t trying to beat the Germans at the performance game. Oh, there’s been plenty of French élan over the years, from the Renault R5 Turbo to the rally-bred Peugeot 205 T16, but France has generally put elegance first.
And they’ve also managed to bake charm, character, and comfort into cars that the common man can afford. The machine that would probably do best on our shores right out of the gate is the happy little Citroën Cactus, a modestly-sized crossover with an interesting exterior design and doubled-up hydraulic dampers to allow very soft springs to be fitted.
Imagine it. You fly into Montreal and pull up your phone to book a car to putter around for the weekend. Your choices are a firm-riding BMW, a choppy but zippy Smart, or a funky little French car that could drive through a bomb crater without even noticing it. Have you seen the state of the roads in Montreal? Citroën it is.
Life is not a car commercial. It is not a world of empty, perfect roads, billiard-table smooth and unencumbered by speed limits. Our commutes are nasty, brutish, and long. But the French have figured out how not to let the needs of toil squeeze the joy from their lives.
Besides which, it’s Friday, so grab your keys. In France the weekend starts early and ends late: there’s just so much living to do.