French Car Culture in Five Interesting Objects


French Car Culture is unique. Here's five cars that help tell the story of the French Automotive Identity.

We don’t know how to define it. But there’s something distinct about French car culture. It’s encoded in the machinery that is made, designed and consumed in France, too. Here are five objects that put clear water between the culture of French cars and the rest of the world.

Matra René Bonnet Djet

Matra is of course known more for producing elusive, charismatic racing cars than the stuff they did for the road. Let’s face it – the Bagheera was an incredible cult fave and the Rancho a pale impression of the Range Rover wrought in tinny steel. But the little sports two-seater that bore the moniker of the car’s designer is a gorgeous little car that deserves to be remembered more than it actually is. First rolling out into the world in 1962, the Djet (a corruption of the English word ‘jet’), was the first production mid-engined car on the market. It came with disc brakes and independent suspension, too, making an incredibly innovative piece of work. The ‘jet-age’ styling, with that long nose and cowled headlights with just the right amount of chrome detailing, enamoured its looks to a public. It was totally fitting that the french government presented one of these cars to pioneering Soviet Astronaut Yuri Gagarin when he visited France in 1965. This forward thinking tech, attractive, dynamic styling of the car – and the fact that it was gifted to the Soviets at the height of the Cold War make this one of our favourite, if obscure, slices of French Car culture.

The Citroën SM
If the DS was a preternaturally forward-thinking design — the Citroën SM was a sporting version and perhaps the sexiest French car ever produced. 
Chief Citroën pensman Robert Opron was the man responsible for that stunning design. Notice the rear wheel spats; the inverted teardrop shape from above, with the rear wheel track narrower than the splayed front end (like the DS). The interior styling of the SM is one of the high points of the car. There’s the small oval wheel reflected by oval gauges. The manual shifter works via a highly stylised chrome gate. The adjustable bucket seats are comprised of a series of leather rolls. With the collaboration of Maserati, what began as a simple sporting update of the Goddess herself became an altogether other sort of star. The V6 engine out of the Merak was dropped into the SM’s outrageously sweeping front end. It was a 2.6 litre engine with dual overhead camshafts, crossflow cylinder heads and three twin-throated Weber carbs. This produced 170hp – and the car weighed around 1.5 metric tonnes. So, the pull-away was an unspectacular 8.5 seconds – but top end speed was a more impressive 140mph plus. That slippery body and a slick, long-legged gearbox were wholly appropriate here. What was less appropriate was the handling of this thing, which required from the driver a kid-gloved kind of treatment. There was a lightning quick steering ratio and a complete absence of feedback from the road. This meant that you had to pilot the Citroën SM more like a powerful motorboat than a sports car. Though it was in our opinion perhaps the most spectacular European car of its era and market – the SM ultimately fell victim the Oil Crisis of 1973.

Alpine A310
The eighties might not have been a particular high-point for French car culture – and Renault in particular. The panache of the 60s and 70s ran out somewhat – falling victim to economic woes and industrial disruption. Peugeot’s era-defining 205 GTi drew on much more workaday parameters than the cars that defined those previous eras. But the Alpine A310 managed to harness the best elements of former French glories with a distinctly period feel. This short-run series of GT cars straddled the decades nicely. In fact, the very early four cylinder A310s are interesting cars in themselves. In 1976 Robert Opron got hold of the A310, accentuated the styling and fitted it with the 2.6 PRV 6. For us, this Alpine was the perfect way to take French cars into the decade that would be defined by Group B Rally.

Renault Espace F1
We were going to include the straight-up Espace in this list of definitive French vehicles. But if you’re gonna be a monkey, be a gorilla. And there’s something about this brutal silverback that is uniquely French and exquisitely beautiful. For every fetishist of custom van culture – and any parent in need of a hauler with style and power – the Espace F1 will strike a resonant tone. It was created in 1995 by race workshop Matra to commemorate ten years of the groundbreaking people carrier – an anniversary that coincided with a decade of Renault’s ongoing grapple with F1. It was a wicked looking tricked-out, hopped-up dad wagon  – but under the skin it was pure F1 powerhouse. There was a lightweight carbon fibre F1-style chassis – and it even used a carbon fibre-reinforced Espace body. The motor was a 3.5-litre, 40-valve Renault RS5 V10 engine, as used in the 1993 Williams-Renault FW15C. The V10 engine was mounted in the centre of the rear, between the kids’ buckets, and there was a 6-speed semi-automatic gearbox – the same one used in the Williams F1 car. It apparently pulled away in 2.8 seconds, and could leap to 125 mph in under 7 seconds. If the Espace created its own hugely successful niche in family wagons, then this slice of gallic genius married the nation’s flare for motor sport with one of the automotive genre the nation defined.

Peugeot 504 Coupé
Ok. It is a Pininfarina design. And therefore in looks and inspiration, is very Italian. But the fact that the French car enfants terrible Peugeot reached out across the frontier for its most beautiful design makes this car the perfect shining example of trans-European aesthetic and industrial cooperation. The mid-seventies to early eighties version of the 504 is simple in its classic three-box design but really shines. There’s something about the magic ratio of its angles and dimensions that is just perfect. It came with a nice beefy six cylinder engine that meant that it was able to cruise easily at over 100MPH – and the underpinnings of the legendarily resilient 504 were translated into this sleek coupé format. The car had plenty of rally success too – and you can still pick up a decent version of this car for under twenty grand. The perfect youngtimer?