Rétromobile ‘23 Redux

Paris expo had everything a car enthusiast could want – and great food to boot

For five days each year, the Paris Expo Porte de Versailles exhibition center is turned into a large temporary museum. The occasion is the annual Salon Rétromobile, which was held for the 47th time this year. Spread over a vast exhibition area, the show caters to all the classic car enthusiast’s needs with an eclectic mix of collector cars, parts, books, and art. After a couple of difficult years due to COVID, Rétromobile bounced back in 2023, attracting the second highest attendance ever with more than one hundred thousand visitors coming to the expo from all over the world.

The traditional kick-off of the classic car season, the Rétromobile show attracts a wide variety of exhibitors. What they have on display is what makes the show so appealing as exhibitor Xavier Micheron of the Ascott Collection notes: “It is many things together because we see the main dealers with fantastic cars, which are very rare and valuable. There is a mix of road and racing cars. There are also major manufacturers like Porsche, Peugeot, and Renault. You can also buy parts and toys and there is also a kind of village with art.” Micheron continues: “If you are passionate about classic cars, there is everything you want to see.”

The Saleen, Corvette, and Viper all won the GT1 category at Le Mans.

As classic car dealer and longtime Rétromobile exhibitor Gregor Fisken explains, the visitors did not just come to see the stands but also each other: “I think that what makes Rétromobile so special is people; it is a people show. And I think the one thing that is clear to me after having an absence is that we are part of an international community.” It is a sentiment echoed by collector Chris MacAllister who travelled to Paris from Indianapolis just for the show: “I can chat with multiple friends and acquaintances there, meet new people and make new friends. The old car world is so vast and there are more people from the Old World at Rétromobile than at any event in America.”

One of the main themes of this year’s Rétromobile was the centenary edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans due to be held in June. Event organizer the Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO) had a separate stand where the special centenary trophy was displayed. This is due to be awarded to winners in June and has been making the rounds. Across the aisle, the Peter Auto organization had their stand where the details of the upcoming Le Mans Classic were announced. This event is usually only held on even years but especially for the centenary celebrations an additional edition is scheduled during the first weekend of July.

The Lukas Hüni stand with a Maserati 250F and a nice selection of Lancias in the background.

There also was a much larger display dedicated to French cars that raced at Le Mans. Many of the great names were represented with an early Lorraine Dietrich, an Alpine, a Matra, two Peugeots, a pair of Pescarolos and the very last car produced by Gérard Welter that was raced at Le Mans. The third display dedicated to the Le Mans centenary showcased the technological advances that were inspired by the legendary endurance race. Four cars were displayed, starting with the Tracta that debuted front-wheel drive at Le Mans. Next up were the turbine-engined Howmet and the 1980 Lola T600, which was the first ground-effect Le Mans car. The fourth car was a current experimental hydrogen racer, which should compete at Le Mans in the coming years.

Throughout the rest of the show, the Le Mans centenary was also marked, including on the stand of Fisken: “There is a wonderful French theme that goes through the whole show, and I think it brings a certain style to the whole thing. If we look back in history, France was there from the start of the automobile. I think it is very appropriate that we are here, where this community started.” Among the cars he brought out were the iconic Gulf Porsche 917 K that was used in the movie Le Mans, the very first Porsche 956 and a Shelby Cobra with Le Mans history. Another great car on display was the Acura ARX-02a used by Gilles de Ferran for his very last race in 2009. It was painted in Chaparral colors as a tribute to his first team principal Jim Hall. Left untouched since victoriously crossing the line at Laguna Seca, the striking livery comes complete with battle scars.

The striking Fernando Costa artwork on the Morgan LMP2 car.

On the occasion of the ninetieth anniversary of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, French artist Fernando Costa created a special livery used on a Morgan LMP2 car. This very car was offered at Rétromobile by the Ascott Collection. Ascott’s Micheron explains the process of Costa: “Fernando makes a sculpture using small pieces of metal welded together.” Obviously, that would be too heavy for a modern racing car: “It was decided to use a spare chassis to mount all these pieces of metal on. When the sculpture was finished, it was scanned, and a very intricate wrap was made.” He explained that it was little different from earlier art cars by the likes of César. He made the livery on a model, which was then transferred onto the actual racing car by fellow French artist Filip’o’.

The pieces of metal used by Fernando Costa for the Morgan art car were inspired by the signs found all around the circuit, much of which uses public roads. “Fernando’s idea was that the driver not only moved around the circuit but also that the circuit moved around the driver.” Micheron continues: “On the car you find signs of all the major corners and sections of the track like the Dunlop Bridge, the Mulsanne Straight and the Indianapolis corner.” Coincidentally, not only the art car that raced at Le Mans was on display but on the stand of auction house Aguttes the full-size model was also shown complete with original 400 kg artwork by Fernando Costa.

"The French at Le Mans" display with the 2008 WR LMP2

Perhaps it was due to the Le Mans centenary but there were a remarkably large number of (modern) racing cars on display at Rétromobile this year. Among the exceptions were the stand of Kidston, which featured a mighty Alfa Romeo 8C 2900B Touring Berlinetta as its main attraction, and the display of Swiss dealer Lukas Hüni. A fixture at Rétromobile for many years, Hüni brought out a fascinating mix of machinery that ranged from an early Daimler to a Lancia Stratos Group 4 and a freshly restored Aston Martin DB4 GT Zagato. We were particularly taken by the glorious art deco Bucciali TAV 8-32 from 1931. Nicknamed the Fleche d’Or or Golden Arrow, this one-off show car boasts a sophisticated front-wheel drive chassis, a Voisin-sourced sleeve-valve V12 engine and an extremely low Saoutchik body.

Bugatti enthusiasts need not look further than the booth of Jack Braam Ruben’s Fine Automobiles. It featured no fewer than six Type 57s as well as a Type 37 and a Type 43A. Although these are not necessarily the rarest of Bugatti models, each car had a peculiar history, lovely patina and/or a very special feature. Braam Ruben showed us lovely early photography and even a short film of the ex-Le Mans Type 37 where it was fitted with unique aluminium covers on the wire wheels. These had long disappeared but thanks to the pictures, Braam Ruben had been able to recreate these early aero devices. Of the Type 57s, the four-door Galibier stood out. It was one of the very last Type 57s built and it looked a little off. The reason for this that it used the headlights of the train also built by Bugatti during that period. Exactly why, Fine Automobiles’ Philippe Mulders could not say: “Maybe aesthetics, but Bugatti was going through a financially difficult period, so perhaps they used whatever they had lying around.”

One of the show's stars was this Gulf Porsche 917 K from the Steve McQueen movie, Le Mans.

For no reason other than being Ferrari, Ferrari was also a major theme at the show. British dealer Girardo decided to dedicate his entire stand to the Italian sports car manufacturer. The display was split in half with Le Mans cars on one side and road cars on the other. Highlights included the Le Mans winning Prodrive Ferrari 550 Maranello, a 400 Superamerica and a Zagato-bodied 599 Spyder, which Girardo claimed to be the last custom coach-built Ferrari with a manual gearbox. Luxury watch manufacturer and loyal motorsport backer Richard Mille also had a spectacular Ferrari-only display. There were two early Grand Prix cars on display, which included the 500 F2 used by Alberto Ascari to win eleven Grands Prix in 1952 and 1953. This was flanked by an early 250 GTO and the ‘Thin Wall Special’ 375 Grand Prix.

Several major manufacturers also bring their wares to Rétromobile. Some, like Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, use the show to display cars from their vast heritage collection. Porsche, on the other hand, brought out the all-new 911 Dakar and 911 GT3 RS. Across the aisle, Renault celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the iconic Renault 5 with a very early regular production car and the recent R5 Turbo E3 show car. La Regie also looked ahead to a possible future by displaying several classic models retrofitted with an electric motor. Peugeot and Citroën are also regular exhibitors, and the latter brought a crowd pleaser in the form of a 2CV-inspired horse cart concept that could have been used by the cartoon character, Asterix. In good Citroën tradition, it was equipped with a sophisticated and comfortable suspension.

Automotive royalty with aluminium Ferrari 250 GT California and a Touring-bodied Alfa Romeo 8C 2900B.

In addition to the show, there were also three major auctions during Rétromobile week. Paris-based company Artcurial was responsible for the official auction, which was held on the show floor. The packed, 227-lot sale saw a turnover of €35.5 million with the results headlined by a Ferrari and two Bugattis from the estate of Dutch collector Bart Rosman. Earlier in the week, RM Sotheby’s set a new world record for a new car sold at auction with the one-off Bugatti Chiron Profilée that found its first private owner for €9.8 million. The sale totaled close to €50 million. In a striking temporary structure with the Eiffel Tower visible from the sales room, Bonhams also held their Grandes Marques du Monde a Paris sale. The €28.6 million auction saw the unique “Chambas” coupe-bodied Talbot Lago T26 GS lead the way. The veteran of the first five post-War Le Mans races sold for €2.2 million.

Underlined by the remarkable visitor numbers, things were very much back to normal at Rétromobile this year. “The new normal,” Fisken noted, “is perhaps even better than the old normal.” Immediately after the show closed, the 2024 dates were announced, allowing all hundred thousand-plus attendees to block January 31 to February 4 in their calendar. MacAllister had one more suggestion if any further encouragement is needed: “The food in Paris is also very good.”