We’ll Always Have Paris

The annual Salon Retromobile dazzles and surprises

The annual Salon Retromobile in Paris is arguably the year’s most important classic car fair. First held in 1976, the five-day event attracts both visitors and exhibitors from around the world to the Paris Expo Porte de Versailles.

This year’s edition brought together more than 1,000 cars and over 600 exhibitors, including most of the leading dealers, enthusiast clubs and major manufacturers. Much of the 800,000 square feet of floor space is reserved for vendors of car-related merchandise, which ranges from anything like rubber window trim or chrome bumpers to models and books. This year, the show attracted 122,000 visitors from around the world.

Traditionally, the real estate available to individual exhibitors is very limited, which naturally encourages anyone hoping to impress the discerning Retromobile visitors to bring only their very best. The compact stands with tall dividers also contribute to the unique Retromobile atmosphere. The maze created by the floor plan makes it impossible to look too far ahead, which means there can be a surprise around every corner – and quite often there is.

Having grown in size considerably during the last couple of years, Retromobile now fills three exposition halls. The main hall features most of the dealers, manufacturers and vendors, the second houses the event’s official auction held by local specialists, Artcurial, and while the third had a large portion dedicated to classic cars with a value of less than $27,000, it also housed a special display of Bertone show cars.

These Bertone show cars were brought by the Automotoclub Storico Italia and represent a selection of fine machinery preserved after the fabled coach-builder and designer went bankrupt a decade ago. Even though the cars on display were one-off show cars, all but one was still fully functional.

This included the Genesis MPV that was based on Lamborghini underpinnings and as such featured a 5.2-litre V12 engine mounted underneath the dashboard.

The corridor connecting the first and second halls was reserved for the other featured marque of the 2020 Retromobile: Tatra. Now in the truck business only, the Czech manufacturer was an engineering pioneer, running air-cooled engines mounted in the rear years before Porsche and Volkswagen did. While these rear-engine Tatras are relatively well known machines, particularly impressive was an early 1920s design that featured a front-mounted flat-four engine that was connected to the rear end through a single tubular member; the front suspension was bolted directly to the engine, making it a fully stressed part of the chassis. Now common practice in single-seater racing, the stressed engine was pioneered by Lotus and Cosworth in 1967 with the DFV engine Type 49.

Many manufacturers have now embraced hybrid and/or electric cars and most are keen to point out that the current generation was certainly not the first. Porsche highlighted this by prominently featuring a recreation of the hybrid Lohner-Porsche Semper Vivus that was built back in 1900. It was shown alongside the new all-electric Taycan. In a similar vain, Peugeot brought an example of the electric VLV micro-car of the early 1940s to mark the introduction of the e-208. On display elsewhere in the first hall was the electric Bugatti Type 56 – reportedly, just six prototypes of this tiny machine were built during the early 1930s.

The Porsche stand also highlighted another trend with manufacturers – catering to the current owners of older models. The German company did so by displaying a partly restored early 911. Aston Martin Works also showed off their capabilities by showcasing a rare DB2 Cabriolet under restoration. Also addressing the needs of their existing customers were Lamborghini Polo Storico and the Fiat Group. The former had an interesting array of spare Miura parts on display that have re-entered production. Similarly, Lancia had a Delta HF Integrale on their display that was fitted with a reproduction bumper that can now be ordered from any Fiat or Mopar dealer.

The exhibitors that really pulled out all the stops are the major dealers, who try hard to upstage their rivals. Among the many highlights brought by the dealers this year were the only privately owned Nissan R390 GT1 racer brought by the Ascott Collection; the very first Ferrari Grand Prix driven by Michael Schumacher, as shown by Girardo; and the Ferrari 275 GTB/C that placed first in class at Le Mans, offered by Fiskens. Another Ferrari that was impossible to miss was the 330 P4 shown by Tradex. One of just three built, it has recently been restored to its original configuration. Arguably the top dealer stand of all was Swiss specialist Lukas Hüni, who dedicated most of a vast display to the 110th anniversary of Alfa Romeo. Among the many models on display were no fewer than half a dozen of the legendary 8C 2300 model. As is often the case with the Hüni stand, most of the cars on display were not for sale.

With Retromobile scheduled at the start of the year, it was no surprise that some companies used it to provide a preview of what is to come in 2020. Among them was French organizer Peter Auto, who will stage the biennial Le Mans Classic in July as their headlining event this year. Auctioneers RM Sotheby’s and Gooding also provided previews of future sales. Salon Retromobile 2020 underlined once again why automobile enthusiasts from around the world come to Paris during the first week of February.