My ears are ringing, my clothes ingrained with soot, and the smell of petrol wafting through the air is so strong it is almost giving me a headache. Such is the overload I can barely decide whether I’d prefer a coffee or a tea, let alone begin to process what I have just witnessed. I think my tour guide may have just vaulted a barrier, got into a dusty old rally car, fired up the engine and revved the life out of it for five minutes. Indoors. In a museum.
The fibreglass tailgate slams shut with a flimsy rattle that resonates through the giant room. I am instructed to come closer. “Pierre told me this was his favourite version, because of this wheel arch here”, proclaims the guide, rapping the brilliant red bodywork with his knuckles. “It was wide enough to put a bottle of wine and a glass on to celebrate when he won”. Somehow energised by gunning the engine for several minutes, the guide is talking at double speed. “You know we entered forty-two rallies with this car? We won thirty-six, and this guy won twenty-five of them himself. I think if we raced this car today it would beat all the modern cars competing, because back then the rules were really free, we could do whatever we wanted”.
There are not many museums in the world where one can start the cars at liberty, and have a guide at your disposal who is on first name terms with top racing drivers. But the place I’m at isn’t really a museum. The rally in question is the Paris-Dakar Rally, the ‘Pierre’ to whom the guide is referring is triple Dakar winner Pierre Lartigue, and the favourite version we are leaning on is the final evolution of Citroën’s ZX rally raid monster. The setting for this little episode is the Citroën Conservatoire, a giant private warehouse packed bumper to bumper with more than four hundred cars from the Paris car maker’s history. And on this sunny Monday afternoon, the whole garage is mine and mine alone to explore.
The Citroën Conservatoire is private in the sense that one cannot just turn up and walk around. Viewing is by appointment only. Tucked away in a sparsely-populated Parisian suburb, the Conservatoire’s mission is to preserve the history of one of the world’s most famous car manufacturers. A core staff of only five is responsible for looking after the entire fleet, turning their tools to everything from original 5 CVs that need to be started with a crank, to Xsara World Rally Cars that could go out and win a national rally tomorrow. When I arrive, a beaten-up matt green C25 van from the eighties is being unloaded off the back of a transporter into a yard behind the building, testimony to the Conservatoire team’s tireless quest to keep alive every aspect of Citroën’s history.
I am ushered in through a pair of one-way glass doors, and welcomed by Conservatoire manager Martine Darblade. My schoolboy French is stretched to the absolute limits as I introduce myself and thank Martine for arranging the visit. Such is my excitement that I don’t even realise a Japanese word has popped out mid-sentence in among all the French, leading to an awkward moment of confusion at the end of my speech turn until I realise my linguistic laxness. A few minutes later, my guide for the afternoon pulls up in the car park in a smart new C5 estate. His name is Denis Huile, and he has come across town from Citroën’s Historical Heritage division. Tall, thin and wearing a deep blue tie so narrow its breadth should be measured in millimeters, Monsieur Huile personifies the precision and attention to detail that underpins the entire Conservatoire collection. A wait follows whilst Denis tends to some urgent admin tasks, but eventually I hear the words I have been waiting for since the alarm clock went off at half past three that morning: okay, let’s go inside.
Everything hits me at once. The mixed aroma of rubber, oil, paint and petrol that comes only from a high density of cars in an enclosed space. The complete lack of any sound other than Denis’ lightly-accented English narrating Citroën’s beginnings. And the sight of row upon row upon row of perfectly protected vehicles, each and every one of them bearing the double chevron logo. There is no time to be overwhelmed by the occasion, though. Denis is already striding towards the closest corner of the museum, where the oldest cars are kept. 5 CVs, 8 CVs, Rosalies, C6s, Traction Avants. Each and every one of them showing gradual progression towards what we would recognise as the modern motor car, with bigger engines, more comfortable interiors and more technological sophistication.
Every single car I see warrants a whole feature of its own. Such is the depth of history in this four-acre warehouse, and such is the level of Denis’ knowledge about each vehicle’s provenance, that one could write an entire book on the collection. The penny quickly drops that I could spend my entire time here just writing down what Denis says, so I put the notebook away and resolve to make my notes later. Facts can be retrieved on the internet and by email correspondence. The atmosphere of each vehicle – gained by looking, touching, listening and smelling – cannot. As it happens, when I get back to the hotel that night I type up everything I can remember, and hit five pages.
Three ramshackle grey vehicles mark our first elongated stopping point. They lean in all different directions, wheels poking out from under rusty corrugated bodywork at crazy angles and windscreens coated in dust. One of them has a period pigeon poo encrusted onto the canvas roof. Denis wheels out a television and inserts a DVD. Set to music that sounds like the training montage from Rocky IV, I watch the same three cars being painstakingly extracted from the roof of a dilapidated French barn. Just as the film is about to explain how exactly the cars got there, the DVD grinds to a blocky halt. “Everything is old in here, even our video player”, states M. Huile with a poker face, before eventually letting out the faintest of chuckles.
If the trio of cars in front of me look a bit like an agricultural interpretation of a 2CV, it’s because they are. Together they make up sixty percent of the entire surviving global population of Citroën TPVs (Toute Petite Voiture), the pre-war forerunner for the iconic 2CV. A further twenty percent of the fleet stands behind me, immaculately restored. The concours car is beautiful, but it’s the three filthy cars that have the real history. Prototypes for a low-cost people’s car to get agrarian France moving, Citroën’s management ordered the TPV cars to be hidden following the Nazi invasion of France lest they be misappropriated for military purposes. These three were exhumed post-war and used as working vehicles, before a canny villager stashed them in the eaves of a barn to prevent anyone cashing in on the 2CV’s skyrocketing popularity. There they remained until 1994, when the film of their extraction through a snow-covered roof was shot.
I poke my head into one of the TPV’s dingy interiors, and rapidly remove it on account of the fact the cabin smells like a bag of mouldy bread. Dirt, it seems, is a big theme of the Conservatoire. I half expected every vehicle to be restored to perfection, to have to wear white gloves every time I went within five metres of an exhibit. Yet Citroën seem to realise the value of patina. There are flawless cars, for sure, but there are also plenty that wear their dings, scrapes and bashes as certificates of authenticity.
The weary DS in the next aisle is a case in point. “This”, Denis explains with more than a hint of pride in his voice, “this is the oldest DS we know that exists”. Years of work as a rally reporter have taught me many words that can be used to describe the condition of this particular model, and none of them can be repeated in polite company. The Citroën DS is my favourite car of all time, and I languish in this section of the Conservatoire for many minutes, trying seats, gazing under bonnets, photographing headlights. But of all the utterly gorgeous examples of the Goddess in the Conservatoire, it is this dull cream DS19, with its crumpled number plate and flaky paint, that sticks in my mind’s eye most clearly.
Perhaps the most historically significant car in the collection is the DS limousine that acted as the personal transport for both de Gaulle and Pompidou. This is not the car from Day of the Jackal that saved de Gaulle’s life – that was a standard DS – but rather a ceremonial vehicle used mainly within Paris. Due to the huge costs involved in making a beast like this and the fact that it was, whisper it, not bulletproof, only one was ever produced. When the French government wanted rid of it in the 1970s a private collector bought it, later entrusting it to the Conservatoire for maintenance and safekeeping. I do the obligatory ‘sit in de Gaulle’s seat’ routine, and briefly contemplate a power nap. It is only when I review my photos the next day that I notice the ominous red button next to the President’s electric window controls.
The story of Citroën is of course not one of unmitigated success, and the Conservatoire’s collection reflects this. The shelves at the side of the warehouse carry aerodynamic models for the abortive Project F, the family car project that brought Citroën to its knees in the 1960s and set the seeds for the merger with Peugeot. The last modern C6 produced sits sadly by a pillar, its odometer carrying only the mileage it took to drive out the factory and across the car park on a winter’s afternoon in 2012. And as a reminder that Citroën hasn’t always been dominant in rally driving, there is a solitary Group B BX4TC, a cross-eyed – but nonetheless fascinating – pig of a car from the same era of rallying that gave the world such icons as the Audi Quattro S1 and Peugeot 205 T16. The 4TC rally version is covered in flecks of dirt, its windows crudely held in place with what looks like bath sealant. A giant tarpaulin is crumpled in the passenger footwell. “We had not enough money, and made a mistake to go with a front-engine design when all the winning cars had the engine at the back”, admits Denis frankly, a little bewildered at my enthusiasm for this rarest of rare rally cars. “But cars like this are still part of our history, we cannot ignore the fact we made them”.
It takes us nigh on three hours to navigate our way round the collection. I see the rally raid ZXs that dominated off-road racing in the 1990s, my guide taking great pleasure in starting up their turbocharged engines. I see the World Rally Championship Xsaras that made Sebastien Loeb one of the all-time motor sport greats. And I see the everyday estate cars, hatchbacks and vans that have played their part in helping France and Europe move around at reasonable cost and great comfort over the last fifty years. If my equally nerdy friends were with me, it would be at this point of the day they would ask me: if you could choose one of these cars, just one, which one would it be? That, unsurprisingly, is a question I would not be able to answer.
Or perhaps I would. Because, when Denis leaves me for half an hour to take photos and walk around while he replies to emails, there is one car I seem to hover around more than all the others: the SM Proto Michelin. With its set-square design, and red and yellow panels separated by black trim, it looks not dissimilar to a Mondrian on wheels. It is a beefed-up version of the Maserati-engined SM coupe, with lowered suspension, widened wheelarches and a sawn-off rear end, conceived in the early 1970s to allow tyre giant Michelin to test their latest products at high speeds. A major motor sport competitor doing a private test with a tyre manufacturer, fancy that.
The Proto Michelin is how a Citroën racing car would appear if it were drawn in a Japanese manga, which is perhaps why it appeals to me so much. The quintessentially French yellow headlamps are there, hiding behind the big sloping lamp covers. So too are the comfortable Citroën seats, albeit with race harnesses forced through them. But the oversized exhaust pipes stick out at an angle that would set fire to any grass either side of the track, and the bolted-on front splitter looks designed to sweep aside anything that may impede the SM’s progress. Yes, the SM Proto Michelin will be the car I take up the hill at Goodwood when I am a famous racing driver.
My final moments in the Conservatoire are filled with the sensation one gets when the time comes to get out of a really nice hot bath. The feeling of making sure you really savour the last few moments, that you soak it all in, clear your mind, don’t let your parting memories be clouded by anything else. With the cars being parked so close together, taking good photographs has been a real struggle, and I worry I won’t recall everything as a result. But remembering my father’s belief that doing a drawing will produce far deeper memories than taking a photo, I put the camera and notebook away for the final walkround, and vow to write quickly and copiously about what I have seen afterwards.
“Admittedly it is only recently that Citroën has started to take its history seriously, and although the Conservatoire is a big step forward our staff is still small”, Denis tells me as we sip espressos from tiny plastic cups in the foyer. “But for these emerging markets like China, the brand history is important. The consumers in those countries have more and more money to spend, and they want to buy into a brand with a story”. It is not surprising to find that Citroën’s renewed interest in its history is intrinsically linked to a desire to protect its future. Whether it’s providing inspiration for the team designing the next product, setting up a display for a new showroom in an emerging market, or helping journalists produce a feature on a historic model, the Conservatoire is charged with telling the world that Citroën is a cool brand. If they are able to use just some of the raw material I’ve seen over the last three hours in doing so, it shouldn’t be a hard sell.
Note: the overview of the cars themselves here has been by necessity brief. In order to do justice to some of the amazing things in the Conservatoire, I’m going to write a series of additional articles on some of the different sections focusing on particular cars, or particular makes of car. These will be released over the coming weeks and months, so if there’s something in particular you’d like to hear about, please do let me know.