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Rétromobile Paris classic car show returns to full strength

Words and photography: David Lillywhite

The feeling in the cavernous halls of the Paris Expo is that Rétromobile is well and truly back, after two years of Covid cancellations followed by last year’s understandably half-hearted affair.

This year, the overseas visitors, the top-level cars and the major dealers – which have long created the highlights of the show – have returned in force. The theme for 2023 is, unsurprisingly, 100 years of the Le Mans 24 Hours, with displays dotted around the three halls of some of the race’s most significant cars – from the 1920s to the present day, via such oddball gems at the gas-turbine Howmet TX and the befinned Alpine-Renault A210.

Alpine A210 fronts one of several 100 Years of Le Mans displays.

As in previous years, each of the dealers has pushed hard to outdo the others with the slickest stands and the very best cars. The Fiskens and Girardo & Co. stands, next to each other on one of the main corridors in Hall 1, are the most obvious, with Fiskens themed mostly on 100 years of the Le Mans 24 Hours and Girardo going for an all-Ferrari display.

Every car is a big hitter on both stands, but the stand-outs on the Fiskens stand are the very first Group C Porsche, 956 chassis 001, the Porsche 917K driven by Hailwood and Hobbs in the 1970 Le Mans (and the McQueen Le Mans movie ‘winner’), a 1939 Talbot T26 GS that raced at Le Mans no fewer than four times, finishing second in 1951, and the ex-Salvadori, Collins, Brooks, Parnell and Moss Aston Martin DB3S that later starred in the film School for Scoundrels. Moving away from the Le Mans theme, Prodrive’s famous 1996 Subaru Impreza WRC97/001 developed with Colin McRae represents the ultimate modern classic.

Girardo’s Ferrari 512S.

On the Girardo & Co. stand, the centrepiece of the 13 Ferraris is another star of the McQueen Le Mans movie, the ex-Surtees and Ickx 1970 512S. It was a works entrant in the Daytona 24 Hours and 1000km di Monza in 1970, and was also used as a factory test and development car. Highlights alongside the 512S are a four-owner 1959 250GT LWB California Spyder, a 1979 512BB/LM that entered Le Mans in 1979 and ’80, as well as the 1979 Daytona 24 Hours, and a 1959 250GT LWB Berlinetta Tour de France.

On the next row over, the Kidston SA stand is less in your face but the classiest of the show. An ‘Esposizione Automobilistica’ background highlights the star car, the 1938 Alfa Romeo 8C 2900 by Touring, on a plinth with Ferrari 250GTs at either end. Others on the stand include two Frua-Bodied Maserati 5000GTs either end of a Ferrari Superfast 500, along with an utterly sublime Alfa Romeo 1900 SS Zagato that finished 19th in the 1955 Mille Miglia, making it the first Alfa to cross the finishing line in Brescia.

Alfa Romeo 1900 SS Zagato on Kidston stand.

In its traditional position on the far edge of Hall 1, the Lukas Hüni stand quietly shows off some the most thoroughbred cars of the show, including probably the most significant Bentley 8 Litre ever made. The one-off Vanden Plas commissioned by Woolf Barnato was considered by WO Bentley to be “the best driver he ever had”. Other highlights, of many, include a 1932 Alfa Romeo 8C 2300 Brianza Spider and a Lamborghini Miura 400 S in unusual ‘Luci de Bosco’ chocolate brown.

Woolf Barnato Bentley 8 Litre Vanden Plas.

Next to Lukas Hüni is Luxembourg-based dealer Art & Revs, which has important recent-era Le Mans cars on display, including Audi R10 and R18 LMP1 machines, the 1991 Jaguar XJR14 resplendent in purple Silk Cut livery and the famously thunderous ORECA Playstation Viper, accompanied by its 2002 Le Mans driver Benoît Tréluyer.

These are the most eye-catching of the dealer stands, although there are plenty more gems, including Christoph Grohe’s wonderful barnfind 1956 Maserati A6G and 1932 Vanvooren-bodied 1932 Delage D8 and William I’Anson’s storied Lister Jaguar and Bugatti Type 35. Watchmaker Richard Mille’s stand is, as always, perfectly set out with a selection of the company founder’s collection, and Motul Oils is showing off a neat little 1953 Bouvot-Caron barquette in a mock-garage setting.

Richard Mille stand.

Auction company Osenat is previewing its boats sale with a neat 1959 Alfa-powered speedboat; nearby fellow French auctioneer Agutttes has the 2013 Le Mans art car on display, covered in bits of old metal road signs – opposite the significantly lighter Oak Racing Morgan LMP2 it inspired on the Ascott Collection stand, accompanied by its creator, artist Fernando Costa.

Renault 5 and new R5 3E E-Tech concept.

Citroën, Renault and Peugeot have always been strong supporters of their home show, and this year is no exception, with strong displays from all. Renault is especially strong, with a colourful celebration of 25 years of the Twingo and a line-up of modified classics and current concepts, of which the lovely little bright-green Renault 5 alongside the R5 3E E-Tech concept are our highlights. Citroën’s most interesting exhibit is arguably its shabbiest – an SM prototype, resplendent in red and yellow with Modsports-style extended wheelarches.

Citroën SM prototype.

All this, and much more, in Hall 1 alone. Upstairs, on the walkway into the next halls, is Van Life, packed with a wild assortment of campers, leading to more Le Mans cars and then the huge Artcurial auction display, with more than 200 cars of every shape, size and condition. A Ferrari 250LM is the lead car, but a barnfind-condition 1939 Rosengart LR539 and a kit of Bugatti parts are the stand-out for us. More on Artcurial along with the Bonhams and RM Sotheby’s sales next week, once all results are in – although the latter has already made headlines with the highest price achieved for any new car.

The final halls are for the clubs and private cars for sale, with the standard of displays having raised a notch once again – and how enjoyably French it is to see the club members on the stand tucking into cheese and baguettes washed down with red wine from late morning onwards. Five-and-a-half days on the stand, with two 10pm finishes, will surely fly by…

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