Why You Wouldn’t Want to be French – Part 1

Ask any self-respecting car nut to name the world’s worst car-producing nation, and the answer is almost certainly going to include France in the top three, if not at number one. The French have pulled off the feat of seeing off some strict competition from Eastern Europe – who no longer bother – and the Americans, who are finally Euro-ising their approach. This means building cars that go round corners, fit into sensible sized spaces, and don’t fall apart before you get them home.

The French have managed to stay in the game, whilst consistently producing some shocking lumps of metal who’s build quality, styling and performance are only out-crapped by the names they sport. The thing is, Renault – who are streets ahead in awefulness now Peugeot have stopped employing blind designers – release so many new models (because they all fail to sell and have to be replaced) that the busiest staffers are the ones who have to name the endless parade of mediocre machines.

But it wasn’t always thus. Last week my wife and I went to a classic car show in France in the lovely town of Villefranche-sur-Mer – a busman’s holiday for me, but at least it got me out of the house. What immediately struck me was just how badly things have gone for the French, and to ponder -why? Most of the cars on display were from the 80s – many people’s idea of the automotive purple patch, where cars suddenly got faster, sexier and importantly, better made. Take a snapshot of this moment in time and suddenly its not all about the Germans. As the late 70s turned into the early 80s, Renault had a Gordini version of most of the range, from the R5, the boxy but somehow beautiful 8, the 17, with its louvered rear window and, of course, the stunning rear-engined 5 turbo. They even turbo charged the R18. By the early 80s they were on the second incarnation of the Alpine A110 – the A310, and I defy anyone to show me a machine more appealing to a 10-year-old boy than either of those beauties. Peugeot were setting a new standard for hot hatches with the 205 GTi and even Citroen got in on the act with a sporty Visa and BX.

The Germans, on the other hand, were only just getting going. Chez BMW, the mid 70s 2002 turbo had been a failure, and their earlier attempt at making road-shaped waves with fast track cars – like the 3.0 CSL – did not translate to showroom success, largely because it cost the same as a semi-detached house in Byfleet. Only with the arrival of the E21 323i did BMW show some real idea of their potential, and that was a double-edged sword because if you didn’t spec the slipper option, it was only a question of time before you left the road backwards. Yes, they had the Golf GTi and Porsche 911, but put the two nations side by side and the French were easily ahead.

The French could also claim to have invented motorsport – they certainly ran and controlled all the main international motorsport organisations – and the roll call of F1 drivers and rally champions they produced during the 70s and 80s puts even the Finns to shame. They had the best race tracks, the most famous race events – and the best driving roads in Europe, even if they drove like lunatics and produced the worst crashes (leading to the infamous ‘Black Sundays’ where the government was forced into radical action).

So, how did a nation with cars and motorsport in their blood, sink to such humiliating depths? Twenty years on, the French automotive industry had become a laughing stock. The Germans produced every car that people truly inspired to drive, going on to sweep up the best of everyone else, from Mini and Rolls to Bentley and Bugatti and, er…Skoda. BMW had become a byword for fast driver’s cars and Porsche – well they still had the 911. Today, the most interesting car to come out of France is the new Ami (I’m not sure if you ever saw the original 70s Ami, but I wouldn’t have resurrected that particular name) and that’s only because they actually have the gall to sell it in Darty (the equivalent to Currys) next to the washing machines. That is about as low as you can go.

In fact, there are a few reasons. Each of them taken individually aren’t enough to kill a whole industry – a spirit – and some of them existed elsewhere too. The unions – as in Britain – overstepped their brief and unlike in Germany, where somehow the employers and employees managed to broker a happy middle ground of cooperation, they dragged the companies down around them. Quality – never really a French strong point, let’s be honest – dropped off the bottom of the scale, while the Germans can almost be accused of over-engineering. The government started to get greedy with road fund license and tax on sporty cars, and simultaneously subsidised sales of diesel fuel, encouraging manufacturers to switch focus. But there’s a huge factor that is little known outside France. Finance.

Back in the 80s, Great Britain and most of the other leading economies introduced swathes of financial reforms, opening up the concept of credit to ordinary folk. What had once been a shameful, ‘on the never never’ type thing suddenly became acceptable, and accessible. Think about how many new cars are ‘bought’ today in the UK without finance. Not many.

Unfortunately for our Gallic friends, the French financial sector was, and still is, trapped in 1972. It is against the law for a French person to borrow money, where the total of their monthly repayments comes to more than a third of their net monthly income. Yes, you did read that right. This means that your mortgage repayments, credit card, personal loans, car finance – any credit you may have – can only total one third of your monthly pay, after tax. Now you know why the French drive such terrible cars – and why they keep them for so long. You can imagine why this is unhelpful for the domestic market. Anybody who has driven in France in the last two decades can’t have failed to notice the difference in what’s on the road over there, compared to the UK or Germany.

But the last reason I’ll give for the German automotive hegemony is something close to our hearts – the BMW E30. Here was a car that didn’t need shouty decals and turbo stickers – a range that even at the entry level gave superior levels of driver satisfaction. When the E30 came along, everything that came before was done for. The E30 could be bought with no options, meaning it was accessible by drivers who may have considered it slightly out of budget, and it carried with it the symbolic aspirations of a new generation. With amazing build quality, fabulous looks and a classy image, suddenly the French offerings looked almost childish, gaudy – and cheap. Once the M3 came along and cleared up on the track, the die was cast. From there BMW continued to rewrite the rules, and soon Audi would follow suit, Mercedes would buy AMG (and badge pretty well every car as such for a while) and of course VW would conquer the world with the Golf.

Looking back through those rose-tinted spectacles, with the eyes of my 10-year-old self, I still get drawn to those gorgeous 5 turbos and Alpine A110s, but as with all things, you don’t know what you’ve got ‘till its gone. I wonder if we’ll be saying that about BMW in 20 years?

Dan Norris, Straight Six Magazine by BMW Car Club GB (June 2022 issue)