Drive Flashback: The weirdest French cars ever

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Original story by Tony Davis, first published on Drive 14 July, 2012

It’s July 14, so it’s only fitting we do something French.

Our idea of doing something French involved simply writing about significant cars from the land of Prost and Proust.



We could list the best French cars, and there are plenty of impressive candidates, but that wouldn’t be playing to their national strengths, now would it?

What the French do, perhaps better than anyone, is weird. So here’s our list. Gentlemen (and ladies), start your arguments.

Obvious, yes. But beautiful and revolutionary and much else as well. Right down to the brakes, steering and suspension. Weird, as in wonderful.



Equally obvious, and equally elegant in terms of answering a query, in this case: how do you build an ultra-cheap car that can carry four people and a basket of eggs across a freshly ploughed field without any breakages?

The last double-chevron car we have room for. Alas, this boxy sedan, with deep-sea-creature styling details, was weird solely as in weird.

Who thought Panhard would work as a name? The ‘n’ is silent, the ‘h’ isn’t pronounced and the final letter is dropped, leaving very little worth saying.



The 1954 Dyna Z, with its inset eyes, pursed-lips grille and rounded flanks, was strange. Even stranger: the 1948 Panhard-Levassor Coach Dynavia, a streamliner with a central headlight that seemed to be set within a gramophone speaker.

The 2002 model had a curved and upright rear windscreen, something that hadn’t been seen for generations. Nobody else would have dared.

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If the Megane was wonderfully adventurous, this was daftly so. A coupe built around a people-mover body shell, it was described as being ahead of its time (that’s what the name alluded to). If anyone builds it again, it still will be.



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Has anything as refreshingly oddball ever come from a mainstream manufacturer as this reimagining of the electric car and the bubble car?

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Several propeller-driven cars came from France, including the 1932 Helicron, possibly because the French considered themselves the pioneers of aviation. There was usually no shield over the prop; better pedestrians be julienned than aerodynamic efficiency forgone.

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Gabriel Voisin built aeroplanes and bizarre and occasionally stunningly beautiful luxury cars. He also designed the ugly automotive runt known as Biscooter. It made the 2CV look like a limo and was eventually built in Spain, perhaps being too weird even for the French.



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The styling of this polyester-bodied 1960s sportster was avant-garde. The bodywork started low and seemed to fall away at every point. It had a targa roof, too, before Porsche gave the removable panels their name.

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Some radical and fascinating cars wore this badge, including a mid-engined 1927 Streamliner that looked only 5 per cent less like a cockroach than a cockroach did.

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Bugatti built some of the most graceful moving objects ever – and this pre-war, roller-top-desk-nosed race car. It was known as ‘the Tank’, probably generously. Success – and love – eluded it, but it will not be forgotten.

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Okay, not a production car – just a wild flight of fancy by Jean-Pierre Ponthieu, a French engineer apparently known as ‘the Dali of the automobile’. He called it the “car of the year 2000”; others saw it as oh so 1960s (and oh so French). It could swivel into tight spots and rear like a horse.

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