France may not have invented the automobile but it certainly reinvented it, with Bugatti and Delage defining luxury for the world during the Roaring Twenties.
Glamorous 1920s demanded elegance, and Bugatti and Delage delivered
Many historians see the invention of the motor car as a pivotal moment in history. Not only was it an icon of the industrial age but the mobility it provided also widened the world's horizon, taking people beyond their humble habits on the road to aspiration and adventure.
The car was destined to become the ultimate status symbol of the 20th century: the breadth of bonnet the barometer of social class. If the car was the catalyst for modern civilisation, then France was its cradle. The machine that defined the modern era was not, as you might imagine, a child of the New World but was born in the last bastion of the Ancien Régime.
In the modern era, the French car industry has been defined by compact, often quirky, cars that are popular if not plentiful, on a global scale at least. Despite continued attempts to compete, they remain in the shadow of German marques such as BMW, Audi and Mercedes. France has been left in the slipstream but there was a time when they were in front, setting the pace.
By the late 19th century French engineers had already forged a reputation as automotive pioneers. Indeed, way back in 1769, Nicholas-Joseph Cugnot designed a 3.2kph steam-powered tractor that is claimed by some, many of whom unsurprisingly are French, as the first-ever car. But more than a century later, with the development of the internal combustion engine, they remained at the forefront of invention and innovation. Though the German designers Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Benz are often considered the grandfathers of the industry, it was Frenchman Eduoard Delamare-Deboutteville who made the first fuel-powered car in 1884. And it was a French company, Panhard et Levassor, which introduced the first "model" in 1891. The Systeme Panhard introduced several inventions that provided the basis for car design until the First World War. It was the first to adopt the front-engine, rear-wheel drive platform and featured two other critical breakthroughs: sliding-gear transmission and the Panhard Rod, the basis of modern suspension.
For 20 years from 1895, French companies led the field in car design. Panhard and Levassor were joined by more familiar names such as Armand Peugeot, who made his first petrol-powered car in 1896, and Louis Renault, who joined the bandwagon two years later. In these early years of motoring, cars were exciting, exclusive and ever so expensive. And France led the world, its pioneers living glamorous lives in reward for their glorious inventions. Peugeot and Renault became public figures. They competed for valour, and perhaps vanity, in some of the world's first-ever car races. Panhard took the early honours, winning the first Paris-Bordeaux-Paris rally in 1895, sitting behind the wheel of his car for almost 50 hours. An average speed of 21kph proved enough to win it.
In 1899, the French car industry produced 1,200 cars. At the start of the 20th century, the largest manufacturer in the world was French marque De Dion-Bouton, which made 400. A year later, the industry was reputed to be worth $10.2 million (Dh37.5m) and France led in both car production and export. The pace of technological advancement was breakneck and, by the following year, Peugeot was making race cars that produced 50hp. With almost every model, cars were getting faster, more powerful, easier to drive and more reliable.
It was not until 1906 that France was knocked off production pole position by the US, where, despite a slow start, the rate of production expansion was phenomenal. Although that year the French marque Darracq set the land speed record of 196kph - in Daytona, Florida.
By 1913, Henry Ford's fabled production line saw car assembly revolutionised into mass manufacture. But even in this year, on the eve of the First World War, America's $35m exports were still $10m less than France. Though the US was now leading the market in numbers, France was still setting the standards. As if to prove the point, a Peugeot won the all-American Indianapolis 500 race that year.
Despite French manufacturers studying Henry Ford's production line principles, France never attempted to match US production after the war. Indeed, by 1926, French production of 200,000 vehicles was a fraction of the 4.4 million made in the USA. But this isn't to say that the French golden age was over, they simply chose to focus on quality rather than quantity.
The 1920s was one of the most affluent, exuberant and extravagant decades the world has known and, when it came to style and sophistication, Paris bestrode the world. For French car makers, it was not about who could make the most, but who could make the best. The quest to build the perfect car made artists out of artisans. In the roaring twenties, Paris was the centre of the world in terms of glitz, glamour and gratuitous displays of wealth. It was then, too, that its car industry reached its zenith, when it produced some of the most beguiling and beautiful cars ever made. Artists, intellectuals, sirens and socialites flocked to the cafes and cabarets of Montparnasse and Montmartre.
With price not a limiting factor, French car manufacturers sought to outdo each other for engineering excellence and breathtaking beauty. In such exalted company, it was difficult to stand out from the crowd. But two French cars of this era certainly did, and rank among the most sleek and seductive cars ever made. Delage, like many manufacturers of the era, brought a racing pedigree into the luxury car market. The ultimate incarnation was the Delage D8, a grand, graceful roadster with flowing lines and sculpted bodywork. But the apogee of this most alluring age of the automobile was the incomparable Bugatti Royale. The story of the most expensive and exclusive car ever made began with a jibe. An Englishwoman glibly told Ettore Bugatti over dinner that no car compared in quality to a Rolls-Royce. His pride dented, he designed a car that settled the debate. The Royale was a 21ft limousine, the likes and length of which had never been seen before. If the exterior was vast, then the cabin was the height of luxury, with whalebone dials. All this came at a cost, with the Royale commanding a price of $30,000; in 1928, that would have bought 60 Cadillacs.
In the mid-twenties such excess was commonplace, but the Wall Street Crash in 1929 saw the global economy plummet. Luxury car makers frowned and folded and the industry opted to build more affordable cars. The age of excess was over, and so was the Belle Époque of the French motor industry.