It was the Renault stand that did it for me. Turning the corner within the vast Paris Expo, it stuck out like a beacon of wonder; an array of 13 classic Renaults, including 11 turbocharged cars; all immaculate, of course, and all arrayed perfectly at 45 degrees to the walkways which hemmed in the stand, and parallel with each other.
You rarely see such attention to detail on even a top-tier motorshow stand. Yet it wasn’t just the presentation, but the cars themselves that took the breath away. Behind the RS10 Formula 1 car – the first to win a Grand Prix with a turbo – and its period Estafette support van sat a 1981 Renault 5 Alpine Turbo, gleaming in metallic blue, its later, wide-arched Turbo 2 successor, and the 5 GT Turbo which followed on.
Behind these, an 18 Turbo from 1980, both 9 and 11 Turbos – saloon and hatchback versions of the same car – and incredibly, an as-new 1983 Fuego Turbo. Try finding such a thing anywhere else.
It went on; an extraordinarily rare Safrane Biturbo, a 25 Baccara complete with period cross-spoke alloy wheels, and a 21 Turbo completed the line-up.
It’s cars like these that make Retromobile one of the most special classic car shows in the world. I think it’s the best, actually, and I say that with some conviction, for to get to the Renault stand, I’d already passed Peugeot’s and Citroen’s.
Citroen, in fact, rather than Renault, was the star of this year’s show; it is the company’s centenary this year, and no holds had been barred. Indeed, winding my way back through its celebratory display I was even more spellbound than I had been when I’d had that first, arresting sight of the Renault stand. For here were 10 of Citroen’s past concept cars, including the startling Camargue and stupefying Karin, and the Activa that previewed Citroen’s large car design language for the 10 years or so that succeeded it.
The Talbot Tagora on the Peugeot stand was rather wonderful to see, too, as a celebration of every part of that marque’s heritage – even those which turned out not to be so successful. Of course, Peugeot had brought along a few of its own cars, too, most notably the E-Legend concept, its 504-inspired styling, crushed velour interior and electric powertrain combining the company’s future and past beautifully.
It is this emphatic support from manufacturers, especially those from its home country, that marks out Retromobile as something quite unique; a show, in fact, whose way of doing things might become all the more important as the influence of the traditional motor show wanes. How better to get punters in front of your newer, more prosaic models than by tempting them with gems normally hidden away behind closed doors?
Over on BMW’s stand, for example, alongside a couple of token new models that showgoers could experience for themselves, there sat the incredible BMW 507 Boot. Not a car, but a speedboat, commissioned in-period by BMW itself and built by boat builder Rambeck, complete with the V8 engine, dashboard and steering wheel from a 507, in order to promote BMW’s marine engine department. Ordinary folk like us just don’t get to see stuff like this.
Nor do we get to see the eye-popping collection of Chapron coachbuilt Citroens, all part of the Citro Collection, a private collection containing some of the most sought-after Citroen rarities in the world. It’s no exaggeration to say I had to have a 15-minute sit down on this stand just to take it all in. Seeing just one of these cars would make the any car nerd's brain spasm with joy. How do you process seeing 20 or so of them all gathered in one place?
This is before we even start on the racing cars. A McLaren M7A here; a BMW M1 Procar there; a Lancia Delta S4 around the next turn, and countless other top-flight racers lurking at every corner. Or indeed, the line-up of incredible Minis celebrating the model’s 60th anniversary, which stretched across the glassy walkway linking the two halls.
Of course, sprinkled liberally throughout at Retromobile you’ll find dealer stands galore; this is, after all, primarily a trade show, and while enthusiasts will find plenty of classic Ferraris, Jaguars, Mercedes, Porsches and so on and so forth at which to gawp and marvel, many of them are in fact for sale, with price tags so dizzying as to remain mostly shielded from view. After all, if you have to ask, as the saying goes.
More within reach, perhaps, are the various wares offered by the trade stands; everything you might think of to do with classic motoring is for sale here, from the taillight for a 1954 Panhard to the tweed blazer you might choose to wear while driving it. But most exciting – and perhaps dangerous – of all is the section signposted Expo-Vente Voitures a -€25,000 – cars on show and for sale for less than £22,000, roughly.
A huge tranche of the second display hall at this year’s show was given over to this section, with a variety of exhibits from an Abarth 595s to a Nissan 300ZX; most intriguing of all, though, was a Citroen SM – already snapped up by some lucky buyer, which comes as no surprise given that it was here. A slightly tatty-looking DS on for €11,500 had not yet found a home, however; it was with great effort that I managed to stop myself from enquiring.
This is not a small show – it fills two-and-a-bit exhibition halls, with an entourage of semi-related satellite events dotted around the city – but it’s not so large that you can’t cover it all it has to offer in a day. It’s a friendly one, too. Not only is the air thick with cries of recognition as old friends bump into one another while admiring a classic Aston Martin or grubbing through an autojumble stand, but the event itself feels welcomeing, with plans of the show laid out on walls and floors at every juncture so you can plan your route easily and – a particularly nice touch – a programme to which you can help yourself, gratis, at stands dotted throughout.
What’s more, entry is not expensive, at £17 or so if you book in advance and about £19 on the door. Compared to events like those at Goodwood (the cheapest Saturday ticket for Revival costs four times as much) it feels like impossibly good value.
If you do grow weary from your wandering, you’ll find a couple of seated restaurants and bars within the complex where you can rest your legs with a well-priced bite to eat; better, though, to retire at your leisure to one of the many cafes or bistros that are just a stone’s throw from the main entrance of the Paris Expo. Indeed, taking a few days to 'do' Retromobile means the chance to see not only one of the world’s great classic car events but also one of the world’s great cities.
There are plenty of car shows where you can drool over vintage exotics you simply can’t afford, and some where you can find more humble models you might just be able to. But there are precious few where you can find both. Or, indeed, where you can see manufacturers’ heritage cars that are usually stashed away in warehouses, displayed in all their glory, alongside private collections that can rival them in terms of scope and rarity. No wonder Retromobile is flourishing – and fast becoming a firm favourite on my show calendar. I’d strongly recommend you pay it a visit, too.
Did you visit Retromobile this year? Is it the best classic car show in the world? We want to hear from you in the comments section below.