12 September 2008

A Season in Quatrelle

La Belle Quatrelle

The sale of my mother’s 1957 Chevy was one of the signal traumas of my early childhood. As the deal was concluded, and the “Shibby” traded in for some other vehicle since forgotten, I had a meltdown. This provoked bafflement in my parents and consternation among the sales staff. By way of explanation, I managed to wail, “There goes the only car I ever loved!”

It remains to be proven whether the loss of the Chevy coincided with the brief run of the television series My Mother the Car. Television had a habit of putting ideas in my head in those days, rather than eliminating them, as it does now. Yet neither television nor Freudian psychology can explain to my satisfaction the love I felt.

I find that car aficionados have little trouble understanding my early passion for the Chevy: its graceful, characterful lines; its powerful, smooth ride (at least at the beginning). The rest of you may have to work to imagine the pleasure offered by the Chevy, none greater than that of getting trundled, at age two and three, onto the broad, belt-free front seat in the certain idea that we were going somewhere. Every trip was an adventure, and the fact that my mother would be arrested if she attempted today to transport a pre-schooler this way had nothing to do with the fun.

In all the years since, I have managed to avoid falling in love with any other car.

This 57 Chevy is actually quite a bit nicer than my mother’s,
but it’s the right color.

Even the Banana, a yellow Dodge Colt station wagon that served as my high-school chariot, never vied with the Chevy for my affections. Possibly because it was impossible to be cool, difficult to be popular, and a challenge to get laid, behind the wheel of an economy station wagon. These things matter when you’re 17; they may explain why my parents chose the car for me. It was like a chaperone or a chastity belt. My college graduation present, a Ford Torino sedan previously belonging to my grandparents, might have proved a mighty rival to the Chevy had I spent more time with it. But in those days, chop-shopping was Rhode Island’s principal industry, and the Torino was stolen from a Brown University parking lot shortly after I took possession of it. I never saw it again. The police said there wasn’t much left of it, in any case, and they would know.

During my years in France, I’ve come to believe that, if only I had a Citroën 2CV, I might fall in love again. Popularly known as a Deux Chevaux (Two Horses), this model hasn’t got the mystique of its more glamorous compatriots, like the still-futuristic Citroën DS (Déesse, or Goddess), but it’s friendlier, eminently approachable, almost huggable. It’s like a Charles Trenet song on wheels.

The early Deux Chevaux boasted all kinds of exciting features that promised hours of wholesome fun, like Tinker Toys or Playmobil sets, including convertible roofs that functioned much like a window shade, and removable seats that provided comfortable outdoor sofas at picnics or at student uprisings and other sporting events. Some French people could take apart an entire 2CV and put it together again in minutes. I believe this was in fact the “talent” display of a winning Miss France, several years ago.

There’s a legend that, when the Disney Studios were developing The Love Bug, in the 1960s, the Deux Chevaux nearly won the leading role, instead of the Volkswagen Beetle. (I doubt this: for one thing, Deux Chevaux don’t float, as Herbie must, and for another, The Love Horses is not a title that suggests family entertainment, nor even family planning.) However, it’s provably true that in the wonderful French animated movie, The Triplets of Belleville, even the limousines of the French Mafia are caricatured Deux Chevaux, with longer, more menacing bonnets.

A Trenet song on wheels

Citroën stopped making the 2CV several years ago, although one still sees them on the streets, and there are restoration firms that specialize in them, and devoted fan clubs all over the country. I’m sorry to say, however, that no one I know owns one, and I’ve never driven one. Since the Deux Chevaux is reputedly incapable of reaching speeds greater than 50 mph., which is the extreme limit of my comfort zone, I might even learn to drive a stick shift, just for the chance to putter around France in such style.

For the past several years, Bernard has been the proud owner of a Renault 4 GTL (shortened to 4L and turned into a single word in French, Quatrelle), a tiny, off-white station wagon whose charms were not immediately apparent to my 2CV-bedazzled eyes. Over time, I’ve grown to admire her frank homeliness and her indomitable character.

Like all cars in French, the Quatrelle is feminine, but she is no goddess. No, she’s more comparable to Félicité, the housemaid heroine of Flaubert’s A Simple Heart: as simple-minded as she is simple-hearted; a bit eccentric, if not mad, and yet tireless in her devotion.

She has no air conditioner, and her windows slide open by diligent shoving only to about five centimeters, insufficient to admit even tiny whispers of air; she is stuffy even in springtime, and intolerable in summer. But her heater works admirably in the coldest weather, if you give her enough time — generally about five minutes longer than the trip you have undertaken. She has no radio, which is a pity, but she does her best to make up for lapses in the conversation with her rackety engine, a kind of orchestra unto itself, and the plaintive honking of her horn inspires mainly pity in geese. The noise doesn’t matter, though, if you have ever sat inside her when someone shut one of her doors, for in that case you are deaf already.

Parked is now her top speed, most days.

There’s hardly an item available at Ikea that hasn’t been crammed into her or strapped onto her sagging roof at one time or other, then dragged up the six flights of stairs to the apartment in Paris. She has transported many of our friends on these adventures, though never very many at a single time: though she’s got a back seat, it does not accommodate more than one adult, who has to sit sideways, feet before him as if on a chaise longue, because both the front seats must be pushed all the way back to accommodate the driver and front passenger. When the Quatrelle is a station wagon, the back seat must be folded down, and at these times the ride in the back is not one that I recommend to anyone. There is no seat anywhere in the Quatrelle that is not guaranteed to induce sciatica after about 15 kilometers.

Somehow, she has driven us to Royan and back many times, in blithe defiance of her own limitations; she has sailed deep into Normandy and Brittany, and Heaven knows where else. Bernard bought her, well-used already, from his cousins in the Jura, and upon a return to her old haunts, a couple of years ago, she zipped along the winding mountain roads with something like her old vigor. For my birthday this year, we returned to Normandy.

She never could compete on the French highways, and had to stick to back roads; as a result, I’ve seen some of the odder corners in the Hexagon, strange little backwaters and forgotten châteaux, secluded nooks and ghost towns. Since the Jura, she’s been unable to take the strain of long journeys. Nevertheless, Bernard continued to drive her back and forth between Beynes and Plaisir. Yet even when she is ailing, the Quatrelle does not protest, no matter the cargo, no matter the journey. If she cannot go the distance, she simply stops, for she is staunch.

I am — dare I say it — very close to falling in love with her. There’s a little thrill any time I see any Quatrelle now, because I am reminded of her. It’s a bit like Groucho’s self-defense in A Night at the Opera: “Do you know why I was sitting with that other woman? Because she reminded me of you.”

But her time is coming to an end. The garage mechanic reported on Friday that her chassis is corroded. From my limited comprehension of French automotive vocabulary (and my English is no great shakes, either), I gather that one of her axles may be near the breaking point. Driving far or fast, even if her engine could handle such a thing, would risk the loss of a wheel. Bernard is unsure whether she could make it as far as the city dump, on the far side of town, only a couple of kilometers away: this, just as the autumn raking season begins.

As I say, I’ve never learned to drive a stick shift. I may need to do so now, just to take the Quatrelle for a single spin around the municipal parking of Beynes, before she goes to her reward. I will drive her slowly, not out of fear but out of respect — and gratitude — and enduring affection.

Maybe my next car will be a Déesse.