Car city

I knew many things about Alsace before we came, but one thing I didn’t know is that it’s the home of automobile manufacturing in France.

10 years ago the Peugeot factory in Mulhouse (40 minutes down the road) produced its 10 millionth car. Today, it makes the car that we’re driving around in – the Peugeot 2008. But it all started much earlier.

The Mulhouse Peugeot factory only dates from the 60s, but Peugeot has been making cars in Alsace from almost the beginning of automotive history. And of course, its location here on the German-French border has complicated the story. In the late 19thcentury, Alsace was under German rule and so, although the Peugeot factory in this area was geographically close to Alsace, it had to send the Phaetonnet Type 8it produced to the Daimler factory in more central France from where they were then shipped back to Alsace for sale.

This long history of car manufacturing is celebrated at Mulhouse’s flagship museum “cité d’automobile” – Car city – which claims to be the largest car museum in the world.

Knowing Robert’s appreciation of cars – an avid “Wheels Magazine” reader and passionate enthusiast of electric cars – I decided that his visit was the perfect occasion to make the trip downtown and check it out.

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It is immense. A huge hall filled with rows and rows of cars greeted us as we crossed the threshold. They’re mostly a selection of cars that were once ordinary in their day, with just the occasional supercar to spice things up. Robert was delighted to come across his parents’ first family car in the line up – a Peugeot 404.

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His father had been a true Peugeot faithful right up until he was taken from us too soon. I remember him driving us as newly weds from the church to the reception in his burgundy Peugeot. The car’s glossy sheen his reverent acknowledgement of the significance of the day.

The old family chariot of my own family – a Datsun 180b – was not present. This was a French museum after all. But my own father wasn’t far from my thoughts either. How enraptured my mechanical engineer dad would be by these rows and rows of engineering innovations. By the steady evolution from “horseless carriages” that really did look just like a cart lacking a horse, onto the long-bodied roofless numbers with their sweeping wheel arches, right through to the space-aged Martian-like experiments of the 70s aiming for maximum aerodynamics.

The historical motoring through car models seemed to end there, at that era of bellbottoms and big hair. As Robert observed, from the 1980s onwards, cars took on the shape that now characterises almost all vehicles on the road today. Evolution has definitely slowed. But not completely. In the far corner of the hall, like a full-stop to the seemingly endless rows of cars, was a car on a pedestal: the Bugatti Veyron – the world’s fastest car.

It looks like a bullet and goes at 407 km/hour. I watched my own father-child moment taking place as Robert, Silas and Delphine stood mesmerised by the video image of this car reaching top speed. It was of course impressive. But apparently, unsustainable. As we walked away from the display, I overheard Robert telling Silas that after 15 minutes at this speed, the Veyron would explode. But there’s a failsafe, at this speed the car will run out of fuel at 10 minutes. Detonation avoided by 5 minutes.

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The cars were beautiful and such a testament to human beings’ scientific skill. But what I was left with at the end of our visit was a mind full of images of the voyages that we take in these cars: the seaside excursions, the family holidays, the trips home from the airport, the first time behind the wheel, a kiss snatched in the backseat. For me, it was these human moments that really populate our car cities.