(Welcome our newest COAL series contributor)
There will be cars sold in America in this series, even a car made in America. But I’m going to start where it started for me, in France, driving French cars.
I got my driver’s license in the early eighties while I was a student– but at that time in France, college kids typically did not need a car (public transportation was ubiquitous, and the campuses were often sitting in the historical center of the cities). If I needed a car, it would simply borrow my parents’ Renault 12, or rent one. I only bought mine when I started working a few years later.
I did not have much money ($14,000 French Francs and no access to credit), but that was OK because I was not looking for a nice car or a chick magnet – I just wanted something practical, reasonably reliable and cheap to insure and maintain – the last two points ruling foreign cars out. With French car makers, my options were pretty limited: I did not want a Simca 1100 (too old of a design, with engines known for being loud and not aging well) or a Citroen 2CV (too slow – and an approach to safety that has always scared me). I did not like the Renaults of that time either (unpleasant engines and very unpleasant gearboxes), and I ended up buying a used Peugeot 104 ZA.
At that time in France, the TVA (sales tax) on cars was 33%, but it was only 17.6% for trucks and delivery vans – whatever the size, and the businesses could deduct it. And a “delivery van” could be any vehicle with two doors, two seats and a hatch door. So every car maker had a small delivery van in its lineup – in fact a small hatchback like the Peugeot 104 or the Renault 5, but deprived of a back seat. Those cars were purchased or leased in huge quantities by businesses for their sales or customer service teams, and were abundant and cheap on the second hand market.
The 104 was available with as a 4 door long wheel base sedan, and as a short wheel base 2 door hatchback (the 104 Z). Delivery vans based on the Z were named “ZA” (“A” for “Affaires”) which means the car I bought was one of those 2 door-2 seats pseudo delivery vans. Nothing sexy about it – I was not going to attract a lot of girls with it. Originally wearing the white and green corporate colors of a yogurt company, it had been resprayed and was by now completely white.
I’ve always thought that the yogurt company also had a few brands of cheese in its portfolio – and that the car had been allocated to a sales rep in charge of pushing a particularly smelly local variety of Munster. The French Munster has nothing in common with what we can find under the same name in the US. Over there, it’s a semi soft and extremely smelly cheese, and the sales guy had obviously used the car as an aging facility for his samples. In 7 years of ownership, I could never get rid of the smell – I never parked the car with the windows fully wound up – the stench would have been unbearable the day after. For whatever reason, the occasional passengers of the car associated the smell with Sauerkraut, and the car was nicknamed “Choucroute”.
“Choucroute” had another odd characteristic – the hatch door of all the 104 Zs (not only mine, all of them) had a tendency to rust, and mine was disintegrating so badly that it became a tradition for my occasional passengers to leave with a rusty bit of the hatch door, as a souvenir.
Apart from that, it was a good car. It was spartan and underpowered, but technically modern (good all aluminum engine with a single overhead cam, good gearbox, good road manners) and much more pleasant to drive than anything I could have bought from Renault or Simca for the same price. After I moved to Paris, I did not use it much, primarily to go back in my home town and pay a visit to my parents, or to the Alps (I was learning how to fly hang gliders at that time, and Paris is not an ideal place for this type of sport). Over time, Choucroute developed a weakness in the cylinder head gasket, and for a few years the engine was lubricated by a foamy mix of oil and water. But if the cylinder head gasket was weak, the rest of the engine was strong, and I managed to bring the odometer over the 170,000 kms mark. When I got a new job in the Paris suburbs that required the daily use of a car, I took advantage of a cash for clunkers campaign and traded “Choucroute” for my first “nice” car, a recent Citroen AX.