French car fans rendezvous in NYC for Bastille Day parade

Before New York City really had a chance to wake up this past Sunday morning, a group of cars most Americans would find strange were already lined up across the street from President Ulysses Grant’s tomb. Like the huge mausoleum, the artsy-looking cars were from another time. Unlike the monument, they were from another place—France. Most were Citroëns from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, with a lone, Radwood-worthy early-’90s Peugeot mixed in with a small assortment of Velosolex mopeds.

The gathering was, naturellement, members of the Greater New York Citroën and Velosolex Club, celebrating Bastille Day with a leisurely driving tour through Manhattan. The club has been holding its Bastille Day Rendezvous for 20 years now. But there was a special fête for this year’s event—Citroën’s centenary.

Charles Levit lives nearby, and although he doesn’t own a French car himself, he likes to come out and see the Citroëns every year. Dressed in white trousers and shoes, a light gray blazer and a cream-colored trilby, and carrying a silver-handled black walking stick, he looked as if he could have been strolling the streets of Paris.

“This is a great event to celebrate French culture and its contribution to the automobile industry,” he said as he admired a pair of Citroën 2CVs that looked like they came right off the set of a 1960s Pink Panther film. “They made such beautiful cars.”

Bastille Day Rendezvous
A 1972 Citroën DS parked near Central Park Benjamin Preston

By most reckoning, one of the more stunning vintage French cars is the shapely Citroën DS. When you see one for the first time, there’s no forgetting it—there’s nothing quite like a DS. With its spare, sloping body lines, single-spoke steering wheel and hydraulic suspension system, it has become a symbol of mid-20th century French automotive design.

“I first saw the DS when I was in high school and I fell in love with it,” Joel Gold, who owns a ’71 DS and was driving an ’89 Citroën CX Turbo, said. “I thought it was the most beautiful car in the world—still do.”

David Rogow, who brought his white-roofed blue-green ’72 DS to the Rendezvous, marveled that a car as complex as the DS was, for a time, as common in France as Chevrolets were in America. Rogow bought his first Citroën in the ’90s, when he was living and working in L.A. He saw it at a junkyard and threw down $400 for it. It looked rough, but he liked it that way. He blew up the engine after a couple years of daily driving, but quickly traded it, along with some cash, for the DS he still owns. He no longer drives it every day, though. Parts for the car aren’t so scarce, but he says it has become more difficult to find a mechanic familiar with Citroëns who isn’t backed up with other jobs.

“All old Citroëns should come with a bicycle, because they don’t always make it,” he said.

The moving part of the Bastille Day Rendezvous got rolling a little after 10 a.m. as the cars rolled single-file down Riverside Drive toward Midtown. Riding in front like the avant-garde of the military parade that marches along the Champs-Élysées in Paris on France’s national holiday was a small group of Citroën Traction Avants. The roomy, swoop-fendered 6-cylinder sedans are as French as Charles de Gaulle—apropos as they were the luxury sedan du jour when the legendary general led the Free French Forces during the Nazi occupation of France in the Second World War.

Bastille Day Rendezvous Citroën 2CV
Citroën 2CV Benjamin Preston
Bastille Day Rendezvous
Velosolex mopeds Benjamin Preston

Bastille Day Rendezvous
A collection of Citroëns assembled at the Bastille Day Street fair near the southeast corner of Central Park Benjamin Preston

The summer sun shone bright in a bluebird sky, but the mercury never topped 89 degrees—a minor midsummer miracle in New York City, where temperatures (and humidity) often approach 100 at this time of year. Still, by the first planned stop (in front of the French consulate, whose staff was celebrating the holiday elsewhere) several of the cars were already puking coolant onto the pavement. Many of the Traction Avants had been outfitted with electric fans to prevent them from overheating. But at every stop, a bloom of raised side-hinge hoods signaled the cars’ displeasure with the elevated temperature. Many of the DSs, too, saluted tall buildings with open hoods, heat waves radiating skyward.

The 2CVs didn’t seem to mind the summer air, though. Air-cooled engines that make about 20 horsepower don’t produce much heat. Scott Stegmann, who owns a collection of classic European cars—including an ’85 Renault 5 Turbo 2, an ’86 Lamborghini Countach and an ’87 Ferrari 328 GTS—drove his orange ’66 2CV in the Rendezvous. It’s the sort of car that’s so basic, it doesn’t even have seats with springs and upholstery. The seats in his car consist of embroidered pads suspended from a metal frame by thick rubber bands.

“This car has 18 horsepower, but it gets 60 miles per gallon,” he said. “I can go 62, 63 miles per hour with four passengers. Solo, I can maybe hit 75.”

Many of the Rendezvous participants were French, and for them, owning a car from home is a way to stay connected with their origins. Although the club welcomes all French cars, David Rak drove the only non-Citroën car in the group: a pristine ’92 Peugeot 505 station wagon. He bought the low-mileage car from the estate of a painter who lived on Long Island. Having grown up in France, he has spent the last 10 years living in New York. For him, the Peugeot has been a study in contrasts between European and French automotive regulations. The lights, emissions equipment, and bumpers are all minutely different.

Bastille Day Rendezvous
Citroëns parked in front of Coco Bistro in Lower Manhattan Benjamin Preston

“My dad had a sedan like this,” he said. “I always loved these cars. They remind me of France and owning one is a good way to meet people.”

Alain and Majali Daumas have been living in Princeton for years and have no plans to leave the U.S. But with two daughters to raise, they haven’t turned their backs on their French provenance. They own a black 1955 Traction Avant named Madeleine that they brought with them when they moved from Paris nine years ago. They’ve traveled all over the world in the car, and have a lot of memories.

“When the girls were young, they used to sleep on the floor,” Alain said, gesturing to the wide, flat floor in front of the back seat. “When we moved here, we bought new furniture and we bought new things, but we brought our car with us in the container.”

On Sunday, they were driving a 1951 Traction Avant 15—known as the queen of the road for its more powerful engine. The car rolled smoothly over the pockmarked lunar surface of the FDR Drive on the east side of Manhattan. The Daumases hadn’t planned on buying a second Traction Avant, but when they saw it at a car show in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, recently, they couldn’t resist. Now, it’s part of the family, too, although they haven’t yet named her.

Bastille Day Rendezvous
David Rak's 1992 Peugeot 505 wagon was the only Peugeot to appear at this year's Bastille Day Rendezvous Benjamin Preston

Fortunately, all the cars made it to the final stop along the route—a sun-drenched plaza beneath the Brooklyn Bridge in Lower Manhattan. Lined up in front of Coco Bistro, the cars looked at home in their homes-away-from-home, although not a single one of them had fuzzy dice hanging from their rearview mirrors or miniature models of themselves perched upon their dashboards.

Their owners eschewed lawn chairs perched next to cars in favor cafe seats, where rosé and Sauvignon blanc could be sampled with brie, pâté and olives on toasted baguette slices. With their thoughtfully sculpted Gallic machines catching the last rays of summer sun in front of the bistro’s patio, these aficionados of all things French were the very picture of bon vivants.

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