NPF: FRENCH CONNECTION

Posted in No Politics Friday on February 13th, 2015 by Ed

Chassis. Coupe. Grille. Limousine. Chauffeur. Carburetor. Garage. Piston. Marque. Automobile. Ever wonder why so many of terms from the automotive world are of French origin?

The vast majority of the early mechanical innovations that made modern cars possible were German. Rudolf Diesel and Karl Benz developed the practical internal combustion engines and rudimentary drivetrains (roller chains, transmissions, etc) that, uh, paved the way (sorry) for the auto industry to develop. Americans like William Durant, Henry Ford, and other now-forgotten early pioneers in the industry are generally credited with advancements to the process of building cars more than of cars themselves; Ford's legendary Model T was, even by contemporary standards, a brutally primitive vehicle. Advances in the flair and styling of automobiles are largely due to the efforts of Italian (and some French) coachbuilders in the 1920s and 1930s.

So why all the French words? German makes more sense, since the automotive systems themselves were mostly invented and advanced there.

The simplest answer is that in the very early days of the industry – from 1890 to around 1910 – French companies dominated the production of cars in Europe. They may not have been coming up with many technological breakthroughs, but they did a better job initially of translating the German innovations into finished products. Armand Peugeot, for example, founded the eponymous company in 1890 making simple but functional cars with German Daimler-Benz engines. The Renault brothers did the same in 1898. Other now-forgotten marques that produced popular cars in the early years included Bollee (a locomotive manufacturer), Delahaye, Hotchkiss (founded by an American expatriate), Voisin, De Dion, and Bugatti (the name of which has been resurrected and is often but incorrectly thought to be Italian).

Unfortunately for France, while its companies may have gotten into the game first the products of those early manufacturers were superseded fairly quickly by British (Rolls-Royce), German (Daimler and later Mercedes-Benz), and Italian carmakers. For example, the much publicized 1907 Beijing-to-Paris auto rally was dominated by an Italia and a Spyker (Dutch) despite being sponsored and heavily hyped by French newspapers. The only part of the French auto industry that impressed anyone, in fact, was a tire company founded by a guy named Andre Michelin.

Since Renault pulled out of the US in 1987 – swallowed up first by American Motors and then Nissan – there have been no French cars brands sold here. If older Americans have any memory of brands like Renault, Peugeot, and Citroen it is unlikely that they were positive. The standard joke is that French cars combined the very worst of everything Europe had to offer: Italian quality (which is to say "terrible"), Eastern European styling, and German pricing. No one who laid eyes upon Renault's "Le Car" or drove Peugeot's somewhat attractive but legendarily ramshackle 405 Sedan would suggest a great American yearning for the return of French brands to our shores. The less said about Franco-American monstrosities like the Renault Alliance the better.

Being an early adopter does not guarantee success, but in the case of the auto industry it does guarantee strong representation in the glossary of industry-specific terminology.