The last, best bastions for French collector cars in North America

by Erin Brookins
12 July 2022 10 min read
Image
Citroen.

For those not from North American enclaves where French influence remains vibrant, the phrase “defiantly French” may require some context. In a continent where English and Spanish largely won the language wars, this shorthand refers to the ongoing struggle to preserve an endangered heritage rooted in French identity. These regions have for centuries successfully fused native and French cultures, culminating in a series of traditions, dialects, and cuisine all their own. Despite having long since relinquished its claims on the North American continent, France’s contributions still represent a vital ingredient to it all. La farine dans le roux. The flour in the roux. 

While these regions have continued to evolve over time, we wondered if a certain joie de vivre still exists in the classic car communities of the former New France (inclusive of lower Québec, northern New Brunswick, and southern Louisiana). Are Montreal and New Orleans still your best bets this side of the Atlantic for spotting the rare North American Citroën 2CV?

French Car Companies take on North America

The first automobile was French. Or at least, the first “self-propelled vehicle.” In 1769, a French military engineer named Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot built his “fardier à vapeur” (or “steam cart”) for the army as a means to transport cannons. This early innovation proved influential, and for most of the 19th and very early 20th centuries the country was an unchallenged leader in the advancement of the car industry: the 1800s in France saw the development of various versions of the internal combustion engine, the first gasoline powered automobile, and the founding of both Peugeot and Renault. By the early 1900s, France produced more cars than the rest of Europe put together, and it wasn’t until 1907 that the industry in the US caught up and began to outpace the much smaller country. 

With such an early advantage, it’s strange that French cars have never been able to make a dent in the enormous Canadian and American car markets, collector or otherwise. It wasn’t for lack of effort, either: Citroën and Renault both made significant drives to reach North American consumers beginning in the late 1940s. While Citroën was ultimately unable to survive the 1960s and ’70s and the phenom that was the Volkswagen Beetle—or the resulting US-produced competitors—Renault managed to persist up through the excess of the mid-1980s. 

The latter brand was arguably the best at adapting, moving between impressive sales of the small, affordable Dauphine in the late 1950s, to the larger and more luxurious 16 in the late 1960s, and back to the more compact and fuel-efficient 5 (or LeCar) in the oil crisis-laden mid 1970s with admirable agility. Renault even bought a controlling stake in the financially endangered American car company AMC in 1980, and began manufacturing the Alliance and Encore in Wisconsin. Unfortunately, the cars quickly gained a fatal reputation for unreliability right when Renault faced a new, unbeatable foe: the affordable, dependable Japanese compact. Renault was no match for the million-mile motor, and when Georges Besse, Renault’s CEO and a crucial advocate for the US business, was tragically murdered by terrorists in 1986, the company soon sold its AMC stake to Chrysler. 

1960 Peugeot Wagon front three-quarter
Peugeot 403. RM Sotheby’s

The last of the French big three, Peugeot, also put forth a valiant effort. Though they were late to the game, only officially starting to import the 403 to the US in 1958, the company got off to an impressively solid start and wisely made no attempts to directly compete with the unstoppable Beetle. On the flip side, Peugeot was also very slow to react to changes in the market. Though it got lucky with the boom in popularity of luxury imports in the 1980s, riding the yuppy wave with the 505 to an American sales peak in 1984, this surge of success dropped off the longer the model was out. Peugeot didn’t release the well-crafted 405 in the US until 1989, at which point it was too little, too late. By August of 1991, Peugeot had pulled out of the market, signaling the official end of the French car industry in both the United States and Canada. 

So, if you were a Canadian or American Francophile who snagged a driver’s license in the 1990s or later, the option to buy new and to buy French was nonexistent; and while those born earlier did have the option available, it was never widely so. Both countries have also maintained strict import rules (fifteen years for Canada and twenty-five for the US) that have made securing newer models a practice in supreme patience. It’s probably safe to say that in both Québec and New Orleans, you likely weren’t growing up with a Citroën as your family car. The basis for any affinity towards French cars this side of the Atlantic would likely rest more on aspiration than nostalgia. 

Je me souviens…  The Citroën 

The French first started colonizing North America in and around what is today known as the St. Lawrence River in the early 1500s, though it wasn’t until 1608 that one of the first permanent settlements was founded in Québec City. The city’s settlers came from the northwestern coastal and urban regions of France, and experienced a high rate of cultural exchange with First Nations communities while strongly resisting the crown’s attempts to impose any manner of a traditional feudal society.

This defiant streak remained a signature component of the French Canadian colonies, even as their new opponent became the ever-growing British presence on the continent. Though France eventually ceded New France to Great Britain, the Québec Act of 1774 guaranteed the province freedom to preserve the existing French law, language, and religion. While the struggle for cultural preservation and autonomy certainly didn’t end there for French Canadians, it set up the foundation of a separate identity and the strong desire to be Maîtres chez nous, or “Masters of our own house.”

Today, over 77% of Québec residents consider French to be their mother tongue, and it is still the singular official language of the province. Roughly the same percent still identify as Catholic, the religion of the early French settlers. Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day is also one of the largest holidays in the region, a festival that dates back to 18th century France and has recently become a rallying point for some separatist movements. But does this desire for a clear, distinct identity extend to their cars? It’s certainly not a guarantee, given that the aforementioned cars are French, and not French Canadian; built in a modern era centuries after the official ties had been cut. 

The impetus for digging into the classic car communities of the former New France actually came from a finding in Hagerty’s data that Québec insures French vehicles at over 7 times the rate of the rest of Canada. While this only amounts to 1.25% of the total classic cars insured in the province, it is still a significant portion for a subspecies of antique vehicle that remains exceedingly rare in most of North America when compared to its Italian, German, British, American and Japanese counterparts. 

See that darker spot in Montana? Bugattis and favorable tax laws go together like sauvignon blanc and a soft cheese. But Quebec’s French car love is the obvious standout. It even bleeds over a bit into neighboring Vermont and Maine. 

The contrast is at least stark enough to be worth taking note of for French car fanatics. Though, it does matter which type of French cars you love. The answer to our specific question above, with regard to the Citroën 2CV, is a resounding “yes” as far as Montreal is concerned. In fact, Citroën utterly dominates the French Canadian scene, accounting for a massive 73% of the French cars insured by Hagerty in Quebec. And the 2CV is the most popular of Citroën’s cars in the area, representing roughly 32% of the total volume all on its own.

Often deemed a “car of the people”, a term also reserved for the aforementioned Volkswagen Beetle and iconic Mini Cooper, the omnipresence of the 2CV isn’t all too surprising. Though not considered remotely sexy at the time, the vehicle was designed to be all of the things we’ve since learned imbue a car with an enduring fanbase: affordable, minimal, and practical. And while its reputation as a slow-poke also endures - the first generation only reached a top speed of 40mph in about 42 seconds - the impressive 64 mpg of the original air-cooled, 375cc, two-cylinder engine makes it worth it for many collectors, especially those comfortable with a more leisurely pace on their morning drives (thrill-seekers may still be satisfied with the manufacturer’s “weeble-wobble” effect  - Citroën’s tip, but they don’t tip over). 

But according to André Verner, there’s another contender for “Most Iconically Quebec:” the Citroën DS. André is the General Manager of the Elegance Trois-Rivieres, a new Concours d'Elegance event premiering in late-July of 2022 that aims to be the Pebble Beach of French Canada. In the spirit of full transparency, André may also be a little biased. He’s been the proud owner of the same DS for roughly 52 years, having bought it originally in 1971 and lovingly cared for it ever since; a commitment which included never driving it in the infamous Canadian winters. 

But can you blame him? It was love at first sight. He was at the Montreal International Car Show with his French brother-in-law when they noticed a long line forming to sit in one particular car. So they waited. And waited. And when it was finally their turn, they were presented with the 1971 DS, an experience André describes as “overwhelm[ing].” The next Monday morning, he was at the St. Catherine Street dealership in Montreal, and bought the last ‘71 they had. 

André Verner's one-owner 1971 Citroën DS

And from the very beginning, he’s been strengthening his defense for the DS. When his neighbors saw the odd looking contraption he’d replaced his 1968 Ford Mustang GT with, they blatantly asked why he’d bought such an ugly car. “Just wait a few years,” was André’s response, “and it won't be ugly anymore.” To his credit, he’s been largely correct. The DS has since been treasured with what can only be described as an ardent fervor by the classic car community, who have bequeathed it with such labels as “divine”, “a decade ahead of its time”, and even “a goddess.” 

André also believes that the popularity of Citroëns is currently growing in the region, largely due to the increased visibility from auction sites. He notes, “...there are Citroëns practically every week now on Bring a Trailer,” which he believes has helped revive cross-generational interest. He even has numerous friends currently going through the extra effort to import the vehicles directly from France and Italy. 

As to why the increased love for French cars in Quebec? André agrees that the shared language may be a factor. But he pointed to another idea, too: people were impressed with the spectacular technology and innovative design back in the early 70s, just before the company pulled out of the North American markets. Many of the kids who would have ogled at the car shows alongside André probably still retain fond memories of the futuristic, yet attainable marvel, only amplified by the unrequited nature of their longing. For a region that historian and journalist Colin Woodard describes as simultaneously “[d]own-to-earth”, “extremely open-minded,” and one of the most “postmodern” cultures this side of the Atlantic, it’s a match made in paradis.

Cars and Coffee

As for Southern Louisiana, the chief bastion of Frenchness this side of the Great Lakes, the data doesn’t seem to point to any clear trends. There are many possible explanations as to why, including an aggressive campaign to Anglicize the region and a French history that starts and ends long before cars were even a twinkle in Monsieur Cugnot‘s eye. 

After a series of persecutions, expulsions, and “relocations” at the hands of the British in the mid-1700s, a group known as the Acadians (originally French peasants from more pastoral regions) ultimately made their way from eastern Canada to present-day Southern Louisiana, morphing into the Cajuns. By this point, New Orleans had also already been around for decades, serving as a valuable port for King Louis XV and a Creole cultural stronghold, with a population characterized by its mixed and diverse ancestry. New Orleans is undeniably just as African, Caribbean, Spanish, and Native American as it is French. 

But French symbolism, like the iconic Fleur de Lis, has often been a shared way in which the city and surrounding areas differentiate their distinct heritage and, most importantly, vibe, from the rest of the country. Unfortunately, Louisiana never had a legal protection akin to the Quebec Act, and a state constitution established in 1921 and lasting roughly 50 years mandated English as the only language for instruction in schools. Though an organization dedicated to preserving the Louisiana French dialects was formed in the 1960s, much damage had already been done. As of the 2000 census, only around 3% of the state’s population spoke primarily French. 

On the bright side, other aspects of the Franco-influenced cultures, such as the infamous Mardi Gras and the sublimely fantastic cuisine, have fared far better. And it is in this latter arena where classic French cars are really starting to make their mark in the Big Easy.

N7, a critically lauded French restaurant and wine bar, opened in the Bywater neighborhood in late 2015. As their website explains, the establishment is named after what used to be a French equivalent to Highway 1, Nationale 7, that ran from Paris to Italy. There’s even a map of the old route on the menu, tracing its way seductively through Lyons and Nice, as well as a late 1960s maroon Citroën DS parked proudly out front. 

The coffee scene has also cleverly hopped on the Citroën wagon. Petit Rouge, a roaming coffee spot operating out of a bright red 1970 Citroën H-Van, was featured in a Hagerty video centered around a French expat who always makes time for cruising around the city in his 1961 Citroën 2CV. One of the most beloved coffee brands in the area has even put it right there in the name. 

Geoffrey Meeker, founder and owner of French Truck Coffee, grew up admiring classic cars, and remembers one experience in particular as being formative on his journey to the iconic image that now emblazons all of his cafes: “When I was growing up my best friend's father bought a 1961 Jaguar E-type on a whim during a road trip. It was the coolest thing on four wheels that I had ever seen. The lines, the headlights, the rumble of the engine… The curves of the E-type that I loved as a kid got me interested in the Citroën DS. The technology that was wrapped up in that styling was really intriguing to me.”

Though he first landed on a H-Van, with plans to operate it like a food truck with a small roaster and coffee shop all on board, he ultimately realized the cost and layout weren’t the right fit. That’s when he spotted an old 2CV Truckette on the lot, and something clicked. He began roasting out of his laundry room and using the eponymous french truck solely as a delivery vessel, all of which seems to have been the right move. French Truck Coffee now has 10 locations and a fleet of 7 bright yellow Citroëns. 

French Truck Coffee's Citroën 2CV Truckette in front of Jackson Square in New Orleans' French Quarter

And while Meeker notes that French cars as a whole are fairly rare in the city, a phenomenon he attributes to the fact that the area’s French influence predates cars, he still feels the vintage charm was a vital component to his success (alongside, of course, delicious, fresh coffee). “New Orleanians loved the charm and the service of this little truck zipping around town… They are also very proud of their city and their culture. We seemed to have hit the right note for them to embrace us as their own.”

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Comments

  • David Holzman says:

    I suspect that there are communities in other places, including Washington, DC, that are hotbeds of French cars. For example, Glen Echo, MD, a tiny community (~5 blocks long and two blocks wide) of small, charming houses, in suburban DC, has at least one Peugeot 505, one 2CV, and one Citroen DS, the latter having been owned by the same person since ~1971. And someone who goes by the moniker “The French Car Guy” probably still lives in Takoma Park, MD.
    Mt. Rainier, MD, which was a hotbed of classic cars in the ’90s, but from which they seem to be all gone, had one resident back then who had at least 5, probably 6 Peugeots. He lived very close to a guy who had 5 ’57 Chevies.
    Peugeot 505s were fairly common in the Boston area as late as 2008. In fact, I knew Al Gore was not going to get nominated for President that year when I learned that the couple spearheading his effort had a Peugeot 505 for their daily driver.
    I know of one DS wagon and one 2CV currently in my suburban town, and in my youth (the ’60s), there were a couple of handfuls of Peugeot 403s and 404s in one neighborhood of ~60 families.
    I’m sure my fellow members of Arlington Classic Car Club (motto: We Love French Cars) can cite other French cars in the area. I do know of a couple, myself, including a second 2CV.
    Seattle has what in my understanding is the best shop in the country for overhauling and generally fixing 2CVs. I saw my first French car in Seattle, as a little kid, my father’s friend Victor Erlich’s Renault Dauphine. (Victor was an expert on Slavic Lit at the University of Washington, who later taught at Yale and had a Peugeot 404.)
    And here’s my 404 story, my “In Search of Lost Time.”

    https://www.hagerty.com/media/driving/a-60s-summer-in-paris-leads-to-a-search-for-a-good-peugeot-404/

  • Dave Tobin says:

    No shortage in Minneapolis, with at least two active Citroen dealers in the Twin Cities into the 1970s, lots of universities in the area didn’t hurt.. as bearded, pipe smoking professor types always seemed to be drawn to French cars.

  • Steve H says:

    Had a 505 diesel that could barely drive up a hill but it didn’t matter because it had the most comfortable seats I have ever sat on in a car.

  • Stewart Merkin says:

    In the late 50s and early 60s, we had two Renault Dauphine’s which my dad, who was in the truck service business, took in trade or for payment on a bill, for how much I do not know. My uncle put on about 125,000 miles on his; the one I used, which had a Ferlec electric clutch (no clutch pedal; you just shifted it) was a joy to drive in Philadelphia when you got stuck in front of a trolley car and it could not, of course, go around you. The last time I drove it I suddenly found it hard to shift and finally I pulled over and saw that the engine had fallen out and was dragging along the ground. The engine was still running.
    Part of what came with the car as part of the toolkit was a crank to start the engine which also came in very handy. They thought of everything.

  • Mike Tippett says:

    Very good article!

    French cars can be an acquired taste but can quickly become a lifelong addiction.

    As the registry keeper for Le Club 404 France – despite my being based in Canada – I am always on the lookout for new 404s to add. Link (with the country search set to USA): https://recensement.leclub404.com/browse.php?country=USA

    I’ve also begun a register for all Peugeot models in Canada, with about 3750 of them in my Excel sheet so far. Someday not too long from now I hope to set up a website for that too.

    I wonder if it would be possible to connect with some of these Canadian Peugeot owners through Hagerty. My 1966 Peugeot 404 Coupé Injection has been insured by them for about 5 years so far and I’ve owned the car for 33 years.

    • Adam Wilcox says:

      Hi Mike! Thanks for all your work with the 404 registry! Unfortunately, privacy regulations dictate that we cannot hand out owner contact info and with so many cars on this list, we don’t have the resources to contact them ourselves to recommend this registry.

      Hopefully some 404 owners will find the link to your registry through this article.

  • Slomoogee says:

    In the early 90s I drove a 504 diesel wagon. What made it slow was the auto trans. But once you got it rolling it would cruise the interstate at 70. As my daily driver it also doubled as a camper. Good clearance, and suspension made forest roads and 2 track ruts easily passable. And when you put the rear seat flat there was over 6 ft to sleep.

  • Dan Jones says:

    My first car was a Renault 4CV with a seized engine that I bought for $20 from a rock band drummer who had replaced the rear seat with a platform to transport his drums. I was also intrigued by the tank in the front trunk for potent portables with a spigot under the dashboard. At 14, I thought I was clever buying it since my dad said he would pay for insurance if I bought a car. He got the last laugh as it took me two years to get it running and kept me off the streets, but I did have a sense of accomplishment when it actually ran.

    In high school, it was replaced with a Renault 4L which could transport the entire tuba section of 3 tubas to football games with the sousaphone bells sticking out the rear sunroof. With its short front overhang, it could easily climb the steps in front of the hs gym. The football team once picked it up and placed on 50 gal drums. They thought it was funny.

    The 4L was eventually replaced with a TR3 which attracted the girls, but in the 70’s I got a Citroen DS. My friends would come over for a ride over speed bumps. Unbelievable! There was also the occasional drive around the block on 3 wheels, just to entertain the neighbors.

    Eventually, I had a Peugeot 504 diesel wagon as a daily driver. Even with the banjo rear end, it was extremely comfortable and my kids loved it because it had stadium rear seating and manual roll-up windows! As a third-world taxi, it made a great dump/Lowes vehicle with the back seat lowered – like the Maverick pickup.

    I once bought my wife a new rose-gold wedding ring band and popped the question – “Can we have a new Peugeot 505 Turbo?” Alas, she was smarter than me and said no. Peugeot left the US market the next year.

  • Greg Stephen Millard says:

    Curious what the total population of your pie chart represents. SM for a ‘low volume’ car sure seems well represented! & what is the thin slice with the ‘1’ numeric designation at 10:00 between to two Renaults.? Thanks Retrogreg
    PS I have at one time or another owned them all except the H Van & The Alliance. Others have included Deutsch Bonnet HBR 5, Peugeot 202 & Simca Aronde

  • Bob Merlis says:

    I’ve long been enraptured by French cars as my mom owned three Peugeots: a ’60 403, a ’64 404 and a ’68 404 that was my main set of wheels after I got my license. I live in Southern California now and drive a ’68 Renault R10 almost daily and have a treasured ’67 Simca 1000 Coupé I take out for special occasions. The big issue is parts but I have a genius mechanic who keeps me rolling.

  • Laurie Newhook says:

    I recently bought a beautiful Citroen DS21 Chapron cabriolet at Bonhams Monaco 2021 auction, and shipped it to New Zealand where it wows many. It was built by Chapron in Paris in 1967 for the Canadian market, with enhanced electrics and heater.
    I have details if it’s history after arriving back in Europe in about 2010 and being fully restored. I believe it was vert foret in colour originally. Anyone with information about a car like that in Canada, please signal to me on
    +64 274 997105

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