Saturday December 1, 2012

The headline, loosely translated, is "a dalliance with a french tart." My oldest daughter helped with the translation, although she didn’t think "escapade" was the exact word she would have chosen. For me, that was the payoff for supporting her through five years of college, part of it spent in France. In fact, this whole train of thought started when I was trying to come up with a Christmas gift for her. I was thinking about finding something that would remind her of her time in Brittany. I remember when she first went there -- I gave her a bottle of Putney Winery wine to take with her (she was over 21). Her new Bretagne friends loved it, and it was fitting, because the region is known for fermented apple products. So what’s all this got to do with escapade avec une tarte francaise? It triggered the memory of the time my father had a fling with a Renault Dauphine, the French equivalent of the Volkswagen Beetle.

I can’t remember the exact year, but it was probably 1962, when the old man showed up in the used Renault. It was a cheesy cream color, but the styling was just plain cute. We all marveled at the bucket seats, which in 1962 were a big deal. These particular seats sported smooth, clear vinyl seat covers that had already yellowed on this Gallic beauty. The engine was in the rear, and it had those cool European grab straps built into the door pillars. Pretty exotic stuff for our humble family. My mother was totally unimpressed. I think she associated this foreign car with a mid-life crisis. Little did she know that the real mid-life crisis car was a ‘58 T-Bird that he brought home a year later.

Outings in the Dauphine were few and far between because the old man used it for work and nothing else. I do remember riding in it and thinking that it was noisy, and kind of wheezy and slow. It smelled foreign, too. While I liked it because it was so visually different, I wasn’t very impressed with it while the car was actually in use. The ride was typically French, which is to say that it felt too soft. I was not old enough to drive it, however, I have heard that they handled OK, but felt a bit disconnected due to the soft suspension. Over the years the old man had brought home a plethora of interesting cars to test drive, and believe it or not, the best of the bunch was a German Borgward station wagon. I think I was spoiled a bit by the very capable and well built Borgward, because the Renault just didn’t seem to measure up.

Introduced in 1956, the Dauphine had been carefully engineered and tested before introduction, probably the most "prepped" car of its era. They tested the engine in the Arctic circle, the suspension on dry, dusty roads in Spain. Body integrity was flogged in Yugoslavia, and the colors were chosen to appeal primarily to females, a result of market studies conducted in France. During testing, it was determined that the engine needed more power, so it was redesigned. The long birthing process of the Dauphine paid off, and it was well received in Europe and Africa. During its 10 year run, over 2 million Dauphines were produced, which, for the French auto industry, was an unqualified success. In the United States the Dauphine proved to be a disaster for Renault, with service problems and a poorly organized dealer network.

One of the small local shops in Chester sold plastic model cars that you assemble with "Airplane glue." I found an actual Renault Dauphine after school one day, and vowed to myself that I was going to get it and build it and give it to the old man for Christmas. I saved my pennies and before I knew it I was headed home on a cold November day with a Dauphine model in a box tucked under my arm. Somewhat like the real Dauphine, it was an oddly engineered model, and my assembly work was really sloppy. In retrospect I should have had clamps to aid in its assembly, but I didn’t even know what clamps were. It came out horribly, and I think I actually threw it away before letting anyone else see the botched scale model.

That was an eerie omen for the real Dauphine parked in the yard. It had given my father nothing but trouble from day one. It was always in Shattuck’s Garage over in Springfield, until it finally blew a head gasket and was given up for dead. He replaced it with a well used root beer brown and white Studebaker four door. I’m not sure which car was the worst, the Renault or the Studebaker, but I can tell you this; the old man never had a dalliance with another imported car for as long as he lived. From that point forward it was a long succession of Fords, Buicks and Chryslers. C’est la vie!

Arlo Mudgett’s Morning Almanac has been heard over multiple radio stations in Vermont for 20 years, and can be tuned in at 92.7 WKVT FM every weekday morning at 8 a.m.