Last French luxury car hits the skids

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By IOL Motoring Staff

One thing is for sure, in the automotive industry as in most others - what goes around, comes around. And what has come around today (20 December) is the end of a era in France that began after the First World War with brands such as Delage, Talbot Lago and, yes, Bugatti, and peaked with the introduction of the Citroen DS in 1955.

This afternoon the production line at the Peugeot-Citroen plant in Rennes, where 250 people painstakingly build about a dozen examples of Citroen's flagship C6 a week, will fall silent. Given the parlous state of the French motor industry and the fact that Citroen sold just 556 C6's in the first 10 months of 2012, it's a wonder management didn't pull the plug sooner.

And that will be that for the luxury car industry in France; Peugeot hasn't had a flagship sedan in years (since the late, lamented 607 in fact) and the Renault Latitude - which outsells the C6 by nearly seven to one - is actually a re-badged SM5 from Korean partner Samsung.

But even the Latitude's sales have tumbled 59 percent in 2012, compared to the first 10 months of 2011.

Renault will soon have to decide whether to go ahead with a proposed joint venture in which its next luxury car (which would carry the upmarket Initiale Paris sub-brand) would share a platform with a future Mercedes-Benz E-class sedan, something that would have been unthinkable a few short years ago.

But sharing its architecture with Stuttgart has a hidden benefit: the Teutonic autocracy are all either rear-wheel drive (BMW and Mercedes) or all-wheel drive, as in the Audi A6, so the Renault E-Class clone would also, of necessity, be rear-wheel drive.

Now, it's all very well to bleat that the majority of people who can afford such cars neither know nor care which end does the driving - and it's probably true - but what they do know is that a luxury car looks like a luxury car.

Whereas all the pokey little hatches and family prams driven by the hoi polloi have a distinctive nose-heavy look that comes from having the engine ahead of the front wheels (and this includes the C6 and the otherwise superlative 607) truly classy cars have their front wheels right up at the corners of the body, and a long, regal rear overhang.

Think BMW 5 Series, Mercedes E-Class, Jaguar XJ, Range Rover, Bentley Continental and, especially, Rolls-Royce. It's the one thing they all have in common - and it's impossible to fake or gloss over, no matter how luxurious the cabin or how lustrous the finish.

Like Coco Chanel's little black dress, the proportions have to be right or it doesn't work.

As long ago as 1929, Errett Lobban Cord, maker of the only truly classic front-wheel drive car, knew that. His incomparable 810 had the same proportions as today's Rolls-Royce Ghost (and the Mazda MX-5, but that's another story; it's only the most successful open two-seater of all time).

The Citroen DS was a technical tour de force, arguably the best premium sedan of its time (certainly the most stylish) but it can be argued that its soon-to-be-universal front-wheel drive architecture planted the seeds of the demise of the French luxury car, 57 years later.

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