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Finding the French gear

June 28, 2019

The 1939 Citroen Traction-avant cabriolet de luxe owned by Oliver Agius. Photos: Tony Vassallo, William Pace, Stephen Micallef, Steven Mallia

 

Malta is not only home to one of the rarest French cars in the world, a 1904 La Licorne, but also boasts a stable of classic French models, says Joseph Busuttil from the Old Motors Club.

 

Nowadays, if you take a random look along the road you will spot a French Citroen, a Peugeot, or a Renault at regular intervals. They hold their head up high among the numerous vehicle imports from other countries that find their way to the island.

 

It was not always that way though, for in the past, a French car on the road was like the sighting of a rare bird. For historical reasons, British vehicles by far ruled the roost especially in the pre- and post-World War II periods, when the presence of the British services here was at its highest. Italian cars came next, owing to geographical proximity and popularity. Consequently, French vehicles were left to play second, nay even third, fiddle in the national orchestra on four wheels performing on local roads.

 

French cars of yesteryear, some of which are still to be found in Malta, were stylish, strong and sturdy, manufactured to stand the test of time. One of these is a white 1939 Citroen Traction-avant cabriolet de luxe, the last in the series prior to the beginning of World War II. A limited edition of 30 models was produced to be given as perks to the elite of the Citroen management in France and abroad.

 

The proud owner is Oliver Agius, who as a teenager had fallen in love with a similar model belonging to his uncle. Alas, the vehicle was sold and disappeared without trace. Agius made it his mission in life to trace such a model, spending decades searching high and low, until he eventually got to know of such a Citroen stored in a garage in the Paris suburbs. 

 

A French car on the road was like the sighting of a rare bird

 

“This particular Traction-avant found its way to a Citroen director in Berlin before the start of the hostilities. Aware of its uniqueness the owner had stored it well under wraps in the divided city for 40 long years. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, it was taken back to Paris,” Agius said, adding that he immediately went to the French capital to inspect it, and after several rounds of tough negotiations, bought the car.  

 

Agius said the Citroen was in a very good condition and able to take its rightful place on the road. 

 

“There was no need for any touching up, and has since remained in its as-found state – the only thing done here was the new number plate.” 

 

Despite the ripe, mature age of 87, Agius still enjoys driving his Citroen, so much so that he even entered it for the Valletta Concours d’Elegance earlier this month – although at the 11th hour he could not make it there himself owing to a bad cold.

 

Dedrick Zammit and his 1957 Peugeot 403.

 

Another outstanding French classic still plying the local roads is a black 1957 Peugeot 403 belonging to young Dedrick Zammit. Similar to the Citroen, this model also has an interesting story. 

 

“Originally the Peugeot was bought by a certain Edward, who was a Lyceum Ħamrun teacher. He was the best friend of my maternal grandfather Paul. When Edward was unable to drive any longer, he sold it to my grandfather who used it for 15 years, taking great care of it, for the vehicle, besides being a rare model in Malta, still possessed all its original parts,” explained Zammit.

 

“When my grandfather passed away and his will was read, the Peugeot was left to me, the grandson, with the condition that until I come of driving age, the classic car would be in the hands of my father David, his son-in-law. 

 

“My father kept the vehicle in impeccable condition until I took it over, and hopefully, the Peugeot will remain in our family for more generations to come.”

 

Stephen Micallef with his La Licorne in 1975.

 

William Pace is driven by one obsession in life – driving his small fleet of ever-increasing classic Renault cars. The latest count shows he has a grand total of 22 classic vehicles of various models of this marque. These include a Renault Dauphine, five Renault 4, three Renault 5, two Renault 6, two Renault 8, one Renault 9, four Renault 10, three Renault 12, and the latest addition, a Renault Alpine.

 

“My obsession with Renault cars started in my early teens, when my father Carmelo bought a Renault 10 in 1966. Serving in the British Navy, he would be away from Malta for lengthy periods. The car was parked outside the home, and I used to ferry my mother to driving lessons during the day. During the night, I used to drive my older brother Joseph to the unofficial races at the then abandoned airfield at Ta’ Qali,” Pace said.

 

Stephen Micallef ‘guarding’ his La Licorne during the filming of Shout at the Devil.

 

He enjoys all his Renaults to the full, rotating them frequently and participating successfully in local and international events. Some years ago, he took part with his 1962 Renault 4 in the annual Renault Festival in Thenay between Paris and Lyon. There were 1,400 Renault classic cars from all over the world competing in the festival – Pace won the Best Car in Show Prize. Earlier this month, he participated in the Valletta Concours d’Elegance with his 1976 Renault Alpine, picking up the Best Preservation Prize.

 

Tucked serenely away in a spacious garage in the sleepy village of Mellieħa, sometimes making an occasional ramble in the northern countryside, is one of the rarest French cars in the world, a 1904 La Licorne, that stood out for its advanced and innovative technology. The Paris company originally called Corre la Licorne was founded in 1901 and folded up in 1949. According to reliable local and foreign research, only one such 1904 model is in existence. 

 

Bought in Malta in the early 1900s by a shipping entrepreneur, Philip Bianchi, it was eventually sold to Captain John Bonavita who lived in Attard, and who rarely used it. 

 

Stephen Micallef, born and raised in the car industry, also lived in Attard. On frequent visits to his grandmother, his eyes would fall on her wedding day photo in the Licorne, and he started to pester Captain Bonavita to sell him the car, which by then had been lying idle for more than 50 years. The owner initially sent him packing, but the persistent, confident lad with the gift of the gab won the day, and eventually Stephen, with the help of his uncle, bought the Licorne. He was only 15 years old.

 

The first big task for the new young owner was to get the inactive vehicle out of Captain Bonavita’s narrow garage in San Anton Street, push it up the road along Main Street, and then into the Micallef family garage in Zebbug Road. Micallef looked around and called upon five of his best friends to give him a helping hand – being also his school mate, I myself was one of the fortunate chosen few.

 

The 1904 La Licorne being harnessed in St Paul’s Bay in 1976 for the film Shout at the Devil.

 

It took us more than a couple of hours to inch our way towards the destination a few hundred yards away, as with velvet gloves, we handled the revered vehicle with the due care it deserved, well aware that any undue pressure or mistake could have fatal consequences on the moribund motor car. For our efforts, Micallef would allow us unlimited access to the garage to see the subsequent works in progress, as he toiled to bring this famous French iconic motor back to life.   

 

Over a number of years, he brought the old timer back to its pristine condition, doing the vast majority of work himself, whether mechanical, panel beating or spraying, in a significant nut-and-bolt restoration project. It had retained much of the original parts, but some wooden areas needed replacement. For example, the wooden frame of the canvas roof had to be redone by a cartwright. The five wooden wheels were in good condition, but their tyres required replacing, and this was carried out specifically for Micallef by Dunlop in the UK. The original dark green colour was replaced by yellow.

 

This thoroughbred vehicle became the target of foreign film companies that queued to have the La Licorne in their productions. But Micallef was adamant that such use would damage the car, and he refused even the most advantageous offer. There was one notable exception, when in 1976, the French icon was harnessed in the film Shout At The Devil starring Roger Moore, Lee Marvin and Barbara Parkins. But the owner was always in close attendance to see that nothing untoward happened to the apple of his eye.

 

Over time, he also received many offers to sell the La Licorne, which he meanwhile had painted back to its original dark green colour, but he did not even bother to listen. However, some years ago he changed his mind, and sold the La Licorne to Paul Debono, who now enjoys this unique old motor in the tranquillity of Mellieha. Hopefully, this majestic, memorable French motoring monument – voraciously ogled by many well-heeled foreign collectors – will remain in Malta.  

 

William Pace’s collection of Renault cars.

 

 

 

 

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