Big Mike

BIG MIKE 2: How the French do it

Time 13 years ago


I’ve just returned from my annual sojourn to sunnier climes – after all, what’s a pre-loved vehicle merchandiser to do at this time of year, when every car lot throughout the country is reminiscent of the decks of the Marie Celeste, there’s chuff all stock coming through the block and Britain has descended from spring into autumn without the warm bit in between?


My destination of choice this year, as ever, was the south of France, where despite the pound’s weakness against the Euro, a chap can still enjoy red wine and the odd cigar at a fraction of the UK price while watching the sun (that’s the big yellow thing above us that you can occasionally glimpse between showers) setting against a molten sky. 


Each year I promise I’ll pack up shop and live down there; but then I also promised myself a Lamborghini Miura before I hit 40, and that never materialised either.

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But I digress. One of the things that struck me as most unusual about the French way of life is the workings of the country’s used car market – after all, I’ve been pushing tin since I flunked my O-levels, and it’s much more of a way of life than it is a job to a chap like me. 


Which is why, on my much beloved’s obligatory ‘shopping day’ of the holiday (for which her favourite phrase is: ‘It didn’t cost me anything, I put it on the credit card’) I left her very much to her own devices and went for a wander around the used car ghetto.


Wherever you are, anywhere in the world, you’ll find an area like this, usually at the back of an industrial estate, or underneath a flyover or some equally inadvisable place for property developers to throw up a block of identikit ‘starter homes’. 


On this occasion, the used car ghetto was alongside a leather goods processing plant, with lorry loads of dead cows going in one end, and trucks full of handbags and wallets departing the other. The smell alone would be enough to make you seek a car with velour upholstery, even if you were in the market for a Bentley.


Yet, nestled between the factory’s waste treatment plant at one end and the Hotel Formula One at the other, was a sea of metal as bright and shiny as any row of car lots in the UK – with two notable differences. The first is that, to the French, bodywork repairs are something you do with a jig, not a tub of Ispon P30 and a spray gun, and the second was the sheer price of the cars on offer.


Even if you could look beyond the battlescars, cracked bumpers and crumpled wings of the average ‘voiture d’occasion’, some of the prices being charged were phenomenal.


I give you a petrol-engined Citroen Xantia estate of 1999 vintage, 157,000 kilometres (that’s a shade under 100k miles to you and me) and finished in meter-reader’s white by means of an example. The price, 6,500 Euros. In British money, that’s a shade under five grand at the current exchange rate – the last time a 1999 Citroen Xantia was worth that much in the UK, I dare say, was around about the turn of the millennium.


Or how about 14,999 Euros for a 2005 Megane diesel? That’s 10 grand! In other words, about two thirds of its cost new. And then there was the really old stuff. Dubious special editions such as the Renault 21 Manager, Citroen BX Cottage, and the tantalisingly tempting Ford Orion Airbag (all legit, look them up!) languishing folornly at the back of the lot.

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In the UK you’d have weighed the lot of them in, especially given current scrap rates, yet each one of the traffic-battered stinkers had a four figure price sticker.


All of which left me baffled. After all, car prices in France aren’t that much greater than in the UK – indeed, before the pound performed its spectacular nosedive, they were marginally cheaper at the new end of the market – so why the incredible lack of depreciation? 


Answers on a postcard please, and meanwhile I’ll be shipping the entire contents of pooh corner (the bit of my lot where I store the trade-ins) to France, where I’ll try and convince potential customers that the steering wheel on the right-hand side is purely a cosmetic blemish, caused perhaps by a traffic skirmish…

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