“What is that guy doing?!” asks one of the girls. She is pointing at a yellow car spinning and sliding around the car park, the tachometer bouncing around in the red end of the gauge. The car suddenly comes to a stop following one last staccato yelp from the screeching, smoking tires. A young man with curly hair jumps out of the car. “Oh, that guy? That’s Gérard!”
I have been in the car business practically since the day I was born. In 1955 my father had set up a garage, and I was elbow-deep from the get-go—you can see me in the black & white photograph included above, posing, but with a genuine smile, while in the process of fixing the engine of a Morris 1300. Fast forward to 1969, and I have saved just enough money to buy a kit car for my 20th birthday. It was a Méan Sonora: tubular chassis, poly body, and a Renault R8 S engine (which I quickly replaced with a Renault R16 TS, which in turn was replaced by a Renault Alpine 1600).
Made in Belgium, the Méan cars were born out of the passion of the son of a Liégeois industrialist who set up shop in the town of… Méan, Wallonia. The Méans were small, stylish sports cars that you could build by hand at home—a quite popular concept in Europe at the time. It was a kit inspired by the Californian beach buggies from the late 1960s, and was in the peer group that consisted of some of the more well-known kit cars, such as the British Marcos GT and Lotus Seven, and the French Marcadiers.
A few years into ownership of my Méan, this was in 1972, the only thing I wanted to do with the car was test its capacity for sport, with a few donuts in the car park for good measure. After purchasing my racing license, I was keen to join several types of grassroots motorsport events: slalom races and hill climb races mostly, one of which was the famous Rallye de La Châtaigne in France’s Burgundy region. The race follows the road going up Mont Beuvray (which you may have heard of in history class because of the Bribracte archaeological site, where Julius Caesar’s armies battled with the Gaul). The path is winding and treacherous, especially when you’re bowling along at 100MPH on a road that’s made exceptionally slippery by the wet leaves of autumn taking up residence on the asphalt. I practiced the race many times, many times, but my parents, being parents, never allowed me to enter the competition officially.
Then two years later, in 1974, I married the brunette with long hair and the smiles in her eyes that used to watch me—with appropriate disapproval—when I was trying to show off my racing skills in the car park late in the evenings—”What is that guy doing?!” Together, we took on the family business, at which point I became a garage owner in my own right, and carried on racing in my spare time.
Following a friend’s advice, I sold the Méan and built a Fiat 500 prototype with a Simca Rallye 2 Group 2 engine, which turned out to be a lot more reliable than the Méan in slalom competitions. However, for the hill climbs, I built a Chrysler 180 equipped with a JRD 200HP dry-sump engine.
In 1998, I decided to move on to ice racing. This time I spent over 2,000 hours of labor in the process of building a 300HP Lada Niva of all things! But I left the driving this time to the experts, and had Bertrand Ballas and Pierre Pagani do the racing. That year, we won the most well-known ice race in France, the 24 Heures de Chamonix, ahead of the Mitsubishi works team. I can still taste that victory!
But back to the Méan, and back to the year 2009 when I had focused my attention on restoring vintage cars. Looking for NSU TT parts for one of my projects—always a project in the works it seems—I got in touch with one of my acquaintances who is the treasurer of the French NSU club. Whilst chatting over the phone, we reminisced about the great Méan cars that we rarely see anymore, and he went on to mention a beautiful yellow one that he bought recently: “Hold on, is this my old car?”
Having decided to capitalize on that serendipitous occasion, I progressively acquired several polyester bodies of old Méan prototypes, including the Sonora. I then assembled two tubular chassis in order to build several cars. Meanwhile, my son keeps bugging me about building an open-top Sonora: “Imagine how it would look on the Burgundian country lanes!” he says, and I can’t help but to agree.
And it would make perfect sense on a day like the one we had for our photoshoot back in October. The sun piercing through the autumn leaves down to the forest’s undergrowth. I am at the wheel of my yellow Méan, retracing the routes I’d taken it on when I was in my 20s, it’s a sentimental moment to say the least. I negotiate a quick succession of narrow curves, 3rd gear down to 2nd, a bit of the brakes, turn in left, onto a bump that’s coded into my memory by now, back up to 3rd, then 4th, the trees sparkle in the blur of light. I have made a decision. For my 70th birthday, I am going to join the race that was always forbidden to me in my youth: La Châtaigne, here we come.