LOS ANGELES -- German carmakers Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Audi and Porsche define European luxury, having built reputations based on advanced engineering, refined performance and state-of-the-art technology.
But it wasn't always so. Three-quarters of a century ago, French carmakers could go toe-to-toe with the world's best when it came to boundary-pushing style and grace. When Art Deco was king, automakers such as Bugatti, Delahaye, Delage, Talbot-Lago, Voisin and Hispano-Suiza produced ravishingly beautiful cars, some now prized among the most valuable automobiles ever.
The memory of these automobiles lives on in classic car shows and auctions. The Petersen Automotive Museum here recently staged an exhibition, called Rolling Sculpture, that celebrated some of these French cars, among others. The exhibition has now closed, though the Petersen is now showcasing one of those French marques in another exhibit called The Art of Bugatti.
Like some of their American luxury counterparts such as Duesenberg and Packard, the French companies couldn't survive multiple catastrophes including the Great Depression and World War II and its aftermath.
The great French marques fell victim to austerity measures taken by the French government after World War II. As the country struggled to rebuild, a naval engineer named Paul-Marie Pons was appointed to draw up a plan to restructure and modernize the French auto industry. The so-called Pons Plan, deemed dictatorial by critics, divvied up the French industry to the benefit of the seven French volume manufacturers including the major makes that survive today: Renault, Peugeot and Citroen.
In those lean years, luxury buyers were in short supply both in France and in export markets. In addition, steel supplies were scarce and the government levied a punitive luxury tax on cars with engines larger than 2.0 liters.
Some of the cars from this golden era of French design have fetched stratospheric auction prices. A 1937 Delahaye 135 Competition Court Torpedo Roadster by Figoni et Falaschi fetched $6.6 million at the Amelia Island Concours d' Elegance in 2014. The stunning 1936 Bugatti Type 57SC Atlantic has been valued at between $30 million and $40 million.
Strolling through the exhibition, it was tempting to imagine how different the world might have been had these great marques survived into the 21st century.