Imagine stumbling across a vast collection of rare and valuable cars, hiding in the grounds of a romantic French château. This is what it feels like
Words: Glen Waddington, Photography: Matthew Howell. February 2015.
It's fair to say they look more like cattle sheds than barns. And some of the cars are secreted in stone outbuildings; two in particular are hidden in a garage. But the effect is the same. Stashed away in the grounds of a sleepy chÂteau in the rolling rustic splendour of western France is a collection of cars that would be remarkable in any circumstance. Their decrepitude only serves to make the scene all the more romantic. You see, while rarely a week passes by without somebody unearthing something in a remote shed, less often do you come across a collection nearly 100-strong. And even less frequently do you find gems within it such as a Ferrari California Spider, a Bugatti Ventoux, Maserati A6G Gran Sport Frua, Facel Vega Excellence, pre-war coachbuilt grandes routières from Talbot-Lago and Delahaye, even a fairly spectacular coupé of the late collector's own making.
The barn find of the century? That doesn't overstate the case by any means. 'Roger Baillon was a mechanic in the French Air Force and, after the war, he created lorries for transporting chemicals from a factory to the Paris Métro, where they were used to clean the tunnels. He bought the chÂteau around 1950 and started to collect cars – he wanted to build a museum on land opposite the chÂteau,' says Pierre Novikoff of auction house Artcurial. Octane is there while Pierre and Artcurial director Matthieu Lamoure catalogue 60 of the cars for their Paris Rétromobile sale on 6 February. The grandchildren of Roger Baillon approached Artcurial following the death of their father Jacques Baillon last year.
The collection was housed piecemeal in shelters that were built in the grounds as the numbers flourished. By the mid-1970s it was 200-strong – but then Transports R Baillon lost its main contract and was driven into bankruptcy. Two bank-enforced car sales followed, one in 1979 and another in 1985. Yet while such treasures as a 1938 Talbot T150 LM found a new home for FF160,000 in an auction room described as 'full to overflowing' by La Vie de l'Auto in August 1979, there were still 114 cars that escaped the clutches of the creditors.
The Family Way
Roger Baillon's grand-daughter recalls life with the cars at the chÂteau
'Cars were a real passion in the family. My brother and I were allowed to drive the modern family cars at the chÂteau from the age of ten, but we were not allowed to talk about the collection with anybody,' Ms Baillon tells me over a glass of red while saucisson pops and spits on a makeshift barbecue in the grounds of the family pile. Like so many of the cars, it's no longer habitable, though it wears its history honestly.
'Since my father's death, much has been discovered in terms of documentation and history, including newspaper reports. My grandfather always serviced the cars at the chÂteau, and he always – always! – wore a tie, no matter whether he was working under a car or in the garden.
'He was a charismatic man who, one Christmas, bought Mobilette mopeds for all his employees, and there were 200 of them.'
They worked at a factory known as the cathédrale verre, pictured left with the Baillon fleet and Roger Baillon's white 250 California Spider. This is where the 1950 Micheline truck was built and also where M Baillon's own designs for his Delahaye and Oiseau Bleu were translated into metal. He's pictured above with his family, and his Delahaye 235, in St Peter's Square, Rome.It's reckoned that around 90 cars of the original collection survive and, while 60 of those will be offered for sale by Artcurial, a handful will be retained by the family and restored to their former glory. It's a fitting tribute.