Barn find of the century

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.

Filed under: Features

  • In the sprawling grounds of the chÂteau you'll find this Facel Vega Excellence (one of 137 first-series cars, with American-market rear wings and – importantly – good shutlines around the clap-hands doors) sitting next to the unique Saoutchik-bodied ex-King Farouk Talbot-Lago T26.
  • Headlining the sale are a 1961 Ferrari 250GT SWB California Spider and 1956 Maserati A6G Gran Sport
  • Amid browning hulks, one of the collection's strangest members glows sky blue: a Panhard et Levassor conduite-centrale coupé, with faired-in front wheels and (as the name suggests) a central driving position.
  • A more distant view of the chÂteau reveals the once-grand home's relationship with what has surrounded it for 60 years
  • This 1947 Talbot T26 Gran Sport is one of only around 25 road cars built with a competition-spec triple-carb engine. The extraordinarily swoopy coachwork is by Saoutchik and is complete, although the tail has suffered crash damage. A typical Saoutchik detail is evident in the side glazing, which is split to accommodate the winding mechanism in a door with a cut-out around the rear wheelarch. Just out of view is an extremely rare and complete Delahaye 135M with coachwork by Faget-Varnet, dating from 1946/47.
  • It would be inappropriate to print what Artcurial's Pierre Novikoff said when he opened the boot of this Hispano-Suiza H6 to find not only the original numberplate but 'aussi le clé'! This is a French-built car with American-inspired two-seat coachwork by Millon-Guiet, complete apart from a non-standard bonnet and rotten hood. More remarkable, though, is that it was found as parked in what was once M Baillot's workshop – with the knock-off tool still attached to a rear wheel spinner.
  • The 1961 Ferrari 250GT SWB California Spider will carry an estimate of €9-12 million. Its remarkable level of preservation is down to the fact that it was hidden under mulitple piles of back issues of L'Automobile magazine, though their sheer weight has dented the bootlid. It belonged to Jacques Baillon, son of Roger (who owned a white one), but was originally bought by French actor and director Gérard Blain, who sold it to Alain Delon in 1963. He kept the car on Monte Carlo plates, and it starred alongside him and Jane Fonda in 1964's Les Félins. There were three subsequent owners before Jacques Baillon bought the car in 1971. 'It is a matching-numbers car, still with its ignition key [just visible, right], and containing the owner's handbook and period maps,' says Artcurial's Matthieu Lamoure. 'It will be presented as you see it here.'
  • A two-seat Amilcar CGS awaits its return to glory
  • A Bugatti Type 57 Ventoux rests alongside an altogether more ordinaire Renault 12! The Bugatti's wings, with faired-in headlamps, suggest that this is a 1938 car. It is complete and highly original, apart from the missing rear trunk.
  • This is Roger Baillot's own creation: the Oiseau Bleu. It translates as 'blue bird', and traces of its paintwork are still evident, as is the sheer quality of its construction – carried out by M Baillot's own coachworks, which were responsible for many of his trucks, including the pioneering Micheline with cabine avancée (a forward-control cab). Both this and M Baillot's modified Delahaye (it carried his own nose design) were exhibited at the Paris Salon de l'Auto in 1947. The Oiseau Bleu is based on Simca running gear; its hood frame in particular exhibits great manufacturing skill and design expertise.
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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.

Most of those are what you see in these pictures. Walk through the chÂteau gates and the first glimpse elicits a gasp of disbelief. Explore further and your credulity is seriously tested. Artcurial plans to display the cars in all their dusty, cobwebbed glory, and you can find out more at www.artcurial.com. For now, simply feast your eyes here.

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.

Filed under: Features

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