Merci, Simca Mille
By Roger Boylan
Like Rebecca in Hitchcock’s film (and Daphne Du Maurier’s novel) of that name, last night I dreamed I went home again. I often have this dream.
But instead of a Manderley-like mansion on the Cornish coast, I’m revisiting a small house in suburban Geneva, where I spent my childhood and youth. And unlike Rebecca, my house dreams are banal affairs, usually just replays of reality plus upsurges of obscure longing, or the gentle nibbling of imminent failure. In the dream the house itself, as in life, is half-hidden behind its tumbledown fence and fruit trees and willows and silver birches (on whose branches one winter a family of great horned owls, driven down from the mountains by the cold, came to perch, and perch again in my dreams), with a glimpse over the treetops and neighboring farmhouse roof of the snow-covered Jura mountains, in France. Also as in life is my mother’s small French car, a sky-blue Simca 1000 (“Mille”), sitting in the graveled drive, or inside the single-car-wide garage. The wooden garage doors, slumping then on their rusted hinges, slump at a slightly steeper angle in my dream version.
A ’67 Mille; the lady is not my mother.
The ’67 Simca was the successor to the valiant Renault Dauphine of yore that had taken my parents and me to Yugoslavia in the summer of ’61 (read here) The Mille was the car in which I learned to drive, and it became my first car when I came of age and my mother graduated to a Peugeot 304.
A 304 and a Mille neck and neck in a 1973 French movie
I liked the Simca Mille from the start. It was about Dauphine-sized but boasted such refinements as a removable rear seat, a then-voguish linear speedometer, chrome side trim, red-and-cream naugahyde seats, and coat hooks above the rear doors.
It was sprightly enough, with a 944-cc engine in the rear that made 50 hp at 5200 rpm and could impel the little box along at the dizzying speed of 135 km/h (83mph)–and even a theoretical 140, with a tailwind, as I discovered to my intoxicated delight on the autobahn between Vienna and Salzburg , as such lesser local fauna as Steyr-Puch 500s obligingly yielded the fast lane.
A Steyr-Puch 500, or Fiat Cinquecento made under license in Austria
That exploit occurred when I was en route home to Geneva from Budapest, and happy to be heading west. I made the eastbound trip at a time when Hungary was behind the barrier of minefields and barbed wire and sinister lies known as the Iron Curtain. To go there at all then(1969) was a daring escapade, but I’d inherited my parents’ bloody-mindedness, and I was of an age to drive.
Switzerland and Austria, threaded as they were even then by magnificent autoroutes and autobahnen, were no sweat. The Simca hummed happily along, except when one of the frequent Alpine crosswinds blew and the car exhibited an urgent desire to hop laterally into the next lane, or into a ditch. The steering was heavy, not being power-assisted, of course; but overall the little car was easy to control, and it had a superb Porsche-sourced (so they said) four-on-the floor that squeezed the most out of the tiny engine. So I managed to avoid incidents, even in traffic-congested and polizei-teeming Vienna, the West’s last glittering showcase, beyond which the autobahn and rolling fields of Austrian Burgenland dwindled into a potholed two-lane road that did no good to the Simca’s suspension and led past looming watchtowers and fields sown with tripwires and mines (Achtung: Minen!) to the Hegyeshalom frontier post and Hungary.
The Communist world came on strong. I’d already waited three hours by the time the customs officials got around to inspecting the Simca, looking in vain for my luggage in the engine compartment at the rear and finding it in the removable rear seat, which they tackled grimly, muttering in Magyar. I was coldly interrogated by more delegates of faceless internationalism from other Iron Curtain countries: the USSR, Poland, and the DDR, some in uniform, some in bulky gray Commie-civvies. (It was barely a year since the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, and the proletarian faithful had closed ranks.) As darkness fell, the strobe lights on the watchtowers went into action, rotating slowly from left to right, right to left, left to right, inspecting the lower depths for telltale signs of wretched escape. Uniformed guards paced, expressionless. Pungent cigarettes were chain-smoked by one and all. Equally pungent slivovicz or schnapps was passed around (not to me). Occasionally a Hungarian official would bustle over and yell something at me in his native tongue or in one of the many other languages I couldn’t understand. Finally the Mille and I were released from bondage at eleven-thirty at night and drove off into the midnight Magyar steppe and found shelter in a town called Gyor that was dark and silent and smelled of the cheap gasoline that fueled the GAZ trucks and Pobeda cars one saw on the roads in the daylight. (No one traveled by night; the roads were rough and poorly lit, and roadside assistance was a thing of the future and/or the capitalist West.)
Of the Hungarian countryside, however, I recall an excess of color and jolliness, and buxom peasant girls, and wine-soaked harvest festivals; but my memories may have gotten mixed up with the photos in an old Communist Youth magazine. Certainly Budapest itself was fine, although ringed with cheap apartment blocks, a whited sepulchre athwart the bluish Danube. Still: The view from the hills of Buda was magnificent. The city’s boulevards, even then, were handsome enough and evocative, vaguely, of Paris, or at least Vienna. The aromas from the few food shops were enticing, and exotic, and paprika-redolent; and the locals were surprisingly friendly. Things were cheap; but things were few. After three days I was willing to leave, hopeless capitalist that I was, and am. And my Simca and I had a tailwind to catch, somewhere on the forested autobahn west of Vienna and east of Salzburg.
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