Paul and Chantal Cox have a home in the lovely Seven Valleys, near Hesdin in Pas de Calais, France. They bought a house which needed a massive amount of restoration and a huge dollop of love – and it was a love of French cars that bought them together in the first place, a story of surprises, coincidences and chance…
Paul tells how in the early 1960’s, he left his London home to travel the world as a young man…
He decided to start his journey from Belgium and took a ferry from Dover to Ostend on a cold November morning. Arriving at 4.00 in the morning, everything was shut, there was no transport to go further at that early hour so he found a dock side café and sat sipping a coffee and looking at the dark, cold, wet day that was starting. He asked for the coffee in his halting French and discovered to his astonishment that “all Belgians speak English!” – he started to like Belgium immediately.
Eventually public transport workers awakened and Paul took a train to Bruges, deciding on a whim to get off at a little village on the way and find a café for breakfast.
Sitting there and watching the damp world outside from the warmth of the café, he noticed a strange little car at the side of the road being worked on by a mechanic who wore traditional blue trousers and jacket and a little blue cap and was puffing away on a Gauloise. Paul wandered over to say hello and to look at the car, he’d never seen one quite like it before – he didn’t know it at the time but it was a Citroën classic – a 2CV. The CV stands for “deux chevaux” – two horse power, ingeniously simple, economic to make and very eye catching.
The pair hit it off and Paul asked the mechanic how much he would sell a car like that for. “Duizend Francs” came the answer, Paul quickly worked out in his head that was £8/5 shillings (£8.25/$13 in today’s money). “How much?” said Paul incredulously? “Okay, 500 Francs” said the mechanic.
Paul worked out it was £4/2 shillings (£4.10/$6.50 in today’s money) and just couldn’t resist it – he bought the car which had no number plates and drove it back to Ostend. He booked a boat to Dover for the next sailing at 4.00 am the next morning.
Paul says he arrived in Dover, a hippy with long hair and had to go through the “Anything to Declare” exit –“yes – this car” he told the customs and excise officers. “Aha” came the response as quick as anything [Editor’s note: some things don’t change] “You’ll have to pay import duty on that car – how much did you pay for it?”
“500 Francs” said Paul, “About £60.00″ says the customer officer… “No” said Paul “500 Belgian Francs not French Francs – it’s about £4”. The flabbergasted customs officer fetched his boss and they scoured Paul’s paperwork – they’d never seen a 2CV before. After a heated discussion they reluctantly concluded that the value of the car was below the personal allowance and there was nothing to pay. Paul was allowed to proceed and purchase a licence after he waited for the AA to open and sell him insurance to drive on the road – which cost more than the car!
On the way home he was stopped by the Police who told him he’d lost the rear number plate. He explained he’d just bought the car in Belgium and was taking it to get it registered – they let him go after having a good laugh at how basic it was and called it “a deck chair on wheels”.
When he got home – his mother was staggered – she didn’t think she’d see him for 4 years. His round the world journey had lasted just 24 hours.
Paul sold the French car for £75.
He immediately went back to Belgium and bought another two 2CVs. They were he says “practically worthless” in Belgium at that time. He kept buying them and selling them; at one point he paid the massive amount of £32.00 – he was very worried as he’d never paid more than £16 before! He sold it for £325. He says he started to think “blimey” and just kept going.
One day he visited a Citroën garage in Belgium, he recalls it was a scorching hot and beautiful day. A woman came out with a big gold tooth gleaming at him and promptly slipped and fell over. “Bon Chance” he said and the ice was broken – he bought 4 cars for Belgian Francs 2000 (about £26/$44). The lady thought he was mad but liked him and asked him to stay for coffee “it’s a pity my daughter’s not here” she said, “She’s working in Spain and speaks really good English”.
Returning to the same garage a few weeks later to buy more 2CVs (by now Belgian garage owners were proactively sourcing stock for Paul whom they thought quite bonkers to buy the cheap old cars) – the garage owner’s daughter arrived. The pair hit it off immediately and she started working with Paul, helping to drive the cars to the UK, sourcing more cars – her name was Chantal. She was a teacher but travelled the world as an air hostess and Paul says much of their courting was conducted in the Heathrow airport lounges between flights!
Almost a decade after they first met the pair were married, Paul was by then an established Citroën dealer and 2CVs had become much loved by the British public and around the world. Chantal became a garden designer.
Almost 40 years after that first journey from the UK when Paul discovered the car that is now considered an iconic emblem of France, Chantal and Paul have bought a home in France.
They still love 2CVs and their black and white Citroën Light Fifteen 1955 models. On a few occasions the Light Fifteen have been used for weddings and they continue to draw admiring glances from lots of people – everybody has a story: ‘I learned to drive in one of those”…”my grandfather used to deliver chicken’s eggs in one of those”… but these days Chantal and Paul use them to drive to the local bar and shops in and to enjoy the good life in France…
Read more about the class French Icon – Citroen 2CV and its history
Read how expats Chantal and Paul restored the chapel of their French house and took on a grand scale renovation of their French home.