The One That Got Away

The One That Got Away: Chef Raymond Blanc on the hard-driven Renault 12 Gordini he brought to England in the ’70s

by Charlotte Vowden
19 October 2022 5 min read
The One That Got Away: Chef Raymond Blanc on the hard-driven Renault 12 Gordini he brought to England in the ’70s
Photo: courtesy Raymond Blanc

“When I was young I had a horrendous compulsion for danger and my Renault 12 Gordini was a fast car, very racy. I loved the way she was dressed, in this vibrant blue with white stripes, she was shouting. She looked so aggressive, so sporty with these large wheels, she wanted to be driven fast. So I drove her fast, my god, I scared so many people. 

I was 19 when I started saving for a Gordini, they were expensive and everyone wanted to own one, but for me there was no other car which could possibly exist; it was the car for a young person who is reckless. I had already broken a Peugeot 204, my first car, three hours after I’d bought it because I’d enjoyed it so much I forgot that you have to give priority on the right in France – it was wrecked by the Volkswagen that rammed into its side.

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I didn’t ask a single question when I went to see my Gordini, it looked smashing. It was on sale in my town [Saône in eastern France] for £2000 – exactly what I had saved. I tried it and thought something was weird because I felt a tension which pulled the car to the right and meant I had to hold onto the steering wheel very tightly, but when you are young you listen to the heart and the emotions. I paid the £2000 and went away the happiest young man in the world because I had the car of my dreams. Then, I bring it to my father… who knows about cars. 

Renault 12 Gordini
A Renault 12 Gordini much like the one owned by Blanc – albeit probably in better condition. Photo: Renault

He looked at it and said ‘what have you done?’.  It turned out the car had been in a number of accidents and the axle was shorter on the right hand side by two centimetres which is why when I drove it, it felt like it was pulling to the right. If I had let the steering wheel go, it may have done a U-turn on its own. There was also another massive problem; there was a crack in the engine block which meant every hundred miles I had to refill the radiator with water so it wouldn’t overheat. 

The car was a wreck but the beautiful paint job covered up the mastic and when you are in love, you don’t listen to your papa, and the girls loved it. I was a young French man with a gorgeous car… and then I decided to move to England with it.

It was 1972 and I was 22 when I took the ferry from Calais to Dover. I didn’t have luggage, just a bag, and a Saint Joseph medallion, a patron saint of travel, that my mum kindly gave me. Coming from a country with a food culture, where food means something, I wanted to taste a British speciality so whilst my car was resting in the bottom of the ship, I wandered to the restaurant, which was a huge refectory, sat down and looked at the menu. The waitress, in a grey jacket with a few stains here and there, took little interest, and my English was appalling so nobody understood a word I was talking about. I recognised fish and chips and ordered that.

Renault 12 Gordini
Also not Blanc’s Gordini. Photo: Renault

It arrived in under one minute but I could smell it about four metres away, it was reeking of vinegar. It was a horrendous picture, the chips were grey, soggy and oily and the fish, I couldn’t believe the fish, it was rectangular! I’m a fisherman and I’d never seen a rectangular fish in real life! I wondered, Raymond, where the hell are you going? Then I arrived in Dover, which scared me even more.

I took my car and started to drive at great speed towards London but after 50km steam started coming out from under the bonnet. I had to wait for the engine to cool down, put more water inside, and then sped off again. I arrived in London and it took me three days to get out again – I’m not a good map reader, there was no GPS and nobody could understand a word I was talking about when I asked which way it was to Oxford. Eventually I found my way. I then parked the Gordini and completely forgot where it was. 

The next journey I made was to Standlake near Witney. It was a beautiful summer’s day and I took my car very slowly and enjoyed that moment of discovering the British countryside. At one stage some cows escaped from a field and I saw something I couldn’t possibly imagine would happen in France. A bobby was passing by on a bicycle and he stopped, removed his helmet, and went to fetch the cows and bring them back to the field. In France, I can tell you, they would have let the cows go. It really made me smile; in London I was so stressed, but here, suddenly, life stopped in a genteel environment full of green and beautiful hills. 

Renault 12 Gordini
And again, though this is probably representative of his level of commitment… Photo: Renault

I eventually arrived to my destination; my new workplace called The Rose Revived in Newbridge. It was so pretty, quintessentially British, but I wanted to bring a bit of France to the UK so I was so proud to have my beautiful car parked up outside. It got more interest than a Mini Cooper because there were so few in England and it purred like a cat. I could also blind people with the eight huge lights I’d put on the front if they messed around with me.

It was difficult as a young man coming into a country who doesn’t speak the language. I’d also been in love with someone in France, so I was very lonesome and the car became the distraction, the escape. For a year I didn’t have any accidents whatsoever, it was most extraordinary, but then late one night, there was this big bang and the car stopped. I had to walk about 20 miles to get help and the damage was irreparable; I was distraught. A new engine would cost too much and because of everything else that was wrong with it, I had to give away my beautiful, dangerous Gordini for scrap. To lose that car really did something to me, but c’est la vie!

After the Gordini my love affair with cars became interesting. As a young chef they became an instrument I could use to let off steam from the kitchen and I became a serious danger to myself, but worse, to others. I had some incredible accidents, I murdered about 15 cars because of my extraordinarily wild driving (it didn’t even matter if I was in my own car or not) and I was lucky to escape alive. The Saint Joseph medallion my mum gave me is probably what saved me and I wish I still had it, it’s one of those important things in life that you’ve lost and wish you could find again.

Raymond Blanc 2CV
At a more sedate pace, with a more sedate car. Photo: courtesy Raymond Blanc

One day when I was driving through the centre of Oxford, that illness, that compulsion, hit me again. I had to race and was doing about 60mph when suddenly an old lady appeared on a Zebra crossing about 200 yards away. She had every right to be there, and it was wet, so I smashed the brake; I was inches from her when I stopped. She came around to my window and said ‘Monsieur Blanc, that’s the third time this week you nearly kill me.’ I decided enough was enough.

For the last 18 years I have been the coolest driver, England has taught me how to be calm and carry on. I am a reformed French man; if I can do it, everyone can do it. My message to young people is listen to advice when you are buying a car and don’t be reckless because that can cause serious harm to yourself and other people.

When it comes to the Gordini I’m going to be truthful, I would enjoy a little drive if I could bring her back, but I have evolved and like the comfort, ease, safety and silence you experience in the cabin of a modern car.”

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