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

“When I was young I had a terrific urge for danger and my Renault 12 Gordini was a fast car, very racy. I loved the way she was dressed in that bright blue with white stripes, she screamed. She looked so aggressive, so sporty with those big 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 that could possibly exist; it was the Car for a young person who is reckless. I had broken down a Peugeot 204, my first car, just three hours after buying it because I had enjoyed it so much I forgot right-hand drive in France – it was wrecked by the Volkswagen that had rammed in his side.

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I didn’t ask a single question when I went to my Gordini, it looked stunning. It was sold in my city [Saône in eastern France] for £2000 – exactly what I had saved. I tried it and found it a little weird because I felt a tension that pulled the car to the right and meant I had to hold the wheel very tightly, but when you’re young you listen to your heart and your emotions . I paid the £2000 and walked away the happiest young man in the world because I had the car of my dreams. Then I take it to my dad… who knows cars.

Renault 12 Gordini
A Renault 12 Gordini similar to Blanc’s – although probably in better condition. Photo: Renault

He looked at it and said, “What have you done?”. It turned out that the car had several crashes and the axle on the right side was two centimeters shorter, which is why it felt like it was pulling to the right when driving. If I had let go of the steering wheel, it might have reversed itself. There was also another massive problem; The engine block was cracked, which meant I had to top up the radiator with water every hundred kilometers to keep it from overheating.

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The car was a wreck but the nice paintwork covered the mastic and when you’re in love you don’t listen to your daddy and the girls loved it. I was a young French guy with a beautiful car… and then I decided to take it to England.

It was 1972 and I was 22 when I took the ferry from Calais to Dover. I had no luggage, just a bag and a Saint Joseph medallion, a patron saint of travel, which my mother kindly gave me. Coming from a food culture country where food means something, I wanted to try a British specialty, so with my car parked on the bottom of the ship, I strolled over to the restaurant, which was a huge refectory, sat down and watched the Menu. The waitress, in a gray jacket with a few stains here and there, showed little interest and my English was appalling, so no one understood a word I was talking about. I recognized fish and chips and ordered that.

Renault 12 Gordini
Not even Blancs Gordini. Photo: Renault

It arrived in less than a minute but I could smell it from four meters away, it smelled like vinegar. It was a horrible picture, the fries were grey, mushy and oily and the fish, I couldn’t believe the fish, it was square! I’m a fisherman and I’ve never seen a square fish in real life! I was wondering Raymond where the hell are you going? Then I arrived in Dover, which scared me even more.

I took my car and drove towards London at great speed, but after 50 km steam came out from under the hood. I had to wait for the engine to cool down, add more water and then drive off again. I arrived in London and it took me three days to get out – I’m not a good map reader, there was no GPS and no one could understand a word I said when I asked how to get to Oxford. Eventually I found my way. I then parked the Gordini and completely forgot where it was.

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My next trip took me to Standlake near Witney. It was a beautiful summer’s day and I took my car very slowly, enjoying this moment of discovering the British countryside. At one point some cows fled from a field and I saw something I didn’t imagine would happen in France. A bobby came by on a bike and he stopped, took off his helmet and went to get the cows and take them back to the pasture. In France, I can tell you, the cows would have been let go. It really made me smile; I was so stressed out in London, but life suddenly stopped here in a posh environment full of green and beautiful hills.

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

Finally I arrived at my destination; my new place of work called The Rose Revived in Newbridge. It was so pretty, quintessentially British but I wanted to bring a little bit of France to the UK so I was so proud to have my lovely car parked outside. It drew 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 giant lights I would have attached to the front if they were messing with me.

As a young man it was difficult to come to a country that didn’t speak the language. I was also in love with someone in France, so I was very lonely and the car became a distraction, an escape. For a year I had no accidents at all, it was most extraordinary, but then 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 disturbed. A new engine would cost too much and because of everything else that was wrong with it, I had to scrap my beautiful, dangerous Gordini. Losing this car really did me some good, but c’est la vie!

After the Gordini, my love affair with cars became interesting. As a young chef, they became a tool I could use to let off steam in the kitchen and I became a serious danger to myself, but worse to others. I’ve had some incredible accidents, I’ve 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’ve been lucky enough to get out alive. The Saint Joseph medallion my mother gave me probably 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.

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Raymond Blanc 2CV
At a slower pace, with a slower car. Photo: courtesy of Raymond Blanc

One day, as I was driving through the center of Oxford, that sickness, that compulsion, hit me again. I had to race and was going about 60 miles an hour when suddenly an old lady appeared at a crosswalk about 200 yards away. She had every right to be there and it was wet so I hit the brakes; I was inches from her when I stopped. She came to my window and said, ‘Monsieur Blanc, this is the third time this week that you have almost killed me.’ I decided enough was enough.

For the last 18 years I’ve been the coolest driver, England taught me to keep calm and keep going. I am a reformed French; if I can do it, anyone can. My message to young people is: listen to advice when buying a car and don’t be reckless as it can cause serious harm to you and others.

When it comes to the Gordini, to be honest I’d enjoy a little ride if I could bring them back, but I’ve progressed and I like the comfort, lightness, safety and silence you get in the cabin of a experience in modern cars.”

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