Sunday, January 18, 2009

Car Rental Then and Now

The Lambs are accompanying us on this trip. It’s a virtual accompaniment. Charles and Helen are fictional. They were featured in a textbook from the middle of the 20th century. A British couple, The Lambs, in 1955, visit France. When Charles and Helen came across the Channel, things were both similar and different from what is the case today.

Both the Lambs and us rented a car at a train station, Marseille for them, Avignon for us. Upon arriving, the Lambs are surprised to find a car that resembles a mouse. The clerk validates their response saying that yes, the “4 Chevaux” sort of looks like a wind-up toy mouse. Still, it was a popular car, and symbol of post-War freedom.

The agent’s first act is to offer his customers a cigarette. Peter and the agent share a Gauloise, one of the main French brands, along with Gitanes. Today there is still plenty of smoking in France, but, officially it has been banned in public places since 2006. The ban was extended to cafes/restaurants in 2008. Although not offering us a cigarette, the clerk was friendly and helpful. When she learned that we needed a payphone, she simply said, give me the number and I will call. She then gave us forms to fill out, told us the car was a “Corsa” (A kind of Opel, it turns out), and gave us the parking space number.

That was the extent of out contemporary, efficient, time-saving interaction. The Lamb’s agent accompanied them to their car to explain how it worked. “Maintenant il faut que je vous montre le fonctionnement de votre quatre-chevaux.” Starting a car in 1955 involved three components: the ignition, the starter, and the choke. Complicating the situation was the French word for choke, starter. Peter, of course pulls on the lever marked starter and is stunned that the car does not, well “start.” Once the confusion is sorted out, Peter pulls on the démarreur, and things go well.

Things are a lot easier today, easier, at least for Americans who can negotiate a standard transmission, the default for rentals in France. Still, it is a good idea, before leaving the lot to check out some of the fonctionnement: windshield wiper operation, the headlight controls, how to open the gas tank, and, what is most important, how to shift into reverse. Our Toyota and Honda require moving the shift over to the right and down for reverse. European cars often require moving to the left and up. But that is not all. There is a lever on the gear shift that must be lifted in order to allow engaging reverse gear. Typically, one puts one’s index and middle finger around the gear shift and, with the index finger, lifts up on the latch. Not knowing this in advance can pose a problem if caught, as I have been, attempting a three point turn with oncoming traffic looming in the distance. This is not the best time to master the act of getting into reverse.

Like the Lambs, our car was grey, sort of looked like a mouse, but, since the Corsa is a hatchback, probably had more space. Theirs was a rear-mounted engine, so the hatchback design was out of the question.

One final difference: their license place was composed of three digits, two letters, and then two more digits. In France, the final two digits indicate the department where the car is registered. There are 97 numbers in all. The Lambs’s plate ends in the number 13, Bouches du Rhône, the mouth of the Rhone, where Marseille is situated. Our rental, in an era of greater flexibility, carried the suffix of 76, Seine Maritime, the part of Normandy around Rouen. Avignon, where we rented the car, is actually 84, part of the department of Vaucluse. The numbers correspond to the alphabetical listing of departments. Cars with a suffix of 75 are from Paris.

50s style license plate

our license plate

Newest Plates (the middle one would be the Lamb's today)

Recently, the ministry in charge of transportation proposed eliminating the department-identifying suffix. Immediately, there arose a great hue and cry. In a compromise, the new license plates will not include the department suffix as an official part of the identifying number. What licenses will include, however, is an identifying symbol and departmental number on the extreme right of the plate. People will be free to choose what number they want on their plates. It might be the department of birth, to which they still feel some kind of attachment. It need not be the department in which the license is registered.

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