In tourist guides, Provence is presented as a place to see endless lavender fields and miles of coastline.
If you’re willing to swap your car for a mountain bike (or a good pair of hiking shoes) and venture off the beaten path, you’ll discover another, more obscure side of the region that’s rich in automotive history. Abandoned cars seemingly grow like chanterelles in the fall and each one has a unique story to tell.
Join us for a look at some of the hidden gems slowly returning to nature in the French countryside.
Built from 1959 to 2000, the original Mini is considered a masterpiece of engineering because it offers four seats and a usable boot in a 120in footprint. We’re not sure if the owner of this example wanted to make it even shorter, or if he hoped to turn it into a totem, but it worked. It’s too far gone to restore but its remains would make a neat desk or a cool couch.
Like most so-called people’s cars, including the original Mini and the Fiat 500, the Citroën 2CV launched in 1948 is considered a collectible whose appeal transcends automotive culture. It’s sought-after even by motorists who care little about cars and its value consequently rose sharply during the 2010s. We’ve seen dauntingly rusty examples get restored but this 1950s van is too damaged to receive a new lease on life. Its roof panel is held on with rivets, it has spent decades sitting in a forest and a tree fell on it.
And, don’t let the side windows fool you. It’s not a rare, Glacauto-modified van. While the rear windows are original, the side glass was added by someone with only a vague notion of automotive repair.
Citroën Ami 6
Citroën introduced the Ami 6 in 1961 in a bid to bridge the rift separating the humble 2CV and the bigger, more expensive DS. It quickly became the best-selling car in France and, unsurprisingly, it’s also one of the most common cars abandoned in the French countryside. This example is buried carburettor-deep in a creek. It’s mostly complete but it looks like it was abandoned after its front-end sustained damage in an accident. It’s difficult to tell for sure without spending an hour or two mining it out.
Citroën Ami 8
Although it’s very closely related to the 2CV, the Citroën Ami 8 stood shamefully as one of Citroën’s most unloved models until recently. Thousands ended up crushed, cannibalised for their flat-twin engine, transformed into chicken coops or simply pushed down a ditch, like this one. Their relative lack of image made them a cheap, stress-free way into vintage Citroën ownership but prices are rising.
Stashed away on the far outskirts of Marseilles, this Citroën GSA has been stripped of everything mechanical plus anything that could be used to identify it, like a registration number. There’s a strong chance it was stolen, taken apart and disposed of. And, although the GS and the GSA were very similar, features like the plastic door handles and the rear hatch allow us to identify this car as the latter.
Citroën Traction Avant
Unveiled in 1934, Citroën’s Traction Avant was revolutionary because it featured front-wheel drive (as its name in French clearly implied) and unibody construction. This wrecked example lingering in a field of forlorn classics gives us a clear view of how Citroën sent power to the front wheels. The transmission was installed directly in front of the engine, which was mounted against the firewall.
It stands to reason that most of the abandoned cars we find in France are French; if we scouted the Italian countryside, we’d very likely find Italian cars. We were not expecting to spot a Dutch-built 1960s DAF Daffodil in a small Alpine town because very few of these flat-twin-powered, CVT-only cars were sold in France. It’s too far gone to reasonably save, it wouldn’t even make a worthwhile parts car, but it shows you never know what you’ll discover after trekking into a forest. Registration numbers tell us this is a local car and it was likely put out to pasture after its replacement kicked it out of the garage.
Dealer stickers on the hatch signal this 1980s Datsun Cherry didn’t go far in life. It was abandoned in a forest that’s right across a river from the town it was sold new in. It’s a relatively rare car, and it’s the only one we’ve seen in this part of France regardless of roadworthiness. There must be at least one more because it’s missing several parts, including the rear lights and numerous bits and pieces inside.
Although the eye-catching red stripes suggest this Fiat 128 is a special model, a closer inspection reveals it’s a run-of-the-mill saloon that was once owned by someone with a taste for aftermarket accessories. We can tell it’s a third-series model built after 1976 because there are no holes for the indicators in the front wings; they were bumped-mounted on later cars, like this one.
Beached in a river, this 128 spent decades guarding the southern entrance of a well-hidden and rather large graveyard of stolen cars. Local officials began removing them one by one in the 2010s but the Fiat slipped through the net, likely because it was a few hundred yards away from the others.
There isn’t much left on this upside-down TC2-generation Ford Taunus, which suggests it was used for parts before being disposed of. Oddly, its location leads us to believe it was stripped right where you see it. Given the circumstances, flipping it (probably using a tractor or a 4x4) was likely the safest and easiest way to remove hard-to-reach parts like the rear axle.
Identifying an abandoned car (or parts of an abandoned car) sometimes requires hours of poking and prodding to find clues. In this case, we initially weren’t sure whether we were looking at a Fiat 124 estate or at a Lada 2102. The latter was based on the former and the two cars were nearly identical when new, so precious little sets them apart after they’ve been decaying in a riverbed for decades. We wrapped up our investigation quicker than expected after noticing a Lada plaque in the engine bay.
The owner of this Opel Kadett B chose a cow pen as its final resting place. It’s rough around the edges, the numerous dings and dents suggest its life wasn’t easy, and registration stickers on the windshield confirm it’s been off the road since 1988. Nothing leads us to believe it has moved since, especially because it’s parked deep in Alps and completely off the beaten path. And yet, all four doors are locked.
Have you ever wondered where pure, mineralised Peugeot 204-flavoured spring water comes from? We did, so we looked into it and ended up finding the source: a small creek in the French Alps. Joke aside, this saloon seemingly fell from a pile of scrap metal right above the creek and stayed where it landed. It was built in the 1960s but not enough of it is visible to tell when it was last on the road.
Newer classics are increasingly joining their older counterparts in fields and barns, though they’re not quite as common. Made in the 1980s, this two-door Peugeot 205 was relegated to parts-car status after a front-end collision, though it hasn’t been touched in many years.
Buried between a hiking trail and a river, this dented, rusty roof is a big storm away from disappearing. Identifying it didn’t require digging it out. The hatch hinges tell us it’s either a Peugeot 204 or a 304 and the bits of green paint left on the body confirm it’s the latter. It was built between 1976 and 1980.
Sun-faded stickers on both sides of this 1970s Peugeot J7 reveal that, at one point in its life, it was owned by a company that installed window screens. It’s a little bit ironic, then, that its closest neighbours are beehives and its cavernous cargo compartment has been taken over by wasps.
We’re briefly leaving Provence for a quick trip to Paris. Although street-parked older cars are a rare sight now that most are banned, there are numerous gems hidden deep in the city’s countless underground parking garages. One or our favourites is this 4CV from the late 1940s or the early 1950s, which hasn’t seen sunlight in over two decades. It’s complete and unrestored. It’s also not for sale; we asked. Its owner continues to regularly pay for parking and has turned down numerous offers to part with it.
Manufactured between 1961 and 1994, the Renault 4 was mass produced and mass destroyed. Scrappage schemes, crippling rust issues and merciless owners put a big dent in the population. And, until the late 2010s, it was a considered a throwaway car that few wanted to see in their driveway, which likely explains why this blue example made in the early 1980s ended up in a field. Values are rising, even in the 4’s home country, and this car could easily be restored and put back on the road.
Renault 4 F4
We spent years driving past this Renault 4 F4 but we didn’t get a close look at it until the house it sat behind was listed for sale. We called and quickly clarified we had no interest in visiting the property; we were curious about the car. It turns out it’s a 1986 model that’s relatively rough, dubiously modified (dangerously, even) but shockingly rust-free. Can it be saved? We’ll let you know; we bought it.
In 2019, we heard about a small town nestled deep in the Alps that rounded up about a dozen abandoned cars in the 1980s and used them to build a dam. It collapsed after a few years but locals told us some of the cars were still there. After a long drive and a longer hike, we found ourselves face to face with this 1970s Renault 12. It’s far better preserved than the other cars used to build the dam.
Last driven in 1999, this Renault 16 was parked behind a barn after its front end was damaged in an accident. Some parts have been stripped from it, including the steering wheel. It’s in a part of the Alps that gets a tremendous amount of snow in the winter, and we missed it the first time we visited the area because it was buried roof-deep in powder. It’s not alone; there’s a Renault Estafette not far from it.
Here’s a tip for amateur automotive archaeologists: the best place to start looking for cars is on the far ends of a field. That’s where farmers often haul rocks, construction material they don’t need, pallets, and scrap metals – including cars. This 1970s Renault 18 is ending its days in a farmer’s throw-away pile and slowly getting consumed by blackberry bushes. It’s nearly complete, and it doesn’t look like was involved in an accident, but its interior has been exposed to the elements for so long that there’s not much left of it.
Stripped, dented and rusty, this Renault Dauphine is slowly sinking into a remote part of the French Alps. It’s more of a shell than a car yet automotive archaeology allows us to determine it’s a very early model built between March 1956, when production started, and May 1957. How? Moving a few bushes out of the way reveals it’s fitted with five-lug hubs built to accommodate steel wheels like the 4CV’s. Renault phased them out about a year into the production run and replaced them with three-lug wheels.
Our photo suggests that, like cats and unlike pancakes, the Renault Fuego always lands with the bottom side down. Whoever dumped this 1980s Fuego down a gully in the Alps devoted a considerable amount of energy to making sure it couldn’t be found or identified. It’s miles away from anything resembling civilization and all registration-related plates and stickers were removed from the car.
One of the oldest cars we’ve found in our travels is this Renault Monaquatre, which was likely manufactured in 1932. It’s parked on the side of an abandoned barn in a tiny town in the French Alps, and it’s in remarkably good condition for an 88-year old car. It’s nearly complete, it’s only missing the two-part bonnet and some of the glass, and there is no structural rust on it. We’d love to treat it to a full restoration and get it back on the road, we haven’t been able to track down the owner yet.
Simca launched the 1100 in 1967. It’s a model that offered motorists a transversally-mounted engine, front-wheel drive, four doors and a rear hatch seven years before the original Volkswagen Golf made its debut. It was an extremely innovative car but innovation alone couldn’t keep Simca afloat.
Registration stickers on the windshield suggest this 1100 was last on the road in 2006. At first glance, it looks like it would fire up after receiving a new battery and fresh gas. It might, but making it roadworthy would be a much more complicated task. The 1100 rusted well and this example wasn’t spared.
This light blue, two-door Simca Aronde P60 must have been quite a looker when it was new in the early 1960s. It’s always fascinating to remember that nearly every car we find abandoned, rusty and gutted of its interior started life as someone’s pride and joy. What would the original owner say if he or she saw it sitting in the remains of a century-old warehouse in the Alps?
Made in the 1970s, this Toyota Celica is sitting on the side of a busy road but you’ll never see it if you drive past it in a car. It’s only visible in something taller, like a van. It wears a long list of modifications including scoops on the bonnet, wider wheel arches and a two-tone paint job – or what’s left of it.