To be honest, there were times, when I believed I would never get to write this post, but after nearly 18 months of brain-frying shenanigans, this week we finally received Fifi’s French registration number, and ordered her beautiful new black and silver plates.
When we bought Fifi, just over 2 years ago, we fell in love with this characterful, mademoiselle, with a wonderfully colourful history.
She was completing the circle for us. We had our little place in Provence, we were really forging on with a new life there about to take the leap to fully relocate and establish ourselves as residents. The final bit for us was a classic little 2 CV, that we could use, just to potter around in, when we weren’t out and about on our bikes. It was just another part of the dream.
She was perfect, she was left-hand drive, made for the roads of France, and a french classic that oozed style, putting a permanent, silly grin on our faces, whenever we went near her. We couldn’t have found anything better, she was even called Fifi.
So, in July 2020, after a major overhaul to get her back into shape, Fifi’s French Adventure started in earnest, when we drove her down through France to her new home.
It wasn’t the easiest of trips, coming to a grinding, and very abrupt halt in Brantome, when with a bang and a puff of smoke, her clutch burnt out, and she had to spend 2 weeks in a garage there, waiting to be repaired, before she could continue on to The Luberon.
Finally at her new home, we got on with the process of starting to register both Fifi and our old Honda CRV, imagining that Fifi would be a simple process (french car being registered back in France) and the Honda would give us slightly more of a headache. We couldn’t have got it more wrong.
France is well-known for its bureaucracy, and it was only to be expected that moving the cars and going through the ‘immatriculation’ process would require a bit of paperwork and a few headaches, so we started looking at what needed to be done, establishing that due to her age, we needed to register Fifi as a ‘Voiture de Collection’, whereas the Honda could just be registered normally.
We did all the immediate bits that were needed, visiting the local Tax Office and declaring that we had imported them, receiving copies of the Quitus Fiscale, evidencing that tax had been paid in the UK and we wouldn’t be liable for it here too. And then went on to look at everything else we needed to do.
One of the main documents needed for registering a vehicle here is a C.O.C. ‘Certificate Of Conformity’, a declaration from the vehicle’s manufacturer that the vehicle complies with the approved type, containing all the technical information about the car. We contacted Honda and within days had received a copy for the CRV, and started looking at how we could get one for Fifi.
After looking online, I couldn’t find anything, so we popped down to the local Citroën garage in Apt, naively thinking they may just be able to print one out for us. There couldn’t have been many technical guidelines for a 2CV4 built in the 1970s, so it shouldn’t be too difficult. The chap in reception was very helpful, but more than slightly perplexed by our request, so he pointed us in the direction of the workshop.
A mechanic came out from under a car, rubbing his hands with an oily rag, as I explained what we needed. He thought for a moment, before telling us he didn’t know where to get it from, and that we would be best contacting Citroën direct to see if they could help. ‘Of course’ I thought, that’s what I should have done in the first place, they would have one.
We headed straight home and started trying to call Citroën Head Office, to be told there was a site where you could request a COC for their cars, helpfully giving me the web address too. Perfect, we were just a few clicks away from getting what was needed.
I logged on, quickly went to the page, there was going to be a charge, but that was only to be expected, so I started to fill in the details, coming to a grinding halt, when 2CV wasn’t one of the options available. Thinking I had followed the wrong link, I went back, scouring for what I needed, surely it must be there? But no, 2CV wasn’t listed anywhere on the Citroën site, so that wasn’t going to help.
There was evidently something I was missing, so I started to look again. We couldn’t be the first people to want to register a vintage car in France, there must be a very simple way of doing it, it was just a question of finding it. So I started searching again, finally stumbling across a Facebook group called Registering Vehicles in France, and joined it to see if anyone there could help.
I started browsing the posts and found lots of mentions of an organisation called the FFVE (Fédération Française Des Vehicules D’Epoque), and it appeared that as Fifi was a lady of a certain age, the FFVE could provide an ‘Attestation’, which would replace the COC , allowing us to register her.
I knew there had to be a process, it had just been a matter of finding it, and now I had, I felt confident that she would be french, in no time at all. Andy always says I tend to be over-optimistic, and on this occasion he was right, I was celebrating far too early, in fact about 16 months too early!
Thinking that I had this in the bag, I downloaded the forms and started to fill them in, completing all the boxes and hunting for all the supporting papers that it said I would need to support the application.
The form detailed all the information about the car, and we had to take photographs from various different angles of the exterior, interior and engine to submit with it. The final sheet was an ‘Attestation D’Honneur’ on which I had to declare that she was in her original condition, with no modifications to the car, and specifically the engine size.
My heart sank, as back in the 1980s Fifi’s original 435cc engine had been changed to have an eye-wateringly powerful, 602cc engine fitted instead. Like so many 2CVs of the time, it had been the logical thing to do, fit a slightly larger engine to enable the car to make it up hills, without being overtaken by an old lady on a bike! A 602cc engine hardly turns the car into a throbbing, growling beast of a thing, it just means that you can occasionally overtake a tractor on a back road, without having to be able to see for about a mile ahead. but it wasn’t her original engine size, so I couldn’t sign the Attestation.
Not a problem, I thought, I’m sure they regularly come across this issue, as so many have had a different sized engine fitted, and it’s still a 2CV engine, just for the next size up. So I penned a quick email asking what I needed to do to get their attestation, so that we could progress her registration.
A couple of weeks passed, before I got a reply, and it wasn’t what I had hoped to hear at all. The reply read as follows
‘oui, c’est un problème, pour être en règle en France, il faut remettre un moteur 2CV4 de 435 cc et aussi une boîte de vitesses de 2CV4
sinon il faut passer à la DREAL pour valider la modification, mais une voiture modifiée ne peut être en collection’
Which basically translated, says there is a major problem, we either have to change her engine and gearbox back to the original 435 cc, or go to DREAL, the french government vehicle agency, to have the modified engine validated, which would allow us to register her normally, but not as a voiture de collection. I sat, staring at the screen wondering how to break the news to Andy, at the same time wondering what we should do for the best.
The simple answer was that we didn’t have the money available to change Fifi’s engine, we had just ripped the kitchen out of the house and we’re using the old units balanced on bits of wood, with a workbench supporting a piece of plywood acting as a worktop, so needed to replace that, and the Honda (now fully registered) was having catalytic converter problems, that were costing us an arm and a leg. So we had to abandon the idea of Fifi being a ‘voiture de collection’, and simply do what was needed to get her registered in France, even though she would just have basic plates. The important thing was to get the registration done.
After several coffees, and a few pain au chocolats, to calm me down, whilst at the same time strengthening me ahead of a phone call to a french government agency, I picked up the phone and called our local branch of DREAL in Marseille, explaining what we needed to do.
The conversation went something like this ….
‘How old is the car?’ the chap asked
’50 this year’ I replied proudly
‘Well you have to go through FFVE’ he explained
‘Yes, I’ve tried that, but because her engine has been changed they say I need to go through you’ I said
‘She is over 30 years old?’ he said
‘Yes’ I replied
‘You have to go through FFVE, we don’t deal with cars over 30 years old’
‘But they said I needed to come to you for the modified engine’
It is over 30 years old, you need to go through them
So are you saying that without us getting the attestation through FFVE we can’t register her ?
His reply ‘Oui Madame’ brought tears to my eyes and a choking sound to my voice as I quietly said ‘merci monsieur’ and put the phone down. It seemed as if Fifi’s French Adventure was coming to an abrupt halt. It was simple, if we couldn’t register her, she couldn’t stay. We were devastated
From that point, every time we got in her to potter to the shops, or pop up to the Boulangerie, we felt slightly sad, and then to cap it all she started to burn oil, as if she was drinking it to drown her sorrows. Whenever we took her out, she was belching smoke from her exhaust, looking very poorly indeed. So not only did we have a car we couldn’t register, but a car that was also in need of a new engine too. Fifi was quickly becoming more than just a problem child.
But like all children, we had to do what we could, so after deciding that we could survive with the chaotic kitchen set-up for a while longer, we put out feelers to find a garage, specialising in classic cars, which could source and fit a new engine, not only making her roadworthy, but fitting one that would comply with her original type guidelines and allow us to get the Attestation from FFVE.
That was when we were put in touch with Michel at the Garage Centrale in Apt. We had often driven by and seen old cars outside & the yard is filled with projects, bits of old cars and some rusted hulks too, but we’d never popped in. But he was suggested as a good contact, so we went in to chat to him.
To say he loves 2CVs is an understatement, he lives and breathes them, they are a real passion for him. Confronted by a slightly wild-eyed English couple asking if he could reduce the size of the engine in their, pretty much pristine 2CV, he couldn’t help but raise an eyebrow, surely he could just give the engine a good service and go from there. But once we explained what we needed and why we had to have it done, he offered to source what we needed straight away.
Within a fortnight Fifi was in the garage, having the engine and gearbox transplant, with Michel taking his time to make sure everything was in order, even replacing her clutch again, as the garage in Brantome had fitted the wrong one.
When we collected her, she looked and sounded wonderful, that unmistakable sound of a 2CV, happy with life, and I may even suggest that she had a slight French accent too.
We handed over the rest of the money, that had been destined for the new kitchen to Michel, knowing that we had done the right thing, and as we drove out had a broad smile on our faces.
She may not have gone up hills as fast, but she got up, and all 435cc were working to perfection. She no longer belched smoke from her exhaust, and as we drove along the back lanes, through the lavender fields, you could hear her humming, with us grinning from ear to ear.
By now it was late June and we just needed to get the FFVE attestation, the final hurdle before registering her. The only thing we needed to do before that was to change her UK registration document to show the new engine size and number, so there were no anomalies that could throw yet another fly in the ointment. In just a few weeks we would be fine.
I filled everything in, added copies of the receipts and a few photos, sent everything off to DVLA and waited. About 5 weeks later, a request for more information, which I sent on and then the new registration document arrived.
I looked through it and picked up that not only had the engine number not been changed, but that the engine size had been changed to show 935cc . Nine hundred and thirty five cc, can you imagine that in a 2CV, it would be terrifying, over double the size that we had had fitted, and something that got us no further forward in our efforts to get Fifi registered.
I managed to speak to someone, who said the paperwork seemed to have been mixed up with another car, with a 1250 engine, which still didn’t help us, and certainly didn’t explain where the 935 cc came from. I was reassured that it would be corrected. At this point I could have screamed, in fact I think I did.
The weeks passed and after several frustrating online chats, the new document arrived. Hang out the flags, I thought, finally we’re on track, but no. Once I checked the latest document, it correctly showed the 435cc engine size, but the engine number was still the original one. I was beyond screaming by this point, more at the point of wanting to throw things whilst cursing loudly. Surely this was not rocket science!
Another period of weeks passed, lots more online chats, and telephone calls, until in mid-December, 5 months after I had put in the paperwork we finally got a registration document through with both the right engine size and the right engine number. This called for champagne.
We went straight into Apt, bought the local paper, as photos for FFVE have to include the paper from the date they were taken, re-took all the photos, prepared the dossier, and signed the Attestation that she had the right sized engine, with a flourish. We went straight back into town and sent the file off, feeling that the job was done.
Oh, that life would be that simple. We waited, expecting an email with the necessary piece of paper to arrive, saying that she conformed to type, but nothing. Then in mid January we had the complete dossier returned to us, saying that it was missing evidence of the chassis number.
All I could think was that surely, it was there, I had sent the photo of its plaque, riveted to the inside of the engine housing, we had all the paperwork for the car dating back to the early 80s and the chassis number was in the plate. But no, it had to be on the chassis.
We spoke to Michel, had he seen it? No, came the reply, it is on the plate. We thought we had done everything, but this number had to be found. All we could do was dismantle the car again and painstakingly check the chassis. There were no more plates, if there had been one, it had long since fallen off, or been removed during work. Then with us just about at the point of absolute despair, thinking all our efforts had been in vain, we noticed a mark obliterated by gunk, sludge and grime, could that be it?
We cleaned it up a little and there, almost too small to see, was the number, haphazardly stamped into the chassis. The final bit of the jigsaw fell into place. The photo was taken, and added to the dossier, which went straight back to FFVE the next day
A few weeks later, actually on our wedding anniversary, there was the ping of an email, and the long yearned-for, hard fought-for FFVE attestation arrived. If I’m honest, we couldn’t have asked for a better anniversary present.
So the last piece was in place, we booked the Controle Technique, and sorted out new insurance, and once both were done, I finally logged onto ANTS, the french system for dealing with vehicle registration, and following the useful guide on the original Facebook Group, filled it all in, uploading the documents and pressed submit.
Then on Monday, the provisional ‘carte grise’ arrived and using that we ordered her new black and silver, voiture de collection plates, which have just arrived.
So that’s it, Fifi is officially a little french mademoiselle, or perhaps (at her age) more of a grande dame. She will be totally at home now on the local roads, looking like a local, a resident like us, and a visitor no more.
She has been our problem child, but has she been worth the investment of time, stress and cash? The simple, and only answer is that of course she has.
Her french adventure is a big part of our dream, and although I may have aged a little in the process, we can’t imagine life without her. I’m sure she will still give us a few headaches in the future, but that’s just one of the joys of owning an old car, isn’t it?
So if you happen to be in Provence, and see a cherry-red 2CV, with red and cream striped seats with 2 grinning people behind the wheel & a goofy retriever in the back, please wave a cheery ‘Bonjour’ and Fifi, our ‘fille française’ will wave back…