There’s a story here worth telling. In 1995, in a barn not far from Paris, three prototypes of a legendary French car were discovered: the much-loved 2CV, the ‘Deux Chevaux’. Half a century earlier, two young engineers had hidden them, disobeying orders to break them up to prevent their secrets falling into the hands of the advancing Nazis, who would have swiftly passed them to Citroen’s German rivals. For Cameron McAllister, that discovery was the origin of The Tin Snail which, say Jonathan Cape, is ‘loosely inspired by real events’.
In McAllister’s account, Luca Fabrizzi, father of 12-year-old narrator Angelo, is a brilliant Italian designer of luxury motors for the affluent French. His boss, Bertrand Hipaux, is a man of vision and integrity. Luca and Bertrand are worried: Mercedes have produced a ‘Goliath’ of a limo to speed along Hitler’s new Autobahns, and there’s a whisper of a new ‘People’s Car’ from Ferdinand Porsche. Everything depends on success for their new design at the imminent Paris Motor Show of 1938. Luca’s marriage as well as his career is on the edge. Angelo desperately wants to help, but in trying to attract attention to the splendours of his father’s model at the show, he inadvertently starts the car and drives off the stand, causing carnage all around.
Their hopes dashed, Luca, Bertrand and Angelo decamp to South-West France to Bertrand’s crumbling chateau on the edge of a village which, you might think, is not a million kms from Clochemerle. Here, prompted by one of Angelo’s bright ideas, the team begins the development of an affordable car for the working folk of rural France – knocking up prototypes in no time at all, working in makeshift iron sheds, with a little help from the local blacksmith. Bertrand insists that the car must be able to convey a tray of eggs (unbroken) and a flagon of wine (unspilt) across a rutted field as if on the way to the market. (This was indeed a criterion applied during the 2CV’s development.) Several test drives, one of them aboard a converted sit-on mower, end up in rivers or spectacular crashes or both; the strong visual appeal of these episodes no doubt reflects Mr McAllister’s career as a tv scriptwriter.
Then the Nazis arrive. This lot have not wandered in from ‘Allo ‘Allo; they’re a threatening bunch who are looking for the prototypes – especially the blueprints of the suspension – to send back to the makers of The People’s Car in Germany. And here the book has some problems. The increasing menace of the invaders sits uneasily alongside the high-spirited melange of banter and rivalries, village politics and even schoolboy romance. The illustrations reinforce this light-hearted tone, for they have something of Quentin Blake’s insouciance about them. Some stylistic choices may also detract from what remains, nevertheless, an engaging story. Direct speech is supported by ‘he hissed/grimaced/gasped/snarled/hollered’ and so on, rather than the dialogue itself doing the work. An expression as noticeable as ‘a sly dig’ recurs within a few pages, eyes ‘bulge’ too often, while the emphatic ‘crushed’ is employed three times in 16 lines. The description of Angelo’s rival in love as ‘built like a brick outhouse’ seems to my ear not only dated (the text’s idiom is pretty much that of our own day) but also foreign to rural France. And does the line on the book’s cover ‘The little car that won a war’ mean anything?