“I left toward eight or nine o’clock in the evening and until midnight I transported all sorts of people; only then did Paris empty. In the whole city there remained only a few lively intersections, oases in the desert of cobblestones – Montparnasse, Montmartre, certain spots along the great boulevards – that which is called Paris by night…”
So goes a passage in Gaito Gazdanov’s classic, Night Roads. Published in 1939, and based on the Russian emigre’s real-life experiences as a taxi driver in Paris, the brooding, atmospheric pre-war novel brings alive the characters of the Parisian demi-monde and the edgy smoky neon-lit world of the taxi driver – a world in which our 1930s Gabin motoring coat was cutting a dash.
Taxi drivers in those days led precarious existences, living on the fringes, working all hours and in all weathers. They needed protection from cold and wind and rain and in the long leather motoring coats they wore, they found it. Such coats have long since gone the way of running boards and open-topped tourers and indeed the whole rainy-night, dangling-cigarette world in which they were worn. Even reproductions are not easily found these days, and vintage car buffs looking for period style have a job tracking one down.
Our knee-length pre-war leather motoring coat, the Gabin, not only looks the part perfectly and is beautifully made, but comes an impeccable provenance, an air of mystery and an intriguing backstory straight out of pre-war Paris.
The story begins a little more recently, with a telephone call from a gentleman in Tours who had acquired a genuine pre-war Parisian taxi and had found something in the boot that he wanted to show us. The following Saturday he showed up at our workshop with a large plastic bag containing what looked to be a large piece of very old leather that had been folded many years ago and was now as stiff and hard as if it were frozen. It was an old motoring coat.
He told us the story of how he came to be in possession of the coat and the vintage pre-war taxi in which it was found. One of his friends had purchased an old house in the Montmartre district of Paris. It was a fairly run-down place and needed extensive remodelling and renovation. As work began, the architects ran into a problem, one that puzzled them: the dimensions and layout of the house didn’t fit the official survey and plan. A closer inspection of the garage beneath the house revealed that the back wall was not where it was marked on the blueprint; there was a space behind it.
In the manner of archaeologists peeking into a sealed tomb, they made a small exploratory hole in the back wall. When they shone a light into the darkness they were astonished to find an original 1930s Parisian taxi sitting on blocks. The man who owned the house called his friend in Tours, who he knew was a vintage car buff and asked him if he would like to recover it. He would indeed, and the mysterious old taxi was duly taken off to a specialist in car restoration in Tours and the work of bringing the pre-war gem back to life was begun.
When the boot was opened, the old leather coat was found, still neatly folded after more than 70 years. They contacted their client, who in turn contacted us, and showed up at our workshop that Saturday morning with the coat and a request – could we find a way to unfold it, so it wouldn’t fall to pieces, and then, if possible make an exact copy to fit him, so he could wear it while driving the restored taxi?
We agreed to try. The leather was very fragile. It took ten days, using special leather treatments and softeners for us to be able to open up the coat and examine it. It was beautifully made, using heavy brown leather and lined throughout with a woollen textile that would keep the wearer warm. The raglan sleeves were cut in a gentle curve, to low them to drape properly and sit comfortably on arms that were holding a steering wheel.
We studied the detailing, and lifted the pattern, and were able to make an exact replica, even finding the same shade and weight of leather used in the original and tracking down an almost perfect match in colour and weight of the woollen textile lining. And so the Gabin leather motoring coat was created, a period garment so authentic that it was literally found in the boot of a 1930s Parisian taxi mysteriously abandoned and hidden in Montmartre more than seventy years ago.
How the taxi, and the coat, came to be hidden in a secret chamber beneath a house in Montmartre remains a mystery. The best guess is that it was sealed away around the start of the war, when Paris fell in 1940. Why and by whom – had the car been involved in something that made it imperative to be off the streets? – is something we’ll never know. It’ll remain another of those tantalisingly untold rainy-night-in-Paris backstreet stories from the pre-war past that tease our imaginations and let us write our own endings.