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NOVEMBER 21, 2001

The Banville hillclimb


The Banville Garage hillclimb

Back in the good old days of motor racing they used to have Grands Prix for all kinds of things. The opening of the Montlhery race track in 1924 was celebrated by with a Grand Prix de l'Ouverture and each year the Paris Automobile Salon boasted a Grand Prix du Salon. The tradition continued until after World War II when France's first autoroute opened at St. Cloud in 1946 and a race was held in celebration.

But probably the strangest event of all in that era was at the opening of the Banville Garage in Paris.

The Banville was the world's first multi-storey car park.

But it was no ordinary garage.

It was the 1920s and the generation who had survived World War I wanted to live life to the full. Everything seemed to be changing. Flying had arrived and automobile ownership was growing, social conventions were breaking down and fashion was the thing.

And with the new golden age came new ideas and new architecture.

It was in this environment that a group of wealthy Frenchman, several of whom had been fighter pilots in the war, got together with the idea of building a garage where the wealthy could park their exquisite luxury cars. Shares were sold and enough money was raised for land to be bought and for the construction of the Banville Garage (the name being chosen as it was located at the end of the rue Theodore de Banville in the 17eme arrondisement of Paris).

There were two floors beneath the ground and five floors above, linked by a curling ramp. Each car had its own cage (which were rented from the corporation). On the ground floor was a large exhibition hall and showroom, where the latest luxury cars were sold and downstairs was a service department.

The sixth floor of the Banville Garage was what made it extraordinary because, in addition to an outdoor putting green, there were three indoor tennis courts, a gymnasium - and a restaurant.

Plans for a swimming pool were abandoned because of the costs involved.

When it opened in 1927 the Banville needed publicity.

The company was fortunate that the new World Champion Robert Benoist, who had dominated the 1927 season with Delage, was out of work because Louis Delage had run into financial trouble and had to close his competition department. None of the big car companies were going racing. Benoist was out of work. The Banville Garage was not quite Grand Prix racing but Benoist had little choice. He became the sales manager.

Benoist and one of the Banville gang Christian Dauvergne came up with an unusual plan to get publicity, reckoning that holding a hillclimb inside the garage would draw considerable attention. In total the elegant sweeping ramps were 600 meters in length from the ground to the roof. Benoist and Dauvergne drummed up 15 cars to take part. A section of the track ran across the roof and to protect the drivers it was decided that there would be walls of sandbags.

The cars involved were all sporting models and were driven by some of the big names of the day, friends of Benoist and Dauvergne.

We will never know who won the Banville hillclimb because it was decided that the times would not be recorded to stop the competitive urges of those involved getting the better of them.

It was a long drop from the roof to the street below.

The plan was a great success. The Banville Garage flourished. It survived the Great Depression. It survived the war despite the fact that the Germans requisitioned 26 luxury cars as Paris was falling in 1944. Things were not helped when the Resistance arrived and requisitioned a further 43!

For a while the Americans set up a typing pool in the Exhibition Hall but in 1946 Banville went back to its old business again. Success brought expansion. The company bought a string of garages around France. Eventually, in 1986, the Banville company fell victim to a leveraged buyout. The new owners had worked out how to make more money from the site.

The Banville was closed down and rebuilt as an office block...