Located near the historic Reims-Gueux circuit, this museum is anything but the pits
On a road well used by Brits heading for the Mediterranean, just outside the ancient city of Reims, a long, straight stretch of the D26 arrows through a batch of derelict buildings. In England we would have bulldozed them years ago. Here, in France, they are loved by some as part of their history and loathed by others as a scar on the landscape. These are the remains of the historic circuit of Gueux.
First used in 1925, the Circuit de Gueux (better known to us as Reims Circuit) was shaped like a wobbly triangle, mainly straights along public roads, linked by hairpin bends and boasting a long, downhill straight. It was a blindingly fast circuit – Bandini still holds the lap record of 145.3mph, set back in 1958. Stand by the derelict buildings and the thought of Mercedes-Benz and Auto-Unions screaming past, inches away from the pit counter (there was no secondary wall), is chilling.
Politics and lack of money saw Reims close in 1970. There are still two stands on one side of the road, with control tower, pits, workshops and hospitality buildings on the other.
It sounds like a forlorn scene, but an amazing thing is happening at Reims. A group of enthusiasts have begun to restore the buildings. The rubbish, weeds and brambles have been cleared and the pits have been repainted, making the whole place even more evocative. In fact, on a sunny day the place is cheery, almost as if it senses its own regeneration.
The Reims-Champagne museum occupies an unpromising building in Reims, but inside is one of the most interesting collections to be found anywhere. Alongside familiar marques sit cars as obscure as the Suère, CIME, Wimille, Benjamin, and Radovich.
The designer and engineer Philippe Charbonneaux, best known for the Renault R8 and the revolutionary R16, established the museum in 1985 and a fascinating row of his cars there celebrates his lateral thinking and imaginative design. His range of Ellipsis prototypes employed a diamond-formation wheelbase and, with mid-engined layouts, they were designed for maximum manoeuvrability and pedestrian safety, along with good aerodynamics. It’s fair to assume that others did not share his enthusiasm for such ideas but, whatever the result, this museum is a must for students of vehicle design.
Visitors with an interest in bizarre and rare automobiles are really enthusiastic about this ever-changing collection of more than 200 vehicles, where orthodoxy is looked upon as eccentricity. There are motorcycles and thousands of models, too, while information cards standing by the cars are in basic French. There is a small shop where you might even find some pedal cars for sale.