A Ballot Ballade In The French Countryside

Images: Alexandra Chollet, Daniel Cabart & Gautam Sen

It was a year ago that we had featured a report on the exciting weekend one experienced in the little town of Angouleme, some 400km south of Paris (Racing On The Ramparts & Other Forms Of Madness (derivaz-ives.com).

Conceived in 1938, the first race at the Circuit des Remparts over the fort of Angouleme, was in 1939, which was won by French racing star Raymond Somner in an Alfa Romeo. With WWII interrupting the race, it was back in 1947, and carried on until 1955, with winners like the redoubtable Maurice Trintignant, Rudi Fischer, and the legendary Juan Manuel Fangio, making the track very famous.

This year, once again, there were three days of historic vehicles, racing, music, and good old automotive fun at Angouleme over the weekend of 15th to 17th of September. And I was there once again, not to partake in the main bits of the festivities but a very special experience, laid out by Sylvie Herault, who volunteers with the museum Musée d’Angouleme.

Sylvie Herault is an aesthete, a very refined soul, and a wonderful person, who also happens to know a lot about historic vehicles, personalities involved with the automobile, and their histories. Since my co-author Daniel Cabart, with whom I did the book on Ballot (the relatively lesser-known French marque), had discovered that the founder Ernest Ballot was from Angouleme, Sylvia had enthusiastically taken on the ‘task’ of first locating his grave, and then the house where he was born.

For that matter, it wasn’t until our book on Ballot came out that the folks from Angouleme had no clue that Ernest Ballot was an Angoumoisins… and all credit to Daniel Cabart that he has continued with the search for information regarding all matters concerning Ballot.

So, now that it is known that Ernest Ballot did originate from Angouleme and is also buried there, having spent the last few years of his life not too far from his birthplace, the celebration of this year’s Circuit de Remparts took on a special tribute to the marque Ballot and its progenitor.

Nothing much was told to me—Sylvie kept most matters a surprise—and what a delightful two days it turned out to be.

Sylvie was there in person to receive me at the train station of Angouleme (it’s a very convenient two hours TGV ride away from Paris), and then to take me to my hotel room… which turned out to be a modest house at the heart of Angouleme… the very house where Ernest Ballot’s parents had lived and worked as tailors during the mid-to-late 19th century, and where young Ernest and his siblings (two brothers and a sister) spent their childhood!

Now owned by Isabelle Beringer, who has converted it into a studio and salon for artists, painters and cartoonists, the place is famous for being a centre of much of the action during Angouleme’s famous Festival de la Bande Dessinnée, or the festival of comic books and graphic novels.

And then it was time to head out for the Ballot ballade into the countryside

Despite the modernisation of the interiors, there is enough in the structure, spiralling staircases, the door and window frames and the various levels of the rooms to indicate that the beginnings of the house may have been much earlier than the 19th century. Quaint, charming, a bit broken down, yet full of character, the house was a more than fitting place for Daniel Cabart and his wife Martine, as well as yours truly, to spend the night (nights for the Cabarts).

Five of the six Ballots that went for a drive to the chateau where Ernest Ballot lived

But before that, during the evening at 5pm, it was time for the inauguration of the brilliant exhibition that Sylvie Herault had put together at Musée d’Angouleme, which had, as chief guest Rodolphe Rapetti, the director of the Musée de Compiegne (which also houses the oldest automotive museum in the world). Doing the honours was Gerard Lefevre, the adjoint à la culture at the Angouleme mayor’s office.

With documents, items and images provided by Daniel Cabart, Belgian enthusiast André Plasch and several other enthusiasts, the exhibition captures the Ballot story beautifully well. It's on until mid-October, so if you are in this part of the world, it is indeed worth a visit.

Friday evening later was time for the concours d’elegance a la française, where we watched the entertaining drive past of 25 cars ranging from veterans to youngtimers such as a Renault 25. Class winners included a most impressive 1913 Amédée Bollée Type F 403 Torpedo (for the pre-1930 class), a sublime Delage D8-15S Autobineau from 1930 for the 1930-1949 class, a neat little 1958 Porsche 356 AT2, a handsome Volvo 1800 S from 1967, as well as a 1948 Motobécane D45 Side-Car amongst motorcycles. The Best of Show was a giant of an American, a 1916 Simplex Model 5. The ACF Grand Prix trophy went to a 1909 Renault AS Runabout.

Finally it was time for the lunch break

Incidentally, the jury was all-women, and they did a great job of following the heart whilst scoring the vehicles.

Saturday was the day devoted to Ballots of all kinds. An early breakfast at the home of the Ballot family—for Daniel and I, we just needed to go down the stairs—and a conducted tour of the house was followed by an aimable amble with half a dozen Ballots through the countryside surrounding Angouleme till we reached the chateau that Ernest Ballot had bought in 1924, and to which he retired to after his ousting from the Ballot board.

The chateau was part of vineyards that covered some 191,000 hectares of very fertile land in the region of Cognac, therefore making Ballot an important producer of Cognac in France then. The chateau and the vineyards now belong to Martell, one of the finest Cognac houses today, and which is a part of the giant Pernod Ricard group.

The last, but not least, stop in our drive was the cemetery where Ernest Ballot and his family are buried; with Sylvie Herault and Andre Plasch doing the honours of laying the bouquet

Following a sumptuous lunch at an open-air restaurant, we all meandered our way back to Angouleme and then a visit to the cemetery where Ernest Ballot (and other members of his family) was laid to rest on his passing in 1937 (on the 24thof August, with his date of birth being 11th January 1870).

With the cars returning to the city centre where they went on display with the rest of the Ballots (a total of 11 were exhibited), Sylvie Herault’s beautifully curated Ballot ballade came to an end for me as I took the train back to Paris.

Gautam Sen

Serial concours judge, author, founder-editor of several Indian auto mags, as well as co-conspirator with design greats Marcello Gandini, Tom Tjaarda, and Gérard Godfroy on a few vehicle projects


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