A rusty piece of metal barely sticking out from behind a garage, sometimes that’s all it takes. A quick glance at the rear-view mirror, turn signal, brakes and turn around: there’s definitely something old and forgotten hiding back there.
After hopping an electric fence that hasn’t been live in years I found myself standing in front of the oldest car I’ve ever found. I’ve seen older in museums, in private collections, at car shows, behind repair shops and so on, but as far as cars abandoned in the wild go, that’s about as old as they come for me.
When this Chenard & Walcker was built, World War One was still known as The Great War, Alaska and Hawaii weren’t states yet, and no one knew what the Great Depression was. Owning a car was still very much a luxury, the auto industry as a whole wasn’t much older than my 1979 Mercedes-Benz 300D daily driver is today. Odds are the folks who bought the Chenard featured here could remember what the world was like without cars.
Broadly speaking, all that’s really left of this car is on the dashboard. Notably, there’s a voltmeter (with a logo that confirms we’re indeed looking at a Chenard, though the doors were a dead giveaway), the combination switch that equipped nearly all Chenards built during the 1920s, and a homemade plaque embossed with a few words. Even after upping the contrast all the way with Photoshop all I can make out are the words “Gulti,” “Lamastre,” and “Ardeche.” Lamastre is a town in the Ardeche department of France so that’s likely where this Chenard lived for part of its life (it’s not where I found it), and Gulti is either the name of a company, the last name of a past owner, or both.
After putting my automotive archaeologist hat on I determined that this is most likely a Z5 built in either 1927 or 1928. Here’s how I came to that conclusion: the doors are relatively small so it’s either a four-door model or a two-door truck. However, the roof (or what’s left of it) is too long for a truck cab so it’s got to be a sedan.
The size of the hood hints that it most likely covered a four-cylinder engine, sedans equipped with a six-cylinder had a slightly longer hood. The hood vents also help me date this car, because Chenards from the early 1930s had flaps instead of vents. Similarly, the dashboard is rather bare-bones with only a few gauges. When the 30s rolled around, the company gradually started building cars equipped with a more complete instrument cluster.
By process of elimination, this is either a Z5 or a Y6. Now, remember the aforementioned combination switch? On the Y6 it was mounted right in the middle of steering wheel, whereas it’s mounted on the dash here. I haven’t been able to find a picture of a matching Z5 dashboard, but I found a Z5 wiring diagram that clearly shows the switch is in the middle of the dash. The F1 had a dash-mounted switch, too, but its doors were flat, whereas the Z5 has a pronounced belt line that runs all around the body.
I’m not a Chenard expert, if I was I could have skipped all this and told you right off the bat “check out this awesome Z5!” I came to this conclusion largely by process of elimination, that’s what automotive archaeology boils down to sometimes. That said, if any Chenard aficionados out there can shed more light on the year and model, please chime in.