Another tale from Gran Turismo’s past, the guys from Polyphony digital seem to have a knack of popularising car companies that please gamers over bank managers.
My first interaction with Hommell was on Gran Turismo 4 on the PlayStation 2, the one that a lot of people believe is the nerdiest of all the Gran Turismo games. The appeal of Gran Turismo to me was always more about collecting the cars than being any good at racing them which is kind of fitting here as Michel Hommell has possibly the greatest collection of cars I have ever seen in the flesh. But more on that later.
Michel is yet another ex-Race driver for the list, who this time turned Magazine mogul, a man with a real love of cars. Pretty standard so far, but the rest of the story of how Hommell cars came to be has to be one of the weirdest I’ve ever researched.
Strangely, the Hommell tale begins at a gentlemanly dinner between Michel and friends, one of whom was the son of the founder of France’s much loved Alpine. After a few friendly drinks and some sorting out of all the worlds problems, talk soon moved to automobiles and in particular French sports cars, or as they saw, lack of them. Having sports cars in their blood, they soon set about designing a car to sort out the drought.
This dinner started a flame for Hommell who set about asking the readers of his popular car rag ‘Exhaust’ what sports car they would design if they were to build one. The car that came back was unanimous. The hypothetical car needed to be light, small and rear engined, basically in the mould of the ever popular Alpine A110.
Taken aback by the response of the poll, Hommell built a workshop on the site of his Manor/Race Circuit and began work. First a 1/5 model was built which then led to a full scale model. Soon, of course, momentum took hold and eventually the motoring public get the Hommell Berlinette ‘Echappement’ which launched in 1994. Echappement, by the way, was a plug of one of Hommells motoring publications.
The Berlinette took the fiery PSA 16v engine that also found home in some of the hotter cars in both Citroen and Peugeots ranges. This engine also powered the magnificent but also heftier 405 Mi16.
In the Hommell, power was rated at 155 bhp which was then driven through a 6 speed gearbox (a bit of an oddity at the time), so performance was pretty sprightly.
The new Hommell, of course, placed this gem of a motor in a race derived light weight space frame chassis. All of this meant the car only weighed 950 Kg, impressive as the car was still fully loaded with everything an amateur racing driver would need.
So, now the Berlinette was ready to hit the tracks but not before this exciting new car company had a badge, and what says motorsport and passion more than 3 ears of wheat?
Hommells marketing campaign was fierce, and I don’t want to accuse Michel of buying the media, but it must be stated that he already in fact owned the media. The man had already founded most of the successful automotive magazines in France. So it should come as no surprise that many auto writers found their bosses pet project to be Magnifiqué and without fault. But it must also be said that the car probably was very good also, as it had all the right ingredients (bar the wheat) that many cars like the Noble and Elise made so popular in the latter half of the decade.
One area the Berlinette trailed for me at least was the styling, the whole thing looked a little bit ‘parts bin special’.
Thankfully in 1998 both the front lights and the ZX brake lights were chucked in favour of twin round lights front and rear, which despite being a small change made a huge difference to my eyes. The car also went on a diet, losing 30 kg while gaining 12 horsepower from the new 306 S16 Motor and became the Berlinette Rs, which later evolved into the RS2 which was the ultimate Hommel boasting a whole 195 horses in the stable. Things were really getting exciting for the Hommells, but like most countries, the government in France found a way to spoil the fun for this low volume manufacturer.
Due to the increasingly difficult rules in France for road registering cars, Michel Hommell decided to retire the wheat badge forever as it was no longer worth the hassle and he already proved he could do it. There was some interest from Chinese investors but ultimately nothing came from it. The biggest shame however is that Hommells real opportunity to hit the world stage, Gran Turismo 4 was in development hell and was delayed again and again, meaning it hit the shops a whole year and a half after the last RS2 left Lohéac.
Luckily though my experiences with the Hommell cars did not end with my time trails on Grand Valley speedway. About ten years ago while on holiday in France I stumbled upon one of the best kept secrets in car collections.
On the very same site where the factory once produced these peculiar cars, is possibly the greatest Museums I have ever stepped foot in (twice now), Manoir de l’Automobile. Inside an old French Manor House sits some of the most exciting, expensive and nearly extinct classics in the world. You’re bound to see at least one car there that you have never seen before and as an added bonus, you can also see how the Berlinette was developed by the people who actually developed them. Seriously, it’s worth the trip if you are ever in Brittany.