January 12, 2016

Cameron McAllister

The true story behind a funny little car
Interview by

British author Cameron McAllister was inspired to write The Tin Snail after seeing a newspaper photo of three prototypes for a car called the Deux Chevaux (or 2CV) that had been hidden in a French barn during World War II and remained there for 50 years. We spoke with the author to learn more about the fascinating true history behind this exciting middle-grade adventure.

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British author Cameron McAllister was inspired to write The Tin Snail after seeing a newspaper photo of three prototypes for a car called the Deux Chevaux (or 2CV) that had been hidden in a French barn during World War II and remained there for 50 years. We spoke with the author to learn more about the fascinating true history behind this exciting middle-grade adventure.

Why did these 2CV prototypes stay hidden for so long?
The simple answer is that they were too well hidden and were forgotten about! You have to remember they were never supposed to be there at all. The boss of Citroen at that time, Pierre Jules Boulanger (Bertrand, in my book), had ordered that all trace of the experimental prototypes be destroyed so they couldn’t fall into enemy hands—not merely the invading German army, but also Volkswagen, their main rival (who were busy developing the Beetle at the time). So the story goes, the 2CV models were hidden by some of the engineers who’d helped build them, but who couldn’t bear to see them lost to future generations.

Were you able to unearth many more details about this story? Which were your favorite?
Where to start? The more I delved into the true story, the more wonderful nuggets kept turning up. I particularly liked that the car’s designer, Flaminio Bertoni (Luca, in my story) was wedded to his old BMW motorbike. When they were looking for lightweight parts to use on the first prototype, they cannibalized his beloved motorbike, stripping it of its engine and other parts. It really is also true that his boss, Boulanger, insisted that the car be capable of driving across a ploughed field with a farmer and his wife and two chickens without breaking a tray of eggs or spilling a flagon of beer. Unfortunately, the first model they built exploded! The more I discovered, the more charming the whole story became. It almost wrote itself!

Did you travel to the French countryside for fact finding? Were you able to see those prototypes unearthed in the barn?
I never found the original barn, but I pile my four children into our car twice a year and drive as far south through France as we can manage in a day. This usually gets us to the Bordeaux area, where I located the fictional village of Regnac. It’s almost exactly like a village we’ve often stayed in there. The map at the front of the book is pretty much a blueprint of the real place. However, I should say that there’s no evidence that the German army ever actually arrived in the real village—that was all my own invention. It seemed too exciting a story opportunity to pass up. I loved the thought of the German Panzer commander sitting in the local bar, determined to try and find where the locals have hidden the car, not realizing that the barmaid is pulling his glass of beer with the gear stick!

Where does the name "Tin Snail" come from?
The then-boss of Citroen, Boulanger, could be quite austere and insisted that the 2CV should be as functional as possible. This was vital if it was to be affordable to the poorest farmers and artisans in France—the vast backbone of France’s population who had been so woefully neglected by the car industry. The 2CV’s designer, Flaminio, kept trying to add little stylist flourishes, which Boulanger would insist on being removed. The final prototype was made out of little more than sheets of corrugated iron with just a single headlight, but its iconic domed shape reminded Boulanger of a snail. And so the nickname “the Tin Snail” stuck. For me, it perfectly captures the car’s quirky charm!

Tell us about your own fascination with cars.
As a little boy I loved Herbie, the movie about a VW Beetle with a mind of its own. The flying Ford Anglia in Harry Potter had a lot of the same qualities, though rather more mischievous. Strictly speaking, the car in The Tin Snail isn’t magical, of course, but it definitely has its own impish personality—especially when Angelo and Camille are being chased by a Panzer tank and it almost flies across a river.

I read that two books that inspired you were Danny, the Champion of the World, and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Did you reread them as you wrote this novel? I was also interested to read your mention of Shirley Hughes’ novel, Hero on a Bicycle, which sounds fascinating.
Both Danny and Chitty feature children thrown into dangerous and extraordinary adventures to rescue their fathers—and in both cases they do so by driving cars! In Danny’s case it’s an old Austin Seven, which he uses to rescue his father from the clutches of the evil Mr Hazell. I loved the bond between Danny and his father as they outwit the local establishment. It’s very much the same plucky spirit Angelo shows in The Tin Snail as he tries to help his father’s ailing career and outfox an entire German Panzer unit! Hero on a Bicycle is set in the same era, a delightful story about a boy running daring missions during the German occupation of Italy, only this time riding a bicycle. Like The Tin Snail, the danger of war is never very far away.

"In the end the story is about heroism—the villagers are willing to lay down their lives to safeguard the Tin Snail because it represents the very best of French values."

You’ve written TV scripts before, but this is your first novel. Did you have any difficulties with the transition? Did your TV writing experience make it somewhat easier to write some of the great action scenes in your book?
I love writing action sequences—I think it’s part of the big kid in me. But oddly they can be the most boring parts of movies to watch, especially with the advent of CGI. If there isn’t enough character or suspense, and if it all seems too unrealistic, it doesn’t matter how many skyscrapers you knock down, I’m not gripped. So when it came to The Tin Snail, I was very conscious of trying keep the action believable (just!). One of the most obvious transitions I found from writing TV dramas to writing a novel was that I needed to write a lot more description. In TV scripts you might only have a few stage directions because the viewer will end up being shown everything. In a book, of course, the writer must conjure everything up in people’s imaginations, which I loved.

Tell us about the genesis of your main character, Angelo. Were you at all like him as a boy?
When I was the same age as Angelo, one of my uncles (who was a policeman at the time) gave me a pair of very old handcuffs with the strict instructions I was never to use them as the keys were long since lost. Naturally, the first opportunity I got I locked them round his wrists while he lay in bed one morning. I remember hiding in a tree for several hours as first one village police car, then two more, arrived to offer assistance. Despite the attempts of the entire local police force, no key could be found. This didn’t deter my mother who proceeded to serve pot after pot of tea, turning the whole thing into a social occasion. Eventually my father managed to saw the handcuffs off. So I’ll let you decide whether you think there are any similarities between myself and Angelo.

You do a great job of maintaining tension about World War II and the advancing Germans throughout the novel, yet you manage to keep a lighthearted tone in appropriate places. Was this a difficult balance to achieve?
I was keen for the book to be uplifting and fun, but it would have been irresponsible not to reflect the reality of war at some level. The sense of the German army approaching also provides an underlying suspense—not least because Angelo and his father know that the rival car company’s spies won’t be far behind. In the end the story is about heroism—the villagers are willing to lay down their lives to safeguard the Tin Snail because it represents the very best of French values. It was also important for me that the Germans weren’t all painted as the enemy. Despite working for rival car companies, Angelo’s father and Engel, his German counterpart, end up being united by a common bond . . . their love of cars!

What do you drive? Do you have any “fun” cars, or are there any special cars tugging at your imagination?
When I worked in London, I used to ride around on a Vespa scooter, which was great fun, if a little hair-raising. Now, because we have four children, I have to drive what feels like a large truck—made by the 2CV’s rivals, Volkswagen, no less! However, I’m always on the lookout on my travels for a 2CV to buy. It seems to be only dotty old aunties who still drive them in Britain, but I’ve seen some wonderfully preserved models in France and Italy. I think the nearest British-made car to the 2CV must be the Mini (now remade by BMW, of course, and originally designed by an Italian, just like the 2CV). Or perhaps the Morris Minor. Maybe one of these will inspire my next novel!

Get the Book

The Tin Snail

The Tin Snail

By Cameron McAllister
Delacorte
ISBN 9780553536386

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