When you have a little kid, you end up reading a lot of kid’s books. Some of these kids’ books even include illustrations of cars, and identifying those cars is, of course, incredibly important. That’s why I’m so happy to report that, after 77 years, the ambulance in the children’s classic Madeline has been identified. Make, model, and even year. You’re welcome.
I had forgotten Madeline even had cars in it, until I read it to my five-year-old last night. In fact, I realized I forgot a lot about the book. I always thought Madeline was an orphan or something, in a Parisian orphanage; turns out, she’s just some rich kid, in a boarding school! Huh. Good for her.
Anyway, I always liked the rough and brushy art style of the book, but it does make car identification challenging. Based on the style of the illustrations, I wasn’t expecting to see anything but the most generalized renditions of cars. I was very wrong.
The only car really shown in Madeline is the “car with a red light” (ambulance) that – seven-decade-old spoiler alert – takes her to the hospital. If you look at it, though, it’s very clearly a specific type of car.
The ambulance body isn’t the key, since that likely came from some local coachbuilder. It’s the front of the ambulance that’s important. It’s not exactly carefully rendered here, but what details are selected are just enough to peg it for what it is.
First, the sloping snout clearly identifies this as a prewar Renault, as do the large, external headlights, mounted quite low. But which pre-war Renault? I think they key lies in the odd, cross-hatched detail just in front of the windshield.
That thing is the radiator, which Renault used to mount behind its engines, allowing for the distinctive sloping hood. That very specific cross-hatched detail can only be referring to the 1922 Renault KJ, which you can see here:
Look at that. See the diamond-pattern corner vents in the radiator’s cowl? That has to be what the author/illustrator, Ludwig Bemelmans, was referencing. And, I can say this must be a 1922 Renault KJ because these cars were built between 1922 and 1924, and after 1922, the KJ became the KJ-1, which had a wider hood that encompassed the radiator, and fed that radiator air through a series of vertical vents.
Here’s the confusing part, though: Madeline’s ambulance has both the diamond-pattern corner vents and the vertical slits of the later hood! What’s going on?
For that, I have a theory. Madeline was written in 1939. I suspect that Bemelmans was basing the ambulance on ones he remembered from his past, and the KJ with the corner-diamond-vents must have stuck with him. But, since that time, he’d likely have seen many more slant-nose Renaults with the side slat vents. So, I think he meant to draw the 1922 KJ, but added the side vents he’d been seeing on similar Renaults for years.
Plus, those vents aren’t really where they should be, while the cross-hatched radiator corner air intakes from the original KJ are. I’m sticking with 1922 KJ.
I can’t exactly prove this, I’m sure, and in the 1998 movie (I didn’t remember that at all), they seem to have used a 1969 Citroën HY van, which this clearly is not, as those wouldn’t exist for another three decades.
So, with that in mind, I’m confidently proclaiming this: the ambulance in Madeline is a 1922 Renault KJ-based vehicle. Mystery solved. You can sleep in peace now.