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The Un-Honked Hero of George Gershwin’s “An American in Paris”

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Images courtesy of Renault, unless noted.

The New York Times and National Public Radio broke a story on March 1 that Musicologist Mark Clague of the University of Michigan, who is in the process of re-evaluating the musical works of George Gershwin, has used Gershwin’s own handwritten score and an early recording to determine that the taxi horns that appear in his 1929 composition An American in Paris have essentially been portrayed incorrectly ever since Gershwin’s untimely death in 1937.

George Gershwin Creative Commons

George Gershwin, via Creative Commons.

That story in itself is interesting enough, but it got us to wondering—just what was the correct taxi horn for Paris when Gershwin visited in 1928? Obviously if this were New York in the ’50s, the answer would be probably DeSoto or Checker, but what of interbellum Paris?

Our first guess, based on the photos we’ve seen of Parisian cabbies shuttling troops to the battlefield in 1914 as a part of the “Miracle of the Marne,” was that it would be some sort of Renault. It turns out, we were probably correct in that hunch.


A later Renault Monasix with the nose opened for improved cooling.

In 1927, Compagnie Générale des Voitures à Paris, the main Parisian taxi company, purchased a large quantity of Renault Monasix sedans for taxi service. The earliest Monasixes, like previous Renault offerings, had a distinctive sloped nose thanks to a radiator that was located behind the engine near the passenger compartment. Although widely considered under-powered, the Monasix must have been durable, as it competed in the Monaco Rally and continued in taxi service for 30 years after it ceased production in 1932.


Stout enough for Rallye Automobile Monte Carlo, the Monasix should suffice to get you from the Eiffel Tower to the Louvre.

It is likely these green-painted cabs that the piece evokes with its use of vintage bulb horns. And, indeed, when one listens to an early recording with Gershwin’s input, the less melodious inclusion of actual car horns seems to better evoke the cacaphony of a busy street.

Couple that with the visuals you see here of the Monasix, and you’re one step closer to getting the complete experience Gershwin intended when he penned An American in Paris. It’s a bit like time travel.