If you make a list of the most noteworthy, technically innovative, and memorable cars of the 20th Century, many of them have one thing in common: the twin-chevron emblem of Automobiles Citroën SA. Founded by an inveterate gambler, Citroën developed a reputation for bold engineering that beggared almost every other automaker in the world, building cars that were decades ahead of their time. Let’s look at the first great Citroën, the car known in France as “La Reine de la Route” (queen of the road): the 1934-1957 Citroen Traction Avant.
André Citroën was born in Paris on February 5, 1878, the youngest son of a Dutch diamond merchant and his Polish wife. After studying at the prestigious École Polytechnique, Citroën went into the French army as an engineering officer. He left the service in 1904, acquired the patent rights to a “herringbone” double-helical gear, and went into business manufacturing gears for industrial equipment.
Although Citroën’s gear-making business was quite successful, he was lured away in 1908 by an offer to become the new chief engineer for automakers Emile and Louis Mors. Although at that time Citroën was not particularly interested in automobiles, he was one of France’s leading experts in industrial production, so he wasted little time in thoroughly revamping the Mors operation and greatly increasing its output. He returned to his own business in 1913 and took the company public as Le Société des Engrenages A. Citroën.
Citroën’s thinking on mass production was greatly shaped by the American industrialist Henry Ford, whom Citroën idolized and whom he had met on a visit to Michigan in 1912. (Citroën, who was Jewish, was apparently either oblivious to or undeterred by Ford’s notorious antisemitism.) Inspired by Ford’s U.S. factory complex, Citroën established a huge modern factory on the Quai de Javel in Paris, which became one of France’s largest munitions producers of World War I.
Even before the 1918 armistice, Citroën began thinking of new postwar applications for the enormous factory. In May 1919, he reorganized his company as Automobiles Citroën SA and soon began manufacturing an automobile under his own name: the Citroën Model A, designed by Jules Salomon, who had served with Citroën in the army.
The Type A was a simple, robust little car, capable of a reasonable 40 mph (64 km/h). It was a solid commercial success, as were its successors, the Type B and Type C. They were sound, generally unremarkable designs, but they became very successful through Citroën’s tireless and inventive merchandising acumen. He was adept at concocting dramatic stunts to promote his wares, including paying to put the Citroën name in lights on the side of the Eiffel Tower. Such aggressive marketing was matched with bargain pricing, which translated into strong sales.
Unlike Henry Ford or Walter P. Chrysler, Citroën was not an automotive engineer; he entrusted the design of his cars to his staff. Like Ford, he was fascinated with the mechanics of mass production — how to make things faster, cheaper, and more efficiently — but unlike Ford, he had little intrinsic fascination with the cars themselves and was not an enthusiastic driver. That he chose automobiles as the focus of his postwar business was mostly because he saw a ready market, particularly for inexpensive people’s cars in the mode of Ford’s Model T. The early Citroëns were certainly not as crude as the Model T, but they were born of a similar mindset.
SEARCHING FOR THE PERENNIAL CAR
So, how did a maker of unpretentious, proletarian transportation end up producing one of his era’s most innovative cars? Paradoxically, Citroën’s principal objective for the Traction Avant was production economy. Like Henry Ford, Citroën recognized that developing new models (and establishing the tooling to build them, which is frightfully expensive) costs considerably more than continually refining an existing product. However, Citroën was also a savvy enough salesman to realize that any given product has a finite lifespan beyond which the model becomes too conceptually outdated to be commercially viable.
The obvious solution, he concluded, was to develop a car that would be so blindingly advanced that it would take years or decades for rivals to even catch up, much less surpass it. In that way, its useful production life would be maximized, the cost of producing it could be progressively reduced, and Citroën stood to make a greater total return on his initial investment.
This philosophy was something else Citroën shared with (and perhaps had learned from) Henry Ford. In fact, Ford had pursued a very similar line of thinking when envisioning a replacement for the venerable Model T, which he hoped to follow with a highly advanced new model powered by an unusual X-8 engine. However, even Ford was eventually persuaded that those plans were unworkable and grudgingly accepted the more conventional Model A instead. Citroën was not so easily dissuaded. Since he remained relatively ignorant of the particulars of automotive engineering, Citroën was more insulated from conventional wisdom or the practical considerations of why a particular idea would or wouldn’t work. Moreover, he was a lifelong gambler, with a gambler’s superstitious faith in his own instincts and an unflagging (if sometimes reckless) willingness to lay all his money on a single number if he thought it would pay off.
THE GAMBLE: CITROEN TRACTION AVANT
In 1932, Citroën embarked on what would be his last and greatest gamble: the development of the all-new model that he hoped would become Citroën’s perennial car.
The performance targets Citroën set were modest even by the standards of the time: a top speed of 62 mph (100 km/h) and fuel economy of 33.6 mpg (7 liters/100 km). However, the specifications he envisioned were of an entirely different order. At a time when most cars, even expensive ones, had composite wood-and-steel bodies on separate frames and conventional front-engine/rear-drive powertrains, he wanted unitized construction, front-wheel drive, and automatic transmission.
All this was radical stuff for the early thirties and would have been a major endeavor even for Ford or General Motors. For Citroën, it bordered on foolhardiness. Although the company had become the world’s fourth-largest automaker, the Depression and Citroën’s lavish spending had taken their toll on the company’s finances. For all his fascination with production efficiency, Citroën had never been particularly inclined to parsimony, whether in business or private life (a major contrast between him and Ford); being broke had seldom deterred him from placing a bet or spending lavishly. This was not an attitude that reassured his creditors, who were growing ever more numerous and more nervous. Citroën, however, was still chasing the one big win that would let him pay off all markers.
The official story is that the car we now call the Traction Avant was conceived solely by André Citroën and then developed by former Renault engineers André Lefèbvre and Maurice Sainturat over a period of only 18 months. That may have been true so far as it went, but the design was certainly not created in a vacuum. Back in December 1931, Citroën had visited the Philadelphia headquarters of the Budd Company, which manufactured the dies for Citroën bodies. While at Budd, he saw a prototype created by Budd’s brilliant engineers Joseph Ledwinka and William Muller of a front-wheel-drive (FWD) car with an all-steel, integrated body and an aluminum V8 engine. Citroën had previously expressed curiosity about unitized construction and FWD, so while his new car was not directly based on the Ledwinka/Muller design, it seems likely that it was at least partly inspired by it.
Despite that precedent and Lefèbvre’s previous experience at Voisin, for whom he had developed an abortive FWD prototype, Lefèbvre and Sainturat had their work cut out for them translating these advanced concepts for mass production, particularly on the timetable Citroën demanded. Considering those pressures, the results were a remarkable achievement. In dimensions and mechanical specifications, the new Citroën more resembled a car of the seventies than anything of its own era.
Designed by Flaminio Bertini and bearing a striking resemblance to the 1934 Ford, the ‘Traction’ was and remains a low-slung and rakish-looking car, as much as a foot (30 cm) lower than its contemporaries. With unitized construction, it was far roomier than its outside dimensions suggested. Its low center of gravity, independent front suspension (still far from universal at the time), and torsion bar springs (longitudinal in front, transverse in the rear) also provided a smooth ride and agile handling. The main practical drawback was a largish turning circle, a problem compounded by the tendency of the front halfshafts’ Hookes universal joints to bind in tight turns.
Although the car had many advances, Citroën was forced to abandon at least one intended feature: the planned automatic transmission. Designed by Dimitri Sensaud de Levaud, the automatic was what we would now call a continuously variable transmission. It was very sophisticated, but it was easily overheated and unacceptably fragile. After the prototype broke down embarrassingly in front of a group of potential investors, Lefèbvre hastily devised a conventional three-speed manual transmission to replace it.
The engine was perhaps the car’s least-novel element: a 1,302 cc (80 cu. in.) OHV four making a modest 32 hp (24 kW). This was carried on “Floating Power” engine mounts, also found on contemporary Plymouth cars and used under license from Chrysler. The 1,302 cc engine met Citroën’s original goal of a 62.5 mph (100 km/h) top speed, but only just — the practical limit was perhaps 60 mph (97 km/h) and reaching that speed took patience. Admittedly, there were still few roads in the world that allowed sustained speeds over 50 mph (81 km/h), but many of the Citroën’s competitors could outrun it, at least in a straight line. On the other hand, the Citroën was far more nimble, not a word easily applied to most cars of the thirties.
CITROEN SEVEN AND ELEVEN
The initial version of the new car, which debuted publicly at the 1934 Paris Salon, was called the Citroën 7 (“Sept“) in France, based on its 7CV fiscal horsepower rating. Since Citroën had previously offered 7CV cars, the company appended “Traction” or “Traction Avant” (Front Drive) to distinguish the new 7 from previous Propulsion Arrière (rear drive) Citroëns. Although “Traction Avant” was never the model’s formal name, it quickly stuck and all models were popularly known simply as “Tractions.” British cars were called Twelve or Light Twelve, reflecting the engine’s RAC taxable horsepower rating.
Citroën intended to produce a lot of these cars, so the company tooled up to build the Traction Avant not only at a new factory in Paris, but also at plants in Belgium and Great Britain. British cars, constructed at the Citroën works in Slough, had right-hand drive, many British components, and various minor changes to suit the tastes of the British market.
Early Tractions offered a choice of three body styles: a four-door Berline (called “saloon” in the U.K.), a two-door Cabriolet (roadster), and a two-door coupe called Faux Cabriolet (“fixed-head coupe” in the U.K.). None was cheap, starting at around 17,000 francs in the home market (something like $1,000 depending on the exchange rate and 2,000 FF more than planned), but they were roomy, practical, economical, and surprisingly entertaining to drive.
THE MICHELIN TAKEOVER
Unsurprisingly, the Traction was enormously expensive to develop and launch, particularly with the added expense of new factory construction and the patent license fees for features like the engine mounts and front springs. Citroën still hoped that the new model would sell well enough to pull him out of the red, but he was now more than 150 million francs (more than $7 million) in debt, a staggering amount of money for the time. On December 21, 1934, he was forced to declare bankruptcy and step down.
The creditor to which Citroën owed the most money was the family-owned Michelin tire company, which had also borne the brunt of Citroën’s creative payment tactics. In early 1935, Edouard Michelin took over the management of the company, a role he soon delegated to Pierre Boulanger. André Citroën, whose health had been worn down by the stresses of recent years, died on July 3 at the age of 57.
Citroën’s exit and untimely death did not mean the end of either the Traction Avant or of the company. While one might have expected the Michelin family to cut their losses and either liquidate the company or demand a more conservative course, a determination to recoup their substantial investment inspired Michelin — and consequently Boulanger — to a degree of boldness rivaling even that of Citroën himself. A few of André Citroën’s more ambitious ideas were axed, including a planned 22CV version of the Traction powered by a 3,822 cc (233 cu. in.) V8, but his plans to develop and refine the Traction continued apace.
Like the later Volkswagen Beetle or Porsche 356, the Traction Avant evolved through a series of running changes. Early Berlines and Faux Cabriolets had a moleskin faux-leather roof insert, which eventually was replaced by a full steel roof. Outside access to the trunk was added in 1935 and new long-wheelbase models (the big Normale and even bigger nine-passenger Familiale) joined the original Légère models. The early car’s friction shock absorbers were replaced with more effective hydraulic shocks while rack-and-pinion steering was added in mid-1936, further sharpening the already excellent handling.
The original 1,302 cc (80 cu. in.) engine) was obviously underpowered, so it was replaced within a matter of months by a bored-out 1,529 cc (93 cu. in.) four with 35 hp (26 kW). That too was inadequate and soon gave way to a 1,628 cc (99 cu. in.) engine combining the original bore with a longer stroke; this yielded only 36 hp (27 kW), but usefully more torque. (Technically, both the 1.5- and 1.6-liter engines had French taxable horsepower ratings of 9CV, but the company had invested too much in promoting the “Sept” to want to risk changing the name.)
From mid-1934, the smaller engines were supplemented by a bigger 1,911 cc (117 cu. in.) four with 46 hp (34 kW). Cars with the bigger engine were initially called 7 Sport, soon renamed 11 (“Onze“) to more accurately reflect the 11CV taxable horsepower rating. (British cars were called Light Fifteen.) A long-nose six-cylinder model, called 15-Six in France and Six Cylinder in the U.K., followed in 1938, offering 77 hp (57 kW) from its 2,867 cc (175 cu. in.) six. The 15 was capable of 83 mph (130 km/h), very respectable performance for the late thirties, but the considerable extra weight on the nose made the already-heavy steering even more difficult. The Onze was the best compromise and remained the most popular choice through most of the Traction’s existence.
Production was interrupted by the outbreak of war and the German occupation, although Citroën engineers continued to work secretly on new model ideas. Before the war, Tractions had been popular with both police and those who sought to evade the police; the cars’ eventful careers continued throughout the Occupation as Tractions were commandeered by both the Nazis and the Resistance. Between those adventures, the travails of war, and the problem of rust, the survival rate of prewar cars is rather low.
Peacetime production resumed in late 1946, albeit with a much-curtailed range of models and colors. The Traction Avant continued to evolve well into the 1950s, gaining hydropneumatic rear suspension (a simpler forerunner of the system later offered on the DS, offered only on six-cylinder cars) in 1954. Production continued until July 1957, eventually totaling 758,857 units — impressive for a very unusual and fairly expensive car.
RENEWING THE FUTURE
Citroën’s subsequent cars were no less daring or innovative than the Traction Avant. The 2CV, launched in 1948, was a deceptively simple, cunningly engineered people’s car whose rustic looks belied the sophistication of its basic design. The DS, introduced in 1955, was a technological tour de force that still looks futuristic today, as does the later SM coupe. The long-lived and popular GS, introduced in 1970, was less ground-breaking but no less individual, although the rotary engined GS Birotor version, a product of a joint venture between Citroën and NSU called Comotor, was an expensive failure.
Sadly, the mounting cost of those ventures, combined with the first oil crisis and Citroën’s ignominious withdrawal from the North American markets, eventually pushed the company back into receivership in 1974. The French government called for a merger of Citroën and Peugeot, creating a new entity, PSA Peugeot Citroën, completed by the summer of 1976. Unlike Michelin, which had supported the company’s engineering and styling innovations, Peugeot put the brakes on Citroën’s wilder ambitions, pushing for the development of cheaper, somewhat more mundane models. While it would be hard to apply the latter term to cars like the XM, which replaced the CX in 1989, over the next 20 years there would be a gradual shift from the radical to the merely quirky.
To modern eyes, the attractive but archaic styling dates the Traction Avant, but it remains a car ahead of its time. It survived for 23 years, longer than even André Citroën may have hoped, and, as he anticipated, it took many years for other manufacturers to catch up. If the Traction’s specifications no longer seem unusual or particularly special, it should be remembered that unit-bodied FWD cars with rack-and-pinion steering did not become commonplace until almost 40 years after the Traction introduced those features.
Ultimately, however, the achievement of the Traction Avant lay not so much in the novelty of its engineering — its ideas were undeniably advanced, but by no means unknown in the thirties — but in André Citroën’s willingness to charge ahead in ways that his more conservative or more sensible rivals didn’t dare. For example, even Chrysler engineering VP Fred Zeder, one of the architects of the Chrysler Airflow (another contender for most advanced car of the thirties) wanted nothing to do with front-wheel drive.
The eternal problem for both gamblers and innovators (and Citroën was surely both) is that the difference between daring prescience and foolish luck is often apparent only postmortem. Considering that, it’s hardly surprising that the large majority of automakers favor cautious incrementalism over bold leaps; the financial consequences of jumping too far in the wrong direction are often harrowing and history is littered with reminders that “novel” is not always “better.” Still, it would be a poorer and duller world without at least a few brave or foolish souls willing to not only imagine what could be, but also lay their money on the line to try to prove it.
NOTES ON SOURCES
Our sources included Arch Brown, Richard Langworth, and the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, Great Cars of the 20th Century (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International, Ltd., 1998); Wiljan Cats’ Citroën page, Cats-Citroën, www.cats-citroen. net, accessed 30 July 2008; Mike Covello, ed., Standard Catalog of Imported Cars 1946-2002, Second Edition (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2001); Niels Heilberg, “Citroën Faces,” n.d., www.geocities. com/ MadisonAvenue/4430/bluebook.html, accessed 1 August 2008; Julian Marsh’s splendid Citroën website, Citroënët, www.citroenet.org.uk, accessed 30 July 2008; Michael Lamm, “Model A: The Birth of Ford’s Interim Car,” Special Interest Autos #18 (August-October 1973), reprinted in The Hemmings Book of Prewar Fords: driveReports from Special Interest Autos magazine, eds. Terry Ehrich and Richard Lentinello (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2001), pp. 12-21, and “Two Look-Alikes: Ford & Citroen” in Special Interest Autos #9 (January-March 1972), reprinted in ibid, pp. 44-51; David Owen, “Gear Maker, Arms Maker, Car Maker: The Legacy of André Citroën,” Automobile Quarterly Vol. 13, No. 2 (Spring 1975); Jon Pressnell, “Citroën Traction Avant,” Classic & Sports Car May 1999, pp. 104-109; William K. Toboldt and Larry Johnson, Goodheart-Willcox Automotive Encyclopedia (South Holland, IL: The Goodheart-Willcox Company, Inc., 1975), and the Wikipedia® entry on tax horsepower (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tax_horsepower, accessed 1 August 2008).
Chrysler engineer Fred Zeder’s remarks about front-wheel drive were described by former Chrysler designer Ed Sheard in Michael Lamm, “1931 Chrysler 6,” Special Interest Autos #40 (May-July 1977), reprinted in The Hemmings Book of Pre-War Chryslers: driveReports from Special Interest Autos magazine, ed. Richard A. Lentinello (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2002), pp. 20-25.
Historical exchange rate data for the dollar and British pound were estimated based on data from Lawrence H. Officer, “Exchange Rates Between the United States Dollar and Forty-one Currencies” (2009, MeasuringWorth, https://www.measuringworth.org/exchangeglobal/; used by permission). Please note that all exchange rate values cited in the text are approximate and are cited for informational and illustration purposes only; this is an automotive history, not a treatise on currency trading or the value of money, and nothing in this article should be taken as financial advice of any kind!