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an anniversary of a famous company:
75 years of Citroën automobiles;
60 years of Citroën Traction Avant
75 years ago the interesting and colourful history of Citroën automobiles
began. In 1934, Citroën presented their first front-wheel drive cars and
started a revolution in auto production.
André Citroën was born in 1878. A successful student, he attended the
Polytechnical school in Paris
and worked for some time with the car company "Mors". In 1905, at the
age of 27, he founded his first company, "André Citroën &
Cie", which was changed to "Société des Engrenages
Citroën" (Citroën Cog Factory ) in 1913. Also in 1913,
Citroën founded yet another company to take advantage of a patent he had
regarding carburettors. This company was located on the Quai de Javel
(today Quai André Citroën) in Paris. Early in his career, Citroën
was impressed by the production methods of Henry
who pioneered the use of the assembly line as early as 1908 for the Ford Model
T in the U.S.A. Citroën understood that he had to analyse production
methods and that he had to divide it into single logical steps in order to
calculate the industrial production of an item mathematically.
With the outbreak of World War I, André Citroën received a commission,
beginning in 1915, to produce 7,500 75mm grenades - good work for a small company.
Citroën was able to convince the French Ministry of Defence that he could
deliver much bigger quantities with industrial production. The company grew
rapidly and in 1918 it occupied 80,000 square metres at the Quai de Javel in
where, in 1914, there were still garden allotments. 12,000 people were occupied
producing grenades. At the peak the output reached 20,000 pieces! The company was
very progressive in the social field: a cantine and a kindergarden were present
as was a dental clinic. During the war, Citroën started thinking about the
"days after". He talked about building 1,000 automobiles a day at a
price that would enable everyone to own one of his cars.
1919: The first "Citroën"...
By 1919, the first Citroën auto was produced - the Type A. Equipped with a
4-cylinder engine of 1326 cubic cm (10-fiscal-HP) capacity, it was capable of a
top speed of 65km/h. One was able to order six different body styles directly
from the factory, this at a time where one got the chassis and the engine from
other makers and had it completed by a coachworks of your own choice! Even the
spare wheel and the lighting were included in the price of F7,205. From June to
December 1919, Citroën produced 2,500 cars. In 1920, they had already produced
Also in 1920, Citroën first tested half-track autos called
"Autochenilles" using the patents of Adolphe Kégresse. In
impassable regions they were very useful, and their reliability helped to
improve the reputation of Citroën as an automobile manufacturer. The
half-tracks were not only used by the armed forces, in road-building and
agriculture, but also by different post offices, among them the Swiss PTT
which equipped their "Autochenilles" with skis at the front.
In 1921, the first Citroën Taxis appeared on the streets of Paris. The big
news at the Paris Motor Show in October was the 5 hp Type C, a real car for the
people with 856 cubic cm engine, 60 km/h top speed, available as a Torpedo with
two seats. The car was first available in the summer of 1922 and was sold only
in one colour: lemon yellow.
The small car was a real success. In 1924, it was presented as a three-seater.
The third seat was in the rear in the middle and the passenger put his feet between
the two front seats. This version, named the "Trèfle"
(Clover Leaf) gained a great deal of fame. Up to March 1926, it stayed in
production with only minor changes - about 90,000 were built and quite a
number still exist today.
After the B12 of 1925, the B14 was introduced in 1927, driven by a 1538 cubic cm
engine with 22 true horsepower. It was followed by the C4 in 1929. Also in 1929,
the C6 was introduced - the first six cylinder Citroën (2442 cubic cm), and
the first Citroën to reach 100 km/h.
André Citroën was very successful in drawing the public's attention
with elaborate publicity campaigns. In 1922, airplanes wrote the name
"Citroën" in the sky over Paris; in 1925 the name
"Citroën" could have been read on the
200,000 lightbulbs were necessary and several kilometers of cabling!
From 17 December 1922 to 7 January 1923, a Citroën expedition crossed the
Sahara desert by automobile for the first time, from Algiers to Timbuktu, a
distance of 3,200 kms, averaging 150 kms a day with 10hp B2 half-tracks - an
enormous effort for the period!
From 28 October 1924 to 26 June 1925, a further expedition, the famous
"Croisière Noire" (Black Journey) crossed the African continent
from Algeria through Kenya to the Cape of Good Hope.
On 4 April 1931, the "Croisère Jaune" (Yellow Journey) started
in Beruit. The goal was to reach Beijing with the C4 and C6 type half-tracks.
In between there were deserts, glaciers, mountains, and war zones. One C4F
reached 4,208m and set a world altitude record for cars. In the Himalayas, part
of the way through, the paths were not driveable and the cars had to be taken
apart, carried through, and rebuilt afterwards! On 12 February, 1932 the cars
triumphantly reached Beijing.
From the beginning of 1932, the C4 and C6 were equipped with the "Floating
Power" engine which was mounted in a new way, using a
patent. The engine was secured with rubber mounts instead of being bolted directly
to the chassis, thereby eliminating major engine vibrations. The first cars using
this new engine mounting were recognizeable with a stylized swan in front of the
Citroën double chevrons.
By the end of 1932, the types "8", "10", and "15"
followed, called "Rosalie" after a Citroën "Rosalie 8"
which covered 300,000 km in 134 days with an average of more than 93 km/h and
breaking not less that 106 world records! More runs of the same kind followed and
proved the reliability of the small Citroën.
André Citroën advertised his products not just to adults. Soon he
produced toy cars to capture the attention of children - his future customers.
The first words he wanted them to be able to speak were: "Mama, Papa,
The first clouds on the Citroën horizon appeared after the Wall Street crash
of October 1929 and the ensuing world crisis. In 1933, at the peak of the crisis,
Citroën rebuilt the factories at the Quai de Javel completely, in order to
have sufficient capacity to produce his impending new model. Enormous halls were
built. 6,000 guests were invited to the grand opening.
The rebuild was a big challenge for the company. In April 1933, t here was a
strike which served to amplify the difficulties. The cars didn't sell well
abroad because of the exchange rates and the restrictions certain countries
introduced against foreign products. By the end of 1933, Citroën had so
many debts, that the
company had to be called for financial help.
With front wheel drive to the future...
Within a short period the Traction Avant Type "7" was developed - a car
that was radically different in all respects to other cars of the time:
self-supporting uni-body, front-wheel drive, torsion bar suspension, to mention
only the most important features. The first plans even called for an automatic
two-speed transmission - a feature that had to be dropped. The most significant
feature was that the car was about 20 cm lower than its predecessors and
contemporaries - with equal or even more interior space. Thanks to the low
center of gravity and front-wheel drive, the Traction Avant has superb road-holding.
In April 1934, production started - at the beginning with 1303 cubic cm and 32 hp
(good enough for 95 km/h) but lots of small problems. In the same year, much better
versions with 1529 cubic cm and 1911 cubic cm (7S for Sport - top speed 110 km/h)
were presented. The car was then called the "11CV" and made the name
"Traction Avant" known world-wide. With only small changes it stayed
in production until 1957.
The following body styles were offered by the Citroën factory:
Shorter wheel base called the "Légère": Berline,
Cabriolet, and Faux-Cabriolet (Coupé)
12cm wider and medium (20 cm longer) wheelbase, called "Large":
Berline, Cabriolet, and Faux-Cabriolet
Same size but even longer (a further 20cm) wheelbase: the Familiale and
In 1934, about twelve of the famous 8-cylinder prototypes with front-wheel drive
were built - the "22CV". Three of them were presented to the public on
the occasion of the Paris Auto Show. They never saw series production and none of
them are known to exist today.
During the same car show, Citroën showed a publicity film in which you
can see a new Traction Avant being pushed over the edge of a 8 m high cliff.
It lands on its nose, is thrown back, lands on its nose again, and sits on its
four wheels after rolling. Only one window is broken, all doors open and close.
The car drives off by its own means!
By this time all weaknesses in the 4-cylinder model were eliminated, but for
André Citroën it was too late. By 21 December 1934, the company
went into bankruptcy. André Citroën died as a poor broken man on 3
the company developed further. At the beginning of 1939, the 11CV Commerciale on
the long wheelbase was presented. More importantly, the Traction Avant 15/Six was
introduced with a top speed of 130 km/h and its legendary driving abilities. Its
2867 cubic cm 6-cylinder with 77 hp gave the "Reine de la Route"
(Queen of the Road) abilities that are still quite modern today. As the
underworld also liked this special fast car, it was soon known as the
"gangster limousine". The police with the 4-cylinder models had
great difficulties following their "enemies".
During WWII the production practically stopped. The available cars were used
by the German occupying forces and by the French Résistance. After the
war the pre-war models were produced again, but only a limited range was offered.
The cars were still liked by business people, doctors, and rich farmers. In the
years following WWII, most of the Tractions were delivered in black and that's
how most people remember them.
Unfortunately the Cabriolets and Coupés were not built any more after
the war. Only some coach builders are producing small series or single items of
the open cars. In Switzerland these are famous companies like
"Langenthal", "Worblaufen" and "Beutler".
During the Paris Car Show of 1948 the
was introduced. Smiled at by all, this comfortable small car of 375 cubic cm
started a long life around the world.
In 1955, we start to see the end of the Traction Avant. "La
Déesse" , "The Goddess", was presented and the automobile
world was once more astonished by Citroën. "This is not the car of
tomorrow, it's the car of today. It's just that all the other cars are from
yesterday..." was one of the publicity slogans. Indeed, it was and
continues to be an unusual streamlined car - with front-wheel drive, height
adjustable hydraulic suspension, power steering, semi-automatic gear box,
one spoke safety steering wheel, and much more.
Nevertheless it took up to 25 July 1957 until the last of the famous Tractions,
an 11CV Familiale, rolled off the production line.
The legend lives on!
Today, the owners and friends of the Traction Avant are united in classic car
clubs all over the world. Spare parts are reproduced,
meetings are held.
In Switzerland there must be about 1000 of the varying Traction Avant versions left.
Daniel Eberli, 1994