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Citroen Traction Avant Berline

Citroen Traction Avant Berline

By Jack Nerad

Citroen Traction Avant Berline Citroen is widely acclaimed for introducing the first front-wheel-drive production automobile. That would be quite a distinction, but the fact is it's not true. Cord, Ruxton and Gardner all offered production front-wheel-drive automobiles several years before Citroen joined the party. The importance of Citroen's contribution is not that it was first with front-wheel-drive, but that it was the first company to make front-wheel-drive a true success. Unfortunately, that success came almost simultaneously with Andre Citroen's death, so the fabled French auto magnate never got to enjoy the fruits of his gamble.

There is no doubt, by the way, that Andre Citroen was a gambling man. The son of a Dutch diamond broker, Citroen was born in 1878 and by the time he reached the age of 25 he was a force to be reckoned with in French industry. After graduating from technical college, he got a license for a Russian process of machining gear teeth and, license in hand, set up a machine works. The gears quickly gained a reputation for strength and silence, and Citroen's business, which he ran with great vigor, became very profitable. Soon the prominent French automobile manufacturer Mors asked him for technical assistance, his first foray into the car business.

When World War I erupted in 1914 it devastated much of France, but it also proved an excellent stage for the energetic Citroen's talents. He was a key player in organizing France's natural resources, introduced the concept of food rationing cards, and set up a factory for the mass production of artillery shells.

It was while doing research to construct the artillery shell factory that Citroen visited America, looking at industrial techniques. Among the factories he visited was the gigantic Ford River Rouge plant, which introduced him to a scale of production he had never imagined and set his mind spinning on ways to use what he had seen when he returned to France.

With the war over, Citroen approached Henry Ford about going into partnership with him to build cars in France. The impecunious Ford blanched at the $10 million price tag, however, and decided to enter the French market on his own.

Meanwhile, Citroen decided to become the Henry Ford of France. He teamed with Jules Salemon, who had designed the popular Le Sebre, and together they began building cars in what had been the artillery shell factory on the Quai de Javel in Paris. Given Citroen's aspirations, it is not surprising that the enterprise's first car was a tiny "people's car." Dubbed the A Model, the car had a 1.3-liter engine that produced just 10 horsepower.

Almost immediately the first Citroen was a success in the marketplace and the double chevrons that represented Citroen's gear-making venture became a familiar sight in France. Soon the factory was churning out 100 A Models a day, and by 1923 that figure had jumped to 300 per day. True to his dream, Citroen was becoming one of the biggest car producers in Europe.

The A Model was followed up by the 5CV "Trefle" that same year, and it, too, was a hit in the marketplace. Europe was much slower than America in adopting mass production techniques, so Citroen began to out-distance the pack of French and other European manufacturers that were still building vehicles in small quantities.

Citroen also had a gift for promotion. In a famous 1925 publicity stunt the Citroen name appeared in lights on the Eiffel tower, something akin to painting a Chevrolet "bowtie" on the Mona Lisa. He employed so many skywriters that the competition accused him of having his own air force, and his cars' endurance tests became legend. His C4 model was treated to a drive through the Canadian Arctic, but that was nothing compared to the B2, which was fitted with tank tracks instead of rear wheels and driven across the Sahara desert.

To keep his customers in the fold, Citroen started his own roadside service business and his own automobile insurance company. Not only did he use standard forms of advertising, he also was more than willing to try something new, like sending phonograph records extolling his wares to potential prospects.

As with most promoters, Citroen enjoyed a great deal of success when the world's economy was climbing through the mid- and late-Twenties, but when the U.S. stock market crashed in October 1929 it sent a ripple effect recession across Europe that hit Citroen hard. With its huge factories, it was left holding a very expensive bag when demand for its cars shrunk substantially almost overnight. Finally, Citroen was forced to turn to one of his major suppliers, Michelin, for help. Before the Thirties were over Michelin would own 60 percent of Citroen.

Despite the huge setback, though, Andre Citroen was not the type to throw in the towel. Impressed by the highly touted but very expensive Cord L-29, Citroen asked his engineers to create a front-wheel-drive vehicle for the masses. They responded with the first Citroen Traction Avant, the 1934 model 7.

The 7's 1.3-liter four cylinder engine powered the front wheels through a forward-mounted gearbox cum differential. The tiny engine was mounted longitudinally behind the front axle, and power went to the independently suspended front wheels via halfshafts. Torsion bars, a Dr. Fredinand Porsche-patented arrangement, were used as springs while single angled tube shock absorbers at each wheel took car of damping.

The rear suspension was similarly sophisticated for its time. It used a tubular dead axle fitted with transverse torsion bars.

It seemed that 1934 was the year for aerodynamics, what with the introduction of the Chrysler Airflow and the Tatra 77 that year. The Citroen 7 was certainly part of that parade, though not nearly as radically styled as the other two. More radical was what the Traction Avant offered under the skin, namely a chassis that forged the way toward unitary body construction. In the Citroen 7 the firewall and flat floor section were large assemblages of stamped steel. The stiff firewall actually reached around the engine, jutting forward to accept attachment to the sophisticated front suspension. Additional steel pressings ran along the rockers and above the door openings to form a rigid structure to which the sheetmetal was attached. With no driveshaft to clear, the car sat extremely low for its era and running boards, because they were needless, were eschewed.

The interior made excellent use of the flat floor to provide roominess, though the interior space was not nearly as wide as in the larger Tatra 77. The only real flaw was the gearshift lever, which extended awkwardly from the dash and was difficult to use. (Of course, shift linkages were the bane of most early front-wheel-drive vehicles.)

Within months after the successful introduction of the Citroen 7, the company founder directed his engineers to add width to the car, which was accomplished by little more than slicing the chassis in two pieces and splicing in five inches of sheetmetal. In this form the Citroen 7 reappeared as the Citroen 11 in July 1934, a scant few months after the 7's introduction.

At first the car was fitted with the same 1.3-liter 32-horsepower engine as the 7, and that quickly proved a very slow machine indeed. By the fall a 1.6-liter 36-horsepower engine replaced the original under the hood, and it wasn't too long before that engine was replaced by a 1.9-liter offering 46 horsepower. With the Citroen 11, three engines proved to be the charm, and the last combination was so tractable that it remained in production until 1957.

Sadly, Andre Citroen was not around to see his final car succeed with the masses. He died in 1935 not knowing that his name would be forever linked with one of the most important automotive technologies of the century, front-wheel drive.
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