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On your knees for Citroen, please!

2014-05-05 10:04


THINKING OUT OF THE BOX: An under-bonnet close-up of a Citroën Light Fifteen, known as Traction Avant (inset) . Its bold design and technological advancement was the brainchild of founder Andre-Gustave Citroen. Image: DAVE FALL

I’ve often heard it said by like-minded car enthusiasts that once a year we should all get on our knees and give thanks to the birth of Andre-Gustave Citroen.

Why do I say this? He proved that lateral thinking, coupled with brave and innovative ideas, will have you standing out from the crowd.

My goodness, Citroen has come out with some unusual (read: radical) vehicles through the years. Speaking of which, this week (May 5 2014) celebrates the 80th birthday of the ‘Traction Avant*’, a model that endeared itself from Paris to Parys and just about everywhere else in between.

If you wondered what those chevrons on the radiator of Citroen vehicles represent, they depict Citroen’s licence agreement as the first automaker to manufacture the double-helical gears found in the gearboxes of early Citroens.


Citroen, initially involved in the production of military components during the Great War (1914-1918),  switched to building cars a year later. Remember, it was the French who ruled the world in vehicle manufacturing, not the Germans or the British, and Citroen was soon assembling 100 Type A cars a day.

A dealer network was established in France and, being a forward thinker, its founder set up medical facilities, a creche for his worker’s children and even a gymnasium.

Another novel idea of his, given an era when most factories simply provided the mechanicals (a rolling chassis complete with running gear, wheels and brakes but sans bodywork) for the coachbuilder of choice by the wealthy customer; Citroen decided to sell his turnkey car ready to drive away from the factory gates.


In 1934 Citroen developed a car that was to become a real masterpiece - the Traction Avant (otherwise known as the Light Fifteen). It was a car so innovative that the competition simply had no response to this the first mass-produced, front-wheel drive car. It had not one but three unique revolutionary features:

• A unitary body construction (no conventional chassis)
• Front independent suspension and
• Perhaps the biggest revelation of all - front-wheel drive.

The automaker would have many more “firsts” in its illustrious history; the first automaker to fit diesel engines, first self-levelling suspension and the first brand to offer swivelling headlights.

Andre-Gustave certainly knew the value of publicity; he convinced the owners of the Eiffel Tower in the heart of Paris to light up it up with a quarter-million light bulbs making his company’s name – a publicity stunt that continued for almost a decade.


Fortunately, many Light Fifteens found their way to South Africa (they were either built in France or the UK) and I remember a chap in the garage next to mine in Windsor Park, Randburg, in the early 1970's, working on his ultra-rare “Big 6” model while I tried to keep myrather worn-out Morgan sports running so I could get to work and back for another week.

Fast forward to 1976: Citroen was absorbed into the Peugeot-Citroen (PSA) empire. Now, 2014, itcontinues to be at the forefront with unusual yet innovative designs. Take a look at its modern yet bold line-up with oddball names such as Picasso  and Cactus to and see what I mean.

*The Traction Avant model proved ultra-expensive to produce and most likely contributed the most to the financial ruin of Citroen. In 1935 huge debts forced the automaker into liquidation but was soon taken over by its biggest creditor, the Michelin Tyre Company.
Read more on:    citroen  |  dave fall  |  classic cars  |  columnist

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