Citroen is commonly acclaimed for introducing the first front-wheel-drive production automobile. That would be quite a difference, but the fact is it’s not true. Cord, Ruxton and Gardner all proposed production front-wheel-drive automobiles several years before Citroen joined the party. The importance of Citroen’s involvement 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 victory came almost simultaneously with Andre Citroen’s death, so the legendary French auto magnate never got to enjoy the fruits of his gamble.
Henry Ford of France
By the way, there is no doubt, 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 taken seriously in French industry. After graduating from technical college, he obtained a license for a Russian process of machining gear teeth and, license in hand, set up a machine works. The gears rapidly gained a reputation for silence and strength, and Citroen’s business, which he manage with great vigor, became very profitable. Soon the prominent French automobile producer Mors asked him for technical assistance, his first foray into the car industry.
When World War I erupted in 1914, it wrecked much of France, but it also proved a perfect stage for the energetic Citroen’s talents. He introduced the concept of food rationing cards, was a major player in organizing France’s natural resources, and set up a factory for the mass production of artillery shells.
It was while doing research to build the artillery shell factory that Citroen visited America, looking at industrial techniques. Among the factories he visited was the colossal Ford River Rouge plant, which introduced him to a scale of production he had never conceived of and set his mind spinning on ways to use what he had seen when he returned to France.
With the war ended, Citroen approached Henry Ford about going into partnership with him to produce cars in France. However, the impecunious Ford blanched at the $10 million price tag and made a decision to enter the French market on his own.
Meanwhile, Citroen opted to become the Henry Ford of France. He partnered with Jules Salemon, who had designed the well admired Le Sebre, and together they started 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 initial car was a tiny “people’s car.” Named the A Model, the car had a 1.3-liter engine that supplied just 10 horsepower.
When it rains, it pours
Almost immediately, the first Citroen was a success in the marketplace and the double chevrons that symbolized Citroen’s gear-making venture became a familiar sight in France. Soon, the factory was churning out 100 A Models daily, and by 1923 that figure had jumped to 300 daily. True to his dream, Citroen was becoming one of the biggest car manufacturers in Europe.
The A Model was followed up by the 5CV “Trefle” that same year, and it, too, was a success in the marketplace. Europe was much slower than America in adopting mass production methods, so Citroen began to outstrip the pack of French and other European manufacturers that were still building vehicles in small quantities.
Citroen also had a reward for promotion. In a famous 1925 publicity stunt, the Citroen label appeared in lights on the Eiffel tower, something similar to painting a Chevrolet “bowtie” on the Mona Lisa. He employed so many skywriters that the rivals accused him of having his own air force, and his cars’ endurance tests became legend. Through the Canadian Arctic, his C4 model was treated to a drive but that was nothing compared to the B2, which was fitted with tank tracks instead of back wheels and driven across the Sahara desert.
To keep his customers in the fold, Citroen started his own automobile insurance company and his own roadside service business. Not only did he use ordinary forms of advertising, he also was more than willing to try something new, like sending phonograph records extolling his wares to potential clients.
As with most promoters, Citroen enjoyed a tremendous deal of success when the world’s economy was climbing through the mid- and late-Twenties, but when the U.S. stock market collapsed in October 1929, it sent a ripple effect recession across Europe that hit Citroen hard. With its enormous factories, it was left holding a very expensive bag when demand for its cars shrunk significantly almost overnight. Finally, Citroen was forced to turn to one of his key suppliers, Michelin, for help. Before the Thirties were over, Michelin would have possession of 60 percent of Citroen.
Aerodynamic in a special manner
Though, despite the huge setback, Andre Citroen was not the type to throw in the towel. Amazed by the highly touted but very expensive Cord L-29, Citroen asked his engineers to produce a front-wheel-drive vehicle for the masses. They responded with the initial Citroen Traction Avant, the 1934 model 7.
The 7’s 1.3-liter four cylinder machine powered the front wheels through a forward-mounted gearbox cum differential. The small 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 coils while single angled tube shock absorbers at each wheel took care of damping.
The rear suspension was likewise sophisticated for its era. It utilized a tubular dead axle fitted with transverse torsion bars.
It seemed that 1934 was the year for aerodynamics, what with the launch of the Chrysler Airflow and the Tatra 77 that year. The Citroen 7 was definitely part of that parade, though not nearly as radically styled as the other two. More drastic 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 flat floor and the firewall section were large assemblages of stamped steel. The stiff firewall essentially 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 stiff structure to which the sheetmetal was attached. With no driveshaft to clear, the car sat extremely low for its period and running boards, because they were needless, were avoided.
The interior made perfect 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 mistake was the gearshift lever, which extended awkwardly from the dash and was hard to use. (Shift linkages were, of course, the bane of most early front-wheel-drive vehicles.)
Within months after the successful introduction of the Citroen 7, the company founder instructed 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 launch.
At first the car was fitted with the same 1.3-liter 32-horsepower engine as the 7, and that immediately 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 supplyig 46 horsepower. With the Citroen 11, three engines proved to be the lovely, and the last combination was so tractable that it continued in production until 1957.
Sadly, Andre Citroen was not around to see his final car thrived with the masses. He passed away 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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