Historic Car Brands
Andre Citroen was born in Paris on the 5th of February 1878, to a family with Dutch ancestry and who had adopted the name ‘Citroen’ (lemon), because it sounded classier than the original Limoenman (lime-man).
After some complex diamond dealings that went wrong, his father committed suicide in 1884 when Andre was only six. Fortunately, Andre was clever and did well at school; later being admitted to the prestigious Ecole Polytechnique to study engineering. He graduated, but not with flying colours and so joined the French Army as an engineer-officer.
During this army period Citroen visited Poland and was impressed by the wooden ‘double-helical’ gears being used in water-driven machinery. (Double-helical gears are quiet and not subject to the axial loads incurred by single-helical gears, because one side-load cancels the other.)
There is some uncertainty about how Andre adopted this double-helical gear path, but the official Citroen Car Company version is that he purchased the patent rights from a man in Poland. In any event, by 1904 Citroen had left the army and had filed a patent for double-helical chevron gears, made in steel.
The double-helical shape gave rise to the Citroen ‘chevron’ logo that the company adopted.
His steel gear business went well and probably the best known example is the steering gear in the Titanic ocean liner. (It wasn’t a steering issue that sent it to the bottom on April 15, 1912!)
As the French automobile industry was very well advanced, the requirement for gears was high and most French cars used Citroen’s products.
During Word War I, Andre Citroen realised he’d need to diversify when peace returned and car manufacturing was his choice.
Citroen A 8CV Torpedo 1919 – Lars-Goran Lindgren.
In combination with some automobile engineers he developed the Type A and launched it in 1919.
It was an 18hp machine, powered by a 1327cc side-valve, four-cylinder engine, with three-speed transmission. Naturally, it had a double-helical final drive gear-set!
The Type A was followed by the Type B, with 1453cc displacement and the lower-priced 855cc 5CV model.
1921 Citroen B2 Torpedo – Lars-Goran Lindgren.
Andre Citroen was interested in building a vehicle that could cars hostile terrain, including France’s North African territories and for that role he chose a ‘half-track’ vehicle design, using rubber/fabric treads designed by Adolphe Kegresse.
Five Citroen Kegresse vehicles travelled from Algeria to Timbuktu in 1922 and in 1924 eight Citroens did an extended trip through North Africa.
Even more impressive was a Himalayan Expedition through Tibet to China in 1931-32 and here is some archival footage of that incredible achievement – probably the greatest car journey of all time:
The exploits earned great publicity for Citroen and led to a licence deal with the USA’s Army Ordnance Department. During WW II, US manufacturers produced more than 41,000 half-track Army vehicles.
Citroens also crossed Asia and a 5CV was the first car to drive around Australia in 1925.
1923 Citroen C5 – Australian National Museum.
Also in 1925, Citroen released the B10, which had Europe’s first all-steel car body, using the US Budd system. This system didn’t allow Citroen much variation in body styles, whereas his competitors could churn out different looking wood-framed bodies more frequently. Citroen’s selling point was its low pricing, but that cut into profits.
Citroen received some bank assistance in the early 1930s and released the Rosalie 15CV, diesel-powered model in 1933.
Traction Avant – Traction.fr
But Andre Citroen’s masterpiece was the Traction Avant, released to an astounded Europe in 1934. It featured a unitary body and frame, all-independent suspension, rack and pinion steering and front-wheel-drive – all attributes of modern designs that took decades to be implemented by other vehicle makers.
Citroen Traction Avant convertible – P Lawrence99c
However, against the backdrop of a the Great Depression, the huge investment needed to get this radical machine to market sent Citroen broke. Michelin stepped in and was transformed from major creditor to major shareholder.
Citroen Traction Avant – Bengt-Nyman
In 1935 Andre Citroen died from stomach cancer.
During the War, in occupied France Citroen plants were forced to make vehicles for Nazi Germany, but ingenious methods were adopted to make production ‘go slowly’. Another neat trick was wrongly-calibrating engine dipsticks, so that the engines would appear fine when delivered, but they had insufficient lubrication and seized when in service.
Citroen engineers also worked in secret on post-War designs that included the 2CV and the DS.
1956 Citroen Traction Avant – Rex-Gray.
After the War, the Traction Avant continued, with increased engine capacity and continued in production until 1957. The final edition trialled the hydro-pneumatic suspension that was later a hallmark of the DS.
1955 Citroen 2CV – P Lawrence99cx.
The 375cc, flat-twin 2CV – Deux Cheveaux (Two Horses) – was aimed at rural France, offering economy and off-bitumen drivability, thanks to its supple coil-spring suspension. It was an immediate and long-lived success, with more than nine million being built between 1949 and 1990.
The sensational DS, launched in 1955, was the first production car with modern disc brakes.
A single high-pressure hydraulic system actuated the power steering, the hydro-pneumatic suspension and the brakes. The brakes were hydraulically powered, not vacuum/hydraulic power-assisted, so pedal force was not a component of braking power.
1962 DS – Charles01
The semi-automatic transmission shift action was also powered by the hydraulic system through a control valve, with actuating pistons in the gearbox cover to shift the gears in the transmission. The clutch was operated automatically by the system, so there was no clutch pedal.
From 1957 the ID19 model offered a simplified hydraulic system, with manual steering and conventional manual gearshift, and a significant price reduction.
Citroen DS21 headlights – P Lawrence99cx
From 1968 it had a restyled front end, with auxiliary driving lights that moved directionally with the steering. Production from 1956 to 1975 totalled almost 1.5 million cars. The streamlined DS was remarkable for its era.
1974 Citroen DS20 – Lothar Spurzem
The high-pressure hydraulic system featured in more than nine million Citroën cars, including the DS, SM, GS, CX, BX, XM, Xantia, C5, and C6. Self-levelling suspension means that the car maintains a constant ride height above the road, regardless of passenger and cargo load and despite the supple suspension action.
Citroen GS Birotor – Klaus Nahr.
Citroens were designed with wind-tunnel assistance from 1950, helping greatly with economy and the CX model name was actually derived from the ‘Cx’ drag coefficient term.
The Maserati-powered SM was a brilliant performer, but it was expensive and didn’t sell well. However, the mid-sized GS sold well, from its launch in 1972.
Citroen struggled financially, mainly as a result of its weird model lineup that had insufficient high-volume mid-sized vehicle models, between ultra-cheap and high-end.
Ami 6 – Abujoy.
Also, the very strict French engine taxation system meant that all Citroens were viewed as being underpowered by export markets – particularly freeway-dominated Germany, UK and the USA. Several efforts were made to broaden the engine portfolio, including a Wankel tie-up and ownership of Maserati.
Citroen’s Wankel experiment
The final nail in the coffin was the quirkiness of Citroen mechanicals that left non-specialist mechanics scratching their heads.
Losses from the rotary engine experiment and from new model introductions mounted and the Oil Shock in 1973 was the final straw. Citroen went bankrupt in 1974.
Citroen BX – FernandoR
Peugeot stepped into the breach, forming a new PSA Peugeot Citroen company. Inevitably, Citroen vehicles became more Peugeot-like, apart from the hydro-pneumatically-suspended BX, in 1982 and the retro-2CV C3 Pluriel, in 2003.
The post-2009 ‘DS’ brand may produce Citroen-esque models, but that remains to be seen.
Citroen Rally successes
1971 Citroen SM – Rallye du Maroc – Thesupermat
The luxury-car Citroen SM appeared in 1970 and seemed an unlikely base for a rally car. However, a converted example scored a victory in the Rally of Morocco, in 1971, at its first outing.
Previous efforts hadn’t been so rewarding. At the 1956 Monte Carlo Rally there wasn’t enough snow and ice to make the underpowered DS entries competitive.However, in 1959 Citroen took the European Rally crown.
Another Citroen was just pipped into second place in the London to Sydney Marathon in 1968.
The 1970s and 1980s were financially troubled, but Citroen returned to competition with gusto in the 1990s, scoring four victories I the Paris-Dakar, first in the Paris-Peking of 1992 and five consecutive world titles between 1993 and 1997.
Citroen’s rally efforts continued into the 2000s.