Patrick Wehr, AKA ptkwr52 is our European correspondent for all matters Automobilia. Read all of his reports here.
Though looking to the untrained eye like so many other 30’s creations, the Citroën Traction Avant represented a new wave in mass-produced automobiles, a radical move for a then still-young manufacturer on the verge of bankruptcy. This seemingly humble car pioneered three features still in use today: four-wheel independent suspension, front-wheel drive and unibody construction. The Traction helped save Citroën and solidified its future as one of the most innovative automotive manufacturers. All these new features were part of a tidy plan for the Traction Avant, which André Citroën laid out in these specifications:
In fact, the name “Traction Avant” means front-wheel drive, still quite a rarity in the early thirties. With the plan thus laid out, the car was designed by Flaminio Bertone and André Lefèbvre in 1933/1934 and built from 1934 to 1957, to the tune of 760.000 cars.
Not only was a different end given power than usual, the Avant had a very advanced suspension for the thirties. The front wheels were independently sprung, using a torsion bar and wishbone suspension arrangement, although the rear suspension was a simple steel beam axle which was bolted to the main platform.
As specified, the structure of the car was a welded unitary body/chassis and not a separate frame like most of the other cars used in that time. Beyond just sounding like a pretty neat idea, this resulted in a lighter body, saving 70kg (150lb) per car. Interestingly, Andre Citroën received inspiration for much of the idea and execution of this method in a visit to the U.S. at the Budd Corporation. It was here he observed a proposal for a monocoque automobile, with the additional innovation of placing the entire drivetrain in the front.
Such a revolutionary automobile requires a similar change in manufacturing. André Citroën built a whole new factory for the Traction Avant, raising the old 30,000m (320,000sq ft) factory. Construction on this new factory, four times larger than its predecessor, started in April 1933. By October, André Citroën was ready to invite 6,000 guests to the new factory ( including dealers, agents and other people involved in selling the car) for a spectacular kick-off banquet. A year after construction of the new factory began, the first Traction Avant was presented at Citroën’s Paris Showroom.
Over the years, Citroen’s innovative new machine existed as a variety of models with different features. The original model was the Traction 7A followed by the Traction 7B. In October 1934 came the Traction 7C.
In November 1934 came the Traction 11CV.
In June 1938 the Traction 15CV earned the nickname “Big Six” for its new 6cylinder engine.
So what’s all this “CV” nonsense? This designation comes from the French fiscal horsepower rating (CV) which is used to determine annual car tax levels. Nicknames for the Avant were decidedly more elegant, such as “Reine de la Route“ (Queen of the Road).
Put to the test
Despite it’s near universal use today, unibody construction didn’t immediately win acceptance. Many questioned its safety, and a sophisticated type of crash test was conceived for the Traction Avant: it was pushed off a cliff. After the crash, all four doors still opened and even the glass was still intact. A few men hoped in and promptly drove the car off.
Unfortunately for Citroen (and everyone else) the world went to war in September 1939 and the Paris Motor Show was canceled, though the Traction Avant carried on.
By September 1939 250 cars found their way into military service and Citroën supplied a further 570 to the army between 02/1940 and 05/1940. During WWII, many of the cars were registered with WH plates (Wehrmacht Heer) having been requisitioned by the German Army. Demonstrating that the Traction Avant had something to offer everybody, the Traction Models were also used by the French Resistance with FFI inscribed on their doors. The car was also used as favorite cars among gangsters like from the legendary Pierrot le Fou and his Traction Gang.
After the war, the production resumed slowly and by the end of 1945 Citroën has made 1525 cars. In that year, the Traction was the only Citroën model available and as a sign of the times those customers who were not able to supply their own tires were charged for a set of five tires (including the trunk mounted spare) until may 1946 when the car could be purchased with tires at no extra costs.
Motorsport and other versions
Left-hand drive versions were built at Forest in Belgium and in Paris. In Copenhagen were built 550 additional cars for tax purposes (2 door commercial vans).
Some ideas never saw the light of day, including a 22CV with a 3.8litre V8 from which twenty prototypes were built, although the project was stopped at the beginning of 1935 after the company´s bankruptcy. When Michelin took control of Citroën (1934-1976) it’s likely that all the prototypes of the 22CV were destroyed. An automatic version also fizzled before reaching production.
A few variations that did reach the public were a 2 door Coupé and a convertible.
During development of the Hydropneumatic suspension that would become famous in the Avant’s successor, the DS, a 15CV (15-6H) model was used as a test car.
Upon the sensational introduction of the DS, production of the venerable Avant was halted, though clearly the car’s impact remains felt today.
Wow, Patrick, a really awesome article! Cannot wait for the next one!
Glad that you like the article. Have already an idea for the next one!🤗
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