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CitroŽn history
by David Owen

Every automobile enthusiast the world over ought to go down on his knees at least once a year - preferably on the second of February - and give thanks for the birth of Andrť CitroŽn. Whether you actually like CitroŽns or not is immaterial. You may look at them the way a fundamentalist preacher regards the ideas of Darwin - but you can't deny the simple existence of the marque is a very necessary reminder that individual ideas can still survive in the rough, tough world of the motorcar. Even in the 1970's, when so many carefully-programmed, closely-researched designs from competing companies end up as exciting and memorable as a canful of beans, CitroŽns still stand out from the rest. Different - sometimes it seems for the pure pleasure of being different for its own sake - wayward, capricious, bizarre, irritating, yet occasionally lit with flashes of engineering genius so pure that you stop short and wonder why on earth car designers persist in doing things any other way, CitroŽns can't be confused with anything else in the automotive world. If God had meant us to drive around in identical tin boxes, he wouldn't have created Andrť CitroŽn.

Andrť CitroŽn, 1878-1935

A fanciful idea? Not really. The whole CitroŽn story is so disjointed, so haunted by the workings of random chance and unlikely causes and effects that there are times when only the hand of Providence can provide a convincing explanation of why things developed as they did. Andrť CitroŽn made his fair share of mistakes - more than his share, say some of his critics - but it's only right to set against these some of the most radical advances in design, engineering, production, and marketing ideas in automobile history. And yet CitroŽn himself was one of the most unlikely figures possible to act out such a role: brilliant but lazy, an ingenious inventor who was hopeless at money management, a car designer who disliked driving on the open road. Possessed of a genius for publicity and a tragic and compulsive gambler - his bankruptcy and early death in 1935 took him away from the company he had built at a crucial stage in its development - yet his ideas, attitudes and influences have lived on through successive takeovers and mergers in such an extraordinary way that even now CitroŽn cars owe far more to him than those of most other firms have inherited from their original creators.

Throughout his life, Andrť CitroŽn was no car fanatic. He was born in Paris in 1878, the fifth child of a middle class, Dutch-Jewish jeweller from Amsterdam. His father committed suicide when Andrť was only two, so his influence played no part in the choice of the young man's career. He began in fine style, graduating from his Lycťe in 1894 with the highest grades in all of France, and he was accepted for the prestigious …cole Polytechnique. But then his fire seemed to fade. By the time his education was finished, he was well down the pass list and he went straight into the French Army as an engineer officer, instead of the more distinguished and more challenging positions waiting for his better-qualified classmates.

Then, for the first time, Chance took a hand. Like many European Jewish families, the CitroŽns had branches scattered across the width of the Continent. Andrť had a long period of leave due to him, and he decided to spend it visiting some of his relatives in far-off Lodz - Poland's textile capital. On the long journey through the Polish countryside, his well-trained engineer's eye spotted a pile of wooden gearwheels lying outside a backwoods workshop. He studied their complex double-helical form, and made some rough sketches, his mind furiously working on the advantages and possibilities they presented. In Lodz too, CitroŽn studied the wooden gear drives in the thriving cotton mills and when he had finished his leave and returned to duty in Paris, he secured the patent rights to a steel herring-bone type gear invented by a now anonymous Russian. And in 1904 he and two friends set up a small workshop to produce his own pattern of double-helical gearwheels. Business prospered. By 1905 young CitroŽn was making his name known in the engineering world as part of Hinstin, FrŤres, CitroŽn et Cie.

It was another four years before Chance stepped in again, and guided steps towards his first contact with car-making. The automobile industry, especially in France, was already well-established - so much so that increasing competition was beginning to have its effect on even the best manufacturers. One of these was the company headed by the brothers Emile and Louis Mors, with its factory in the Rue du Theatre. After years of racing success, when the sleeve-valve Mors designs had been the only real challengers to the sporting supremacy of Panhard, the pace of development was stepping up. Mors cars had won the Cordon Bennett races in 1904 and 1905, but now in 1908 the competition from Italy and Germany had destroyed the French monopoly in motor racing, and the costs of staying in the running were rocketing higher and higher. Regretfully, Emile and Louis decided to withdraw from racing for good - but the situation was even more serious than that. Even though the potential demand was there, production of road cars had drooped to a dispiriting ten cars a month, and the next question was whether they could afford to stay in business at all.

Desperate measures were needed. The Mors brothers knew Andrť CitroŽn, not as a friend of the automobile, but as a trained engineer, wise in the ways of mass production, thanks to his thriving gearwheel factory. They knew their design ideas were good - their problems centered on production and marketing rather than shortcomings in the cars themselves. So Mors chairman Harbleischer asked CitroŽn to come and sort out the mess. Andrť agreed, and brought his co-director Georges Haardt from the gear workshop, as well as an automobile engineer called Fauchier from a car company called Zedel. Within five years, the tide was firmly turned - production rose, first to twenty cars a month, then to fifty, then a hundred. Mors - the cars were eventually re-powered with Minerva's Knight-patented sleeve valve engine, under an agreement arranged by CitroŽn - had been saved, for the time being at least, and CitroŽn's job was done. His first contact with the automobile had given him no sign that anything was missing from his life, and back he went quite happily to his gear-cutting. Business had been doing well in his absence, and he decided it was time to go public, setting up the Sociťtť des Engrenages A. CitroŽn. The Mors digression over and done with successfully, the pattern of his life seemed set for the remainder of his working years.

Chance was turning the wheels in a big way. It was now 1913, and the first rumblings of approaching war were heard beyond the horizon. CitroŽn's gear-cutting business would soon become an important strategic asset. When the storm broke, Andrť, a captain in the reserves, returned to the colours as part of an artillery regiment equipped with the famous French 75 mm field gun. But rejoining the army didn't stop his fertile brain from thinking about engineering problems: his experience with Mors had shown him that mass production ideas could be applied to cars as well as gearwheels, and this common solution could be extended to all kinds of other things still in short supply. CitroŽn probably knew as much as any man in France about turning out small precision components by the million, and he began to realize how this knowledge could be applied to something much more directly useful in the bitter trench warfare of 1914: shells. Soon after CitroŽn arrived at the front, his unit received a severe drubbing by enemy artillery, a barrage they couldn't reply to for lack of adequate ammunition. With the right kind of assistance to build an efficient production system, he was confident he could boost output to totally undreamed-of proportions. He drew up a report showing how he would turn out thousands of 75 mm shells every day using the ideas he had put into practice in his gearwheel business. Through his old school friend Louis Loucheur, now also an acquaintance of Minister for Armaments Albert Thomas, CitroŽn's report found its way to the desk of Army's Chief of Artillery, General Baquet, whose reaction was spectacular.

Andrť CitroŽn left the army so fast his feet barely touched solid ground. He was told to go away and put his ideas into practice. With the enthusiastic backing of the Armaments Ministry, he bought thirty acres of waste ground on the Quai de Javel in Paris, where he set up an enormous factory complex containing everything from production lines to shops, canteens, and clinics for more than 12,000 workers. It was the first chance CitroŽn had had to put all his ideas about paternalism and workers' benefits into practice alongside his mass production system, and the combination proved to be a winner. By the height of the war, the Javel factory was turning out more than 35,000 shells every day, and other plants turning out another 20,000 a day had been brought under CitroŽn's direct control.

But after only three years of full production, the war was smouldering to its end, and with it the bottom would fall out of the munitions market. CitroŽn was heir to an enormous factory with all the tools and equipment needed for precision engineering on a truly enormous scale. What could he do with it? It was only now that his experience with Mors began to play its most significant part in his thinking - what he had done for Mors so successfully, could he not do here in his own factory? But he was still no enthusiast, and car design remained something of a mystery to him. Automobiles were still principally expensive, hand-assembled playthings for the rich, and CitroŽn knew in his bones that this was wrong. Like Ford in America, Austin in England, and Porsche in Germany, he knew the future lay in making cars for the people, for the newly prosperous middle class rather than the aristocracy. Chance produced a meeting with Henry Ford, and straightaway the two men realized they were talking the same language. CitroŽn's hunches became certainties, and he began to look around for a design which would fit his requirements.

For Andrť CitroŽn this was still no deep love affair with the automobile. His attitude was that of a cool, practical businessman. Here, he was convinced, was the next big mass market, and he was determined the CitroŽn works would play its part in delivering the goods. So he looked at the possibilities from the angle of a production expert - valuing robustness, simplicity and ease of assembly more highly than sophisticated design ideas or exhilarating performance. And it was precisely this detachment which kept him clear of the constant problems encountered by many of his more mechanically oriented competitors.

Designers were soon beating a path to his office. First were the Panhard engineers Artauld and Dufresne, who turned up originally as early as 1917, with a Panhard design for a 16 hp 3-litre four-cylinder car which they calmly tried to sell to CitroŽn lock, stock, and barrel. CitroŽn had Georges Haardt reorganize the production system with cars in mind, while he set about evaluating the merchandise. He built three modified prototypes of the Panhard design, and tested them long and hard, but his sensitive gambler's instinct told him this wasn't the horse to mount his factory on. He wanted something smaller, simpler, and neater, to hit the great French public fairly and squarely in its purse pocket. But too shrewd to lose a possible bargain, he succeeded in selling the experimental cars to his friend Gabriel Voisin. Then Artauld and Dufresne took themselves to Voisin as well. According to Voisin himself, they stayed with him long enough to get their hands on the plans of his Grand Prix car, after which they disappeared in the direction of Peugeot. Peugeot bought the deal, and later produced a racing car which thrashed the Voisins in a subsequent French Grand Prix, much to Gabriel Voisin's disgust.

Meanwhile, back at the gearwheel factory, CitroŽn was getting closer to what he wanted. During his war service, he had been greatly impressed by an officer in the Army Technical Service, Jules Salomon. Before being drafted, Salomon had designed a small four-cylinder car for the Le ZŤbre company, and CitroŽn decided this was precisely the type of little car he needed now. He contacted Salomon and persuaded him to leave Le ZŤbre and draw up a design for the new CitroŽn car, to be tagged (logically if unexcitedly) the Type A, and when this finally appeared on May 28th, 1919, it closely resembled Salomon's earlier effort. Its four-cylinder engine (with bore/stroke dimensions of 65 by 100 mm for 1327 cc) developed 18 bhp at 2100 rpm. Sturdily and simply constructed - cylinder heads detachable; engine, clutch, and gearbox in unit; suspension quarter elliptics front, double superimposed quarter elliptics rear; steering irreversible worm and toothed wheel; internal expanding brakes on rear wheels - the entire package weighed only 990 pounds. Thanks to this and its compact little engine, it was very economical to run, covering more than 35 miles on a gallon of gasoline, with a top speed of 40 mph. This car, with its solid disc pressed steel wheels - invented by Michelin in 1914 - carried a spare wheel as standard equipment.

Type A body frame workshop

There was nothing very startling about the mechanical design of the car - but what shook the motoring public to its core was CitroŽn's ruthless exploitation of the laws of mass production. Adding extras was cheaper than the complications of providing different options, so electric lighting and an electric self-starter were provided along with a soft top, the aforementioned spare wheel and a host of other items at no extra charge - all for a projected 7250 francs list price. Yet so clever was the body design in allowing for modifications without interrupting production that buyers were still offered the choice of no less than five body styles: three- and four-seater open tourers, a three-seater sedan, a coupe de ville or a light delivery van.

CitroŽn set up production in record time. He needed to, to sell enough cars to show a profit at his deliberately rock-bottom price. Within a year, production was moving in earnest - yet so attractive was the Type A package that 16,000 orders arrived within a fortnight of the announcement, and the target figure of 30,000 orders had been reached long before the first production cars were wheeled out of the plant. Things were happening a bit too quickly, as Andrť was soon to find out.

A Type A being spray painted, and thence it was to the drying chamber

In addition to initial financial hurdles - CitroŽn had even desperately suggested partnership to Henry Ford but was turned down - there were production teething problems. Cars were infinitely more complex than gearwheels and munitions, and this new design was a very different proposition from the already well-proven products CitroŽn had been dealing with at the Mors works. Originally setting himself a target of a hundred cars a day, he finally settled for thirty, a figure still way beyond the capacity of most of his competitors. And as a result the price climbed to 12,500 francs - even at this level a definite bargain. Some 25,000 Type A's were built and bought before an improved version, the Type B 2 - with a slightly bored out engine using 68 mm cylinders producing another two horsepower over the A and adding another four miles an hour to maximum speed and with new bodywork - emerged from the CitroŽn factory. By this time Andrť CitroŽn's unique genius for publicity - the launch of the Type A had been preceded by weeks of carefully deliberate rumour mongering - and the benefits of mass production he was so scrupulously passing on to his customers were bringing in floods of new orders every day. The sign of the double chevron - CitroŽn's badge from the earliest days, a stylized picture of a double helical gear-tooth and carried by every CitroŽn ever since - was in the ascendant. By 1922 the works had managed to surpass his earlier target in turning out more than 300 cars a day, and nearly 100,000 B 2's were sold in just five years.

CitroŽn Type A's all in a row, photographed outside the factory in 1921.

TYPE A: the tourer from 1921 - owned by Clive Hamilton-Gould

TYPE B 2: the 1923 tourer - from the collection of D. Hoare

Already Andrť CitroŽn had learned a lot about mass production - and one lesson he, and his company, was never to forget was that it was far easier (and cheaper) to add detail improvements to existing, well-proven designs than to introduce totally new models for no very good reason. So the B series lasted for five full years: it included the B 10 with a new type of all-steel monocoque body which ran into production problems as it took two and a half times more work to finish than the original wood-frame version. Even then, the steel body mated badly with the flexible. Eventually these considerations led to the wider and longer and more successful B 12, with four-wheel brakes, improved rear suspension with two friction shock absorbers, and a production total of 40,000 in its own right.

TYPE C 3: the Cloverleaf of 1924 - in the collection of D. Roscoe

TYPE C: the 5 CV of 1923 - from the Biscaretti Museum in Turin

Yet new designs did emerge from time to time. As early as 1921, the CitroŽn Type C made its first appearance. As the B series had begun the inevitable trend towards bigger, heavier and more powerful cars, this was a return to simplicity with a vengeance: a tiny 856 cc 11 bhp engine squeezed into a light two-seater capable of 40 mph with a slight following breeze. In the following year, a three-seater sports version of the B 2, with a boat-shaped body, was introduced. This was called the Caddy, and in its attack on the specialist sports car market was less successful than the solid, bread-and-butter sedans and tourers of the rest of the range. It was dropped in less than twelve months, but not before the little C had been fitted with a similar body, to make the C 3 Cloverleaf. This was the kind of car of which legends are made. It looked pretty, it had a character all its own, and while it may have lacked exciting performance, it was still tough and reliable in an undeniably stylish way. And although still highly prized by collectors, the Cloverleaf, like the rest of the small-engined C range, was killed by the company's own success. So sophisticated had CitroŽn's production become that it could turn out the big B series cars for little more than the C's, and the demand and eventual profit was much greater. So by 1925 the little C's had vanished into the mists of history.

The first Kegresse half-track during tests in 1921.

Andrť CitroŽn had all sorts of promotional ideas that, among them, emblazoning the heavens with what CitroŽn claims was the world's first sky-writing advertisement. Parisians got this message in 1922.

In six years, Andrť CitroŽn had done exceedingly well in the difficult business of car building, even taking over the Mors company along the way in 1925. But the next model, the B 14, was the one which really hit the jackpot. This was the last design the brilliant Salomon did for the company before leaving to join Lucien Rosengart, another CitroŽn director who left in 1927 to spend a year with Peugeot before setting up shop on his own account to produce the Austin Seven under license in France. But Salomon's parting gift was a winner all the way. Still using the old A engine - its cylinders were now hardened for longer life - stretched to 70 mm bore with horsepower upped to 22 bhp at 2300 rpm, the car was fitted with a neat, close-coupled four-door body. Eventually it was to appear in a whole series of variations: the basic B 14 sedan, the B 15 light van, the B 14 F with Hungarian-made Westinghouse servo-brakes, and the B 14 G which made its first appearance in 1928. By now CitroŽn's factory was turning out the cars at an astonishing 400 per day, and thanks to clever design flexibility was still able to offer buyers a daunting choice of twenty-eight different bodies. By now, too, CitroŽn was employing 35,000 workers, with plants in eleven foreign countries. But it was in the shops at Quai de Javel that the company held a party to celebrate Charles Lindbergh's Atlantic flight in May 1927.

TYPE B 2: wagonette

TYPE B 2: Three-place coupť.

B 10 (1924-1925)

B 12 (1925-1926)

B 14 (specialty variation)

B 14 G (B 14 1928)

C 3 Cabriolet

C 3 Torpedo (Right-hand drive)

Up to this point, Andrť CitroŽn had two automotive achievements to his credit: he had built up a highly successful car-building enterprise, and used it to sell good, cleverly designed but basically conventional cars in very large numbers. From now on, he was beginning, tentatively, to add what was to become the third ingredient in the CitroŽn formula - highly advanced engineering ideas and greater originality in design, which would allow the company to exploit mass production still further by carrying out long production runs with each new model.


This model, introduced in the spring of 1927, is perhaps best remembered in its Torpedo Sport version, reminiscent of the B 2 Caddy of the early 20's, but with engine modifications now capable of 100 km/h. It looks much like an American speedster of the period as well. This example is on display at Lips Autotron in Drunen, Holland.


The successor to the B 14 F was introduced at the Paris automobile show in the fall of 1927 and produced through the following October. The 4-door sedan, this one owned by R.E. Gordon, is one of 28 varied passenger car and commercial  body styles produced by CitroŽn during 1928.

The first signs of the new approach appeared with the C 4 and C 6 CitroŽns which emerged at the 1928 Paris show. These used similar four- and six-cylinder versions of an engine derived from the original Type A unit, the four with 72 by 100 mm bore/stroke for 1628 cc, with 30 bhp developed at 3000 rpm; the six sharing the same bore/stroke dimensions for 2442 cc and 42 bhp at 3000 rpm. The cylinders were cast in a single unit with cylinder head. Each model came in short- and long-wheelbase versions, with tough monobloc bodies, and during the three-year production run detail improvements included wider track, better instrument layout and greater comfort. In 1931 both models were updated still more: the C 4 became the C 4 G. with a bored-out 75 mm engine and greatly improved front suspension carrying a simpler and stronger integral-construction body. The C 6 collected the same improvements, but the big news for this model was the result of CitroŽn's trip to the United States earlier in the year. There he had met a fellow Frenchman, an engineer named Lemaire who had developed a vibration-damping engine mounting for Chrysler, which called it Floating Power. CitroŽn spent huge sums of money buying the patents from Chrysler - and Lemaire as well. Floating Power was introduced on the C 6, and later on the C 4 (which needed it more), and Lemaire came to the company to begin work on more sophisticated suspensions still.

The A C 4 Prototype (1928)

The A C 6 faux-cabriolet

CitroŽn's first 6-cylinder car was the C 6 introduced in 1928.

In a scene from a vintage film - alas, its identity unknown -
a CitroŽn taxi and its elegant chauffeur recall a grand era long past.

By 1931 the C 6 had been refined into the C 6 G:
a berline with a very neat luggage compartment

A pretty C 6 coach by Carrosserie Levallois

The C series was successful commercially - a grand total of 360,000 cars were made by the time the run ended in October 1932. But potential for future development was poor, so that the company started again on a clean sheet of drawing paper for the next model. At the Paris show of 1932, the successors appeared for the first time - and they would be called the Rosalies, after their sturdy little namesakes which stormed around Montlhťry in search of international long-distance records, the most famous of which was Petite Rosalie, which spent 134 days on the track, totting up close to 200,000 miles at an average speed of 57.8 mph in the process. Once again, these CitroŽns were a series rather than a single model: the smallest, the 8 A, used an engine of the same measurements, 68 by 100 mm, as the old B 2, but now producing 32 bhp at 3200 rpm. Then came the 10 A, using the engine of the C 4, and the 15 A, using that of the C 6. Bodies were stronger and even simpler than ever before, using a total of only four major pressings, and they came in four sizes: the smallest for the 8 A and 10 A, an interim size as an option for the 10 A and the two largest for the 15 A. Detail improvements were added in the usual way: after a year the 8 A had torsion-bar front suspension, adapted two years later for the 10 A. and both the 15 A and the larger version of the 10 A carried a freewheel system using patents bought by CitroŽn from Studebaker, which had brought them from Chenard et Walcker which had developed it ten years before. Ironically, CitroŽn himself had been given first refusal in 1922, but he now had to pay for his lack of foresight on this point by settling a much steeper bill with the American company.


As the fabled Rosalies were storming the track at Montlhťry, the successors to the C series were introduced in Paris, numbered sequentially 8, 10, and 15. The middle model carried the engine of the C 4 G and sported cleaner body lines. This 1933 "familliale" sedan is owned by Bruce Grove.

There was still something missing from the CitroŽn prescription. His cars were well made and well liked, exceedingly popular with their owners, yet never likely to set the Seine on fire. Although he understood the advantages and drawbacks of volume production better than most of his contemporaries, he had never really seen that the one way to ensure the kind of long production runs so necessary for real success was to use designs which were individual enough and advanced enough to avoid having to be changed simply because they seemed dated. What he needed was a car so unusual and so attractive in its own right, that it didn't matter to buyers that it had been in production five years, or ten, or twenty.

The most popular of the Type 8 body styles, the berline of 1932.

Type 8 variation - Manessius.

Type 8 variation - Manessius.

A flower-bedecked Petite Rosalie after record breaking at Montlhťry.

Rosalie VI ready for more record breaking, 1934.