This is a one-hit (or rather one-year) wonder. Take the advanced, yet proven engine and drivetrain of a popular car, the Citroën 11CV Traction Avant, and give it a sexy, American-influenced two-door body. Then watch as sales take off. At least that was the plan until, six months into production, Europe goes to war…
Lucien Rosengart (1881-1976) was a highly successful inventor and industrialist. However, when he came to making cars, he left the inventing to others. He started off in 1927 by licensing the Austin Seven, the most successful contemporary British small car, also licensed in the US (Bantam) and Germany (Dixi / BMW). Prices and build quality were low, but sales were brisk.
In 1930, Rosengart introduced the LR6, the world’s smallest (1097cc!) straight-six. It did not sell well, but the Austin clone LR2 was still going strong.
Visiting Germany in 1931, Lucien Rosengart was amazed by the new FWD Adler Trumpf. He took one home and showed it to his friend André Citroën, who is also impressed. Citroën decided his next model would include FWD, along with other wild ideas. Rosengart preferred to acquire the Adler license and introduced the Rosengart LR 500 Supertraction in December 1932.
Despite updating his cars’ looks, Rosengart’s range-topping FWD was not a sales success. By 1938, Rosengart sought to revamp the Supertraction by asking Citroën for the Traction Avant’s 2-litre OHV engine, drivetrain and hydraulic brakes, while keeping the Adler independent rear suspension. Citroën obliged, on the condition that Rosengart’s car would not be sold as a four-door.
A prototype Supertraction LR 539 was presented at the 1938 Paris Motor Show. It was a dud and Rosengart knew it: the front end looked exactly like the new Amilcar. Production was immediately halted, but the catalogues had already been printed…
It was back to the drawing board: the new car had to be a style leader. By March 1939, the reskinned production car was ready. The Citroën engine had gained 10 hp in the interim – a happy coincidence. The looks of the car drew favourable comparisons to American Fords and Lincolns.
Most Supertractions (about 1100 units) were built in the spring and summer of 1939; a trickle were made until early 1940. The convertible was the most popular, making this coupé even more of a rarity.
The detailing on these was pretty amazing: door handles that echoed the chrome hood flaps, ultra-thin B posts for a hardtop look and a Darrin-like swoop for striking two-tone paintwork (a popular option that this car lacks).
This coupé sports a “base” colour scheme: black or this garnet red were available on closed cars. Other options included a wireless set, lightweight wheels and leather seats.
The dash included some Citroën parts, such as the dial and gear lever, but overall it emulated contemporary American designs. All this plus the body-on-frame construction translated into added costs (not a big problem) and extra weight (more of an issue).
The Supertraction’s most direct competitor was the Citroën 11CV roadster (there was no coupé for 1939). It was cheaper and quicker than the Rosengart with the same engine, but its 1934 styling was already dated, which counts for a lot in open-top cars.
Rosengarts became the darling of the concours d’élégance in the summer of 1939. Production was just ramping up when France and Britain declared war on Germany, on September 3rd.
Despite his promise to Citroën, Lucien Rosengart did build a four-door on a stretched LR 539 chassis in late 1939 for his own use. The car was seen and admired in Paris; a few French ministers asked Rosengart for one. Only Rosengart’s car survived.
After the war, Citroën were unwilling to provide their engines anymore. Rosengart found an unlikely replacement in the 3.9 litre Mercury flathead V8. Re-dubbed “SupertraHuit” and slightly facelifted, the thirsty and expensive V8 Rosengart was out of step with the times. A handful were made until 1948. The ageing factory was now only kept afloat thanks to various subcontracting jobs.
Lucien Rosengart retired and sold his company to a group of investors, who decided to resurrect the Austin Seven-based small cars that had been so popular 20 years prior. After two false starts, Rosengart completely redesigned the body, producing the Ariette. The engine and chassis were a ‘20s design trying to compete with Renault’s 4CV, Citroën’s 2CV and Panhard’s Dyna. Rosengart attempted to modernize the Ariette with a new engine and a facelift, but it was, as the cliché goes, too little too late. The factory closed in 1954.
The Supertraction LR 539 can be seen as the pinnacle of Rosengart’s 25-year history. About 100 have survived, thanks to their great looks and their well-known mechanicals.