Here’s something I really did not expect to see in Thailand: a British-made Traction Avant. These were quite popular in nearby Indochina for a long while, but it seems even the Thais got a few shipped in back in the day. Only thing was Thailand was (and still is) RHD-only, so I guess it must have made sense to import these via Citroën’s British branch, based in Slough, Buckinghamshire.
Citroëns were made in Britain since the early ‘20s, i.e. very soon after André Citroën launched his first car right after the First World War. British-made Citroëns had to be made with at least 50% locally-sourced components to escape punitive import duties, which means a lot of parts are different on these cars when compared to their French-made cousins. Outside, these include the headlamps, bumpers, door handles, B-pillar traficators, rear lights, logos, grille, wheels and other small details. But the biggest difference was inside.
Behind a peculiarly-styled steering wheel that stayed black when the French ones were gray lies the famous wooden dash, complete with Smiths dials and Lucas electrics. The French cars had a rather somber painted dash that looks positively utilitarian compared to this. On the other hand, the French dashes came with a door on the glove compartment, which is absent here.
The interior is all British-made as well, though I’m at a loss to explain the blatant lack of leather. It’s possible that this car was special-ordered with cloth seats, as leather isn’t really great in the tropics. Or the original seats were re-upholstered with cloth, as they look in suspiciously good nick.
Post-war Slough-built Tractions came in three flavours: the Light Fifteen (small body, 1.9 litre 4-cyl., a.k.a 11 Légère or 11 BL), the Big 15 (large body, same engine, a.k.a 11 Normale or 11 B) and the Big Six (large body, 2.9 litre 6-cyl., a.k.a 15-Six) – all were four-door saloons. They were relatively expensive – somewhere near the £900 area for the Light 15, including Purchase Tax, in the mid-‘50s. You could buy far more modern-looking 6-cyl. cars such as a Vauxhall Cresta or an Austin A90 Westminster for that kind of money. But the Citroën’s monocoque build, torsion bar all-independent suspension, low weight, rack-and-pinion steering and FWD meant that a Light 15 was able to box in a different category than Austins and Vauxhalls. It could show a thing or two to a Riley, a Humber or a Rover, or even an Armstrong Siddeley.
By 1952, the Traction’s mid-‘30s design got one distinctive refresh: the old gal was given a butt implant in the shape of a bigger boot. This did little to improve its looks, but it did enable Citroën to continue selling it for a few years while they were busy working out how to make the DS. It took Slough quite a while to work out how they could make those too: the first DS 19s were on French streets by late 1955, but UK production only really got going by 1957. In the meantime, the old Fifteens had to hold the fort – without the help of the 2CV, which was a complete failure in the UK market at the time.
This particular Light Fifteen is out of action right now, perched on its jacks and looking a bit sad. They’re eminently repairable though, so hopefully this one will soon get the TLC it deserves. In the meantime, it’s sitting nice and dry, up in a car park (there are no underground car parks in this oft-flooded city) near Sukhumvit road. Being Anglo-French myself, I feel a special connection to this little heap of iron. Maybe I should try balancing on four jacks. But I’ll forego the butt enhancement – not needed at this stage.
Curbside Classic: Citroen Traction Avant en Indochine, by Robert Kim
Classique de Traffic Parisienne: Citroen Traction Avant, by Jim Klein