My father was a devoted Citroenist – starting from his first car, a Citroen 5CV he bought in the years following the end of WW2.
At the end of the war, France was not completely in shatters (like Germany) or saddled with an unbearable war debt (like the United Kingdom), but the different armies and para-military groups that had operated in or over the country between 1939 and 1945 had severely damaged the transportation and manufacturing infrastructure, and conscripted or “liberated” many of the pre-war cars. Raw materials (coal and iron ore in particular) were in short supply, and new cars were only sold to people on priority lists (farmers, tradesmen, doctors, priests, …). The rest of the country had to try and find a pre-war car spared by the bombings, and that the armies and the Resistance groups had deemed unfit for their service.
I don’t know what was more impressive, that my father could find a car at all, or that the Citroen 5CV he bought had survived the war years without being smelted into steel ingots to support the occupant’s war effort.
Admittedly by 1950 the 5 CV was an antique – launched in 1922, its only modern characteristics were the presence of an electric starter and a differential (economical cars of the early twenties tended to have a very narrow rear track in order to avoid having to integrate a differential in the rear axle). The rest was definitely vintage (an open cockpit, a body composed of sheet metal panels nailed on a wood frame, a 800cc side valve 4 cylinder engine developing 11 hp, no brakes on the front wheels). At some point, the 5 CV represented half of Citroen’s volume, but production was stopped in 1926, because the company was not making enough money out of it.
From what he told me, my father had a lot of fun with the car, in particular when he was driving it down hill in the country roads of Bourgogne. I believe his car was green (not the Lemon Yellow that made the car famous). I don’t know when or how it met its end, I just know that when he got married he had no car of his own.
As a married man and then a father, he needed a better car than the Citroen 2CV Fourgonette that my grand father let him drive occasionally, and bought a Citroen 11 BL (the post WW2 model). Launched in 1934, the Traction (for “traction avant”, ie Front Wheel Drive) was revolutionary – probably the first car to combine a unibody structure with a modern power train and suspension setup (front wheel drive, of course, 4 cylinder OHV engine, independent front suspension with torsion bars, rear torsion beam and after 1936, rack and pinion steering). With its modern engine, low stance, low center of gravity and its rather stiff suspensions, the car was fast in a straight line, and even faster in the twisties. During the war, its speed and its superior road holding made it a favorite of the German occupants (in particular the dreaded Gestapo) and of the Resistance fighters. After the war, it became the car of choice of gangsters (“le gang des Traction Avant”) and of the officials of the French Republic.
Originally available with a wide choice of body styles and engines (including a 5 door hatchback and a stunningly beautiful convertible), it was primarily built as a 1900cc 4 door short wheel base saloon after the war – the 11 Berline Légère (or 11BL) of my father. I was very young when he got that car, and I don’t remember much – the smell and the exhaust noise for the most part, and that the heater was very weak (if it existed at all) – long drives in the winter were punishing. Many many years later, for our wedding day, my wife to be and I rented a nice Traction, and I recognized the “Citroen smell” and the “Traction noise” immediately. It was a sunny day in June (no need for a heater), the car was very spacious, the seats were comfortable, it all looked very well finished, and it drove us briskly and comfortably from the church to the place where the wedding reception was taking place. Definitely a great car.
In the mid sixties, opinions about the Traction were probably different. Compared to modern French cars of the time, the Traction had started to look like an antique, and my father traded it for a Panhard Dyna Z. Panhard was already in the orbit of Citroen at that time, a few years from being fully absorbed (for more about Panhard and the Dyna Z, read Tatra’s French Deadly Sins contribution – there’s nothing to add). Let’s say that his Dyna Z was true to its poor reliability reputation – it left us stranded – deemed not economically repairable – on the way to the Côte d’Azur – and was replaced by another Traction of the Police Surplus – not as nice as the first one, but reliable enough.
As soon as he had the opportunity to do so, my father bought his dream car, a Citroen ID. The ID was a cheaper/de contented version of the DS – with a conventional clutch and gearbox, and without power steering or power brakes. The engine was derived from the Traction’s, but with a hemispheric cylinder head, and in the case of the ID, a single bodied carburetor. Thanks to its aerodynamic qualities, the car was relatively economical at the pump, but even the simplified ID was a complex piece of machinery (it had the hydro pneumatic suspension of the DS) and repair bills were always a concern. I remember it as a very spacious and comfortable car, that could, in the hands of a competent driver (my father) be driven really quickly on the mountain roads. Its soft suspension was not for everybody (one of my sisters was always car sick). The first ID was stolen, and replaced with another one – this one with power steering. Ultimately, budget considerations prevailed, and my father switched allegiance to Renault in the mid seventies (read my other “cars of my father” entry …..).
He stayed true to Renault until I bought my black two door Citroen AX, which gave him an immediate Citroen envy – and he bought a light metallic blue 4 door AX a few weeks after I bought mine. To my eyes, the 2 door AX looked (almost) sporty, and black paint made it look more substantial than it was, but the 4 door version (with its small doors) looked excessively tall and narrow, and the light metallic blue accentuated the “old man’s car” image of the vehicle. He kept it for a few years, and replaced it with his last car, a Citroen ZX.
Usually derided as a “bland” Citroen, the ZX (like the Saxo launched a few years later) shared its platform with a Peugeot (in this case the 306) and was primarily differentiated from the Peugeot by its more neutral design. Like the Peugeot 306, it benefited from great engines, a great suspension, and a serious fit and finish. Between the two, it was mainly about the dealership experience: personally I tended to like Citroen’s dealer network better than Peugeot’s – Peugeot dealers were arrogant and inflexible – but there was little else to differentiate the cars. The ZX was manufactured in France and Spain, as a three and five door hatchback as well as a five door station wagon. A four door sedan was also sold on the Chinese market until 2008, bringing the total number of units sold to more than 2.6 million.
My father’s ZX was powered by a very reasonable 1.4l engine that offered decent if not stunning performance. The only thing I did not like about my father’s ZX was that there was no power steering. As his health declined, the car became increasingly difficult for him to drive because the steering was too heavy. After he passed away, neither my mother nor I needed such a (relatively) big car, we sold it back to the local Citroen dealership.
I still have a soft spot for Citroens, but there is little chance that Citroens will ever be sold again in the US – Peugeot was trying to build back a presence in the US before PSA had an opportunity to merge with FCA, but even back then, their plans did not include Citroen. Stellantis have enough on their hands with Alfa-Romeo, Fiat and Maserati, and it’s highly unlikely they will spend time and energy pushing more European car brands in North America.