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
Curbside Classic: 1950 Citroën 15-Six – Double Oxymoron (Austere Luxury, Old-fashioned Avant-garde), by T87
Automotive History: The Citroën 15-Six – Traction Royalty Genealogy 101, by T87
Classique de Traffic Parisienne: Citroen Traction Avant, by Jim Klein
Curbside Classic: Citroen 11CV – A Traction Avant Sends Its Greetings From Switzerland, by PN
No this is a piece of history for those of us in The U.S. It is interesting to see how laws are made that restrict trade and how manufacturers get around them. Would you happen to know the top speed of this Light Fifteen and its acceleration capabilities? No doubt what you write about its handling would still attract buyers despite its 1930’s styling. Citroen was always known for advanced engineering. Thanks for this article.
Interesting that the advert talks up the Empire and Commonwealth. Could this be a reflection of their target market? Britain had a fair number of imperialists in their ruling class (I’m not trying to sound like Marx!).
Britain was utterly destitute by the end of WW2, its debts enormous. The slogan was “export or die”, hence, for example, the endless attempts to sell cars in the US – or Citroens in the Empire.
There were preferential tariff treatments between Commonwealth countries, leading to such oddities as the fact that any CKD Fords we got in Aus came from Ford Canada. As for tariffs outside that, they were enormous here; they pretty much created the car industry.
The Imperialism bit is amusing because it meant that forever, Aussies fumed about in tiny oddball engineered things from mother England, fine on a tiny wet island, almost absurd in a huge, hot dry one. What they really wanted and needed were American cars, but tariffs meant these were only for the well off. Ofcourse, soon as GM produced a US-type car here in the Holden, the English cars fell away, cultural imperialism began to lose its grip, and in less than 20 years from the early 50’s, English cars were all-but non-existent. And frankly, sports models aside, they weren’t missed.
I think, T87, that Aus is Citroens oldest export market. There’s always been a crazy few buying them here and thank god for that. Indeed, that lovely Light Fifteen might just belong to some expat nutter hiding out in Bangkok who just couldn’t do without his fix. (Well, every car has a story, so why not…)
That was the norm back in the day; trade tariffs were essentially universal. The biggest and only real steady source of steady income for the US government before the federal income tax was secured by the 16th Amendment in the early part of the 20th century was from tariffs on trade.
Which of course helps to explain the existence of the British Empire (and others), as they facilitated the flow of goods and services within their empire.
All this changed dramatically after WW2, when a new global perspective emerged, and trade barriers began to be broken down, starting with the European Economic Community, the precursor to the EU. And of course so many other free or reduced-tariff agreements, like NAFTA, etc.. It’s a whole new world, trade-wise.
And now of course Great Britain is leaving the EU, and very much endangering their car manufacturing business. GB had become a major car building center, but now these companies are looking at a possible 10% increase in costs and threatening to leave.
This is hardly a complete picture on a complex story, but trade has evolved significantly over time.
As I learned from Henry Petroski’s book, one of the earliest foreign firms with local US manufacturing was the German company A.W. Faber. The son Eberhard Faber opened a pencil factory in Manhatten in 1861. I’m unsure if the motive was high tariffs, but it wouldn’t surprise me.
Henry David Thoreau was pencil maker, like his father. I bet your English teacher failed to mention this.
Rolls Royce used to manufacture cars for the US in Springfield, MA. from 1921 until 1935, when its US arm went bankrupt in the Depression.
As I think about it more, it really does explain the allure and benefits of an empire, by never having to be forced to buy raw (or sometimes) finished materials from other countries, with their tariffs. And then sell your manufactured/controlled materials/good back to the colonies, with tariffs (in some cases). It’s what lead up to a certain little tea party.
Wikipedia says: “A 1,911 cc (116.6 cu in) Light Fifteen tested by the British magazine The Motor in 1951 had a top speed of 72.6 mph (116.8 km/h) and could accelerate from 0–60 mph (97 km/h) in 29.7 seconds. A fuel consumption of 25.2 miles per imperial gallon (11.2 L/100 km; 21.0 mpg‑US) was recorded. The test car cost GB£812 including taxes.”
The Traction got two engine upgrades only during its long life. Initial 11 CVs (Fifteens in the UK) came with a 1991cc 4-cyl. producing 46 hp. In 1939 came the “Perfo” engine, with a new carburetor and other mods, which gave the engine an extra 10 hp.
In 1955, the old 4-cyl. was tweaked again to go into the DS. Higher compression and an alloy head enabled Citroen to squeeze 62hp out of the “11D” engine, which was also used on the ID 19. The DS got an even more powerful version, producing 75 hp.
I’m not sure whether this car has the Perfo or the 11D engine. Either way, 120 kph is pretty much as fast as these ever went. The 6-cyl. cars could reach 130 kph, but had a voracious appetite at that speed.
Interesting and different to the TAs we have here, missing are the chevrons in the grille, Aisian market Citroens have landed here in recent times we enquired at a specialist about another bonnet for a mates car and when the guy looked at it he identified it as a 96 Malaysian car not the 98 new car it had been sold as, apparently when the tiger economies crashed in the 90s some expensive suddenly slow selling new Xantias were shipped over as new cars and sold in NZ. easiest way to identify one is from the missing airbags other than that its all detail stuff the car runs great and drives brilliantly like they all do.
The chevrons are there, but they were behind the grille in British TAs. With the light the way it was, you can’t see them too well in the pics.
Traction Avants were imported into Uruguay from both origins (France and UK). They were quite expensive cars here (6 cylinders were almost non-existent) but quite popular. Though I remember them as at least 20-year-old cars, people here hang on to vehicles much longer, so they were a common sight. You could tell from afar if it was British or French….French cars were only black with yellow wheels. British cars were green, burgundy and probably some other shade I don’t remember or know. My father always wanted to get one, and he’d say the British ones were much better finished, probably because wood and leather at that time were coveted. Nevertheless, his means were enough for a one-year-old ’48 Vauxhall Velox, and never got his Citroen. It’s weird to look at a RHD model and see the gear lever portruding from the left side.
Nice find-do you lurk about in car parks professionally?
I’m hoping that Slough built neither the big six Hydro nor the DS with Lucas electrics-that would have been quite a nightmare.
He he he … I’ve been looking for an apartment in Bangkok lately – hence the frequent visits to car parks. The one with this car had a few other very interesting cars.
My Citroen TD has a Lucas injector pump no trouble at all, Lucas motorcycle electrics are where the prince of darkness term originated, I have another 58 year old car with full Lucas electrical system everything works and it starts and runs reliably.
So the Big 6 was powered by a six but the 15 was powered by a 4 and seemed to have no relationship with the number 15 at all? I guess I am too used to European car model names/numbers making some kind of sense.
I did not remember that these were built in Britain. A fascinating hybrid.
I’m fairly certain that the “11” and “15” refer to taxable horsepower, which is the system that many European countries used to calculate taxes and fees on automobiles. As I understand it the taxable horsepower is derived from a formula (there are several different ones) based on piston area rather than total displacement. This, in turn, leads to engines with relatively small bores and long strokes, good for low and mid range torque but not so good for sustained high speed driving. One of the many reasons why British cars, successful in their home environment, gained a reputation for unreliability when driven in the United States.
Ahh, now it makes sense. Thanks for that.
And yes, local tax/regulatory setups have a big effect on what we drive and always have.
The British horsepower tax was, as Just Plain Joe points out, based on the cylinder bore. The French system was infinitely more weird, being based on a combination of swept volume and the road speed per 1000 rpm in top gear, all divided by the number you first thought of. Or something like that. The 11 Legere had, you guessed it, 11 French horsepowers. The same car had 15 Brit horsepowers, hence the Light Fifteen moniker. Anything much over 10 chevaux in France was an expensive proposition when it came to annual tax time. We Brits dropped our horsepower-based system in, I think, 1948 in favour of a flat rate annual tax. See photo for cheapest French and pre-48 British option.
hehe! Tres drole.
A great find! I see a TA here in California about once or twice a year … there are probably more of them on the road than Allstates. But I never knew that some were built in the UK, not to mention DS’es also. I suspect the wooden dash could have been a way to avoid stamping dies for a metal dash … and maybe provide employment for a few woodworkers as British cars transitioned to more steel.
Or maybe given that it was expensive and old fashioned looking, a wood dash was required by the posh types who might be expected to buy it.
Also would have got them closer to the 50 percent local content.
True on both counts.
I’m not sure there were many 2 litre cars made in the UK at the time without a wooden dash. It was the norm, so Citroen conformed (and had the dash made locally).
There are French-built TAs with RHD and metal dashes, though. It was a no-cost option, as not a few French cars up to the ’50s were RHD as standard, there were quite a few folks who preferred (or got used to) wrong-hand drive.
The French made RHD, that I did not know. How odd.
Posh Italian cars were often RHD into the 50’s, giving an enduring image of some pinstriped aristocrat motoring up the road on the wrong side saying ” I don’t care peasants, move out of MY way.”
every time that i see slough mentioned, i think of the office park in the uk tv show the office.
Interesting. With the Light 15 and the new DS models, Citroen was selling cars from the past AND the future at the same time.
Going from the Traction to the DS was probably the biggest jump in terms of styling and technology ever made by a large automaker. Although as far as British Citroens are concerned, the Slough DSs still had a wooden dash – which looked a little out of place in that ’50s spaceship…