The Citroen Traction Avant, one of the revolutionary automobiles of the 20th Century, rarely appears in the United States. Aside from an unusual junkyard find in the Eugene, Oregon area and a sighting in Switzerland, none have graced this website. This long absence comes to an end with this find in Vietnam, a highly appropriate place, with both considerable French influence and a history of revolution. This example belongs to the Ho Chi Minh City Museum, where it lives in the museum’s parking lot and has an ongoing role in the life of the city.
The Traction Avant was a pioneer of front wheel drive and unit body construction when introduced in 1934, the first production car with both design features. After various turn of the century experimental FWD designs and FWD race cars by J. Walter Christie, Harry Miller and others in the 1910s and 1920s, Cord introduced its L-29 luxury car in 1929, and five years later Citroen brought front wheel drive to a mass market car with the Traction Avant. The radical use of both front wheel drive and a unit body allowed the Traction Avant to be very low-slung for its time without a loss of interior space.
Citroen’s tradition of unconventional, avant-garde engineering began with the Traction Avant. The Traction Avant also ended the independence of the company, however, as its development costs drained Citroen of cash and forced it to declare bankruptcy in December 1934, leading to a takeover by Michelin. Michelin would own Citroen until it sold the company to Peugeot in 1976.
The transaxle of the Traction Avant is visible directly behind the grill, just beyond the opening for the hand crank starter. The Traction Avant’s drivetrain layout placed the engine longitudinally behind the front axle, as in the Miller race cars and the Cord L-29, the opposite of the longitudinal engine mounting ahead of the front axle used by Audi today. The layout allowed a short front overhang consistent with period car design, and balanced weight distribution.
The Traction Avant transaxle, which put a 1920s race car layout into a 1930s passenger car, would later turn both literally and figuratively 180 degrees. When John Cooper needed a transaxle for his revolutionary rear mid-engine Formula One cars in the 1950s, he found that the Traction Avant was the only suitable donor, since its transaxle could handle far higher power outputs than those of small rear-engine cars such as the Volkswagen. A Cooper T43 piloted by Sterling Moss won the Buenos Aires Grand Prix in 1958, the first victory in a Formula One race for a rear mid-engine car, and a Cooper T45 with Jack Brabham at the wheel won the Formula One championship in 1959.
Becoming part of Formula One milestones in 1958-59 was a sort of last hurrah for the Traction Avant, as Citroen had ended production in 1957, after 23 years and approximately 760,000 cars. Citroen produced most of them in its factory in Paris, with some right hand drive versions built in Slough, UK. Citroen would continue use the drivetrain, turned around 180 degrees, in the front wheel drive Citroen H Van.
The engine intruded as far into the wheelbase as it would in a period rear wheel drive car, but with a wheelbase of 122 inches in the standard model, there was still considerable passenger room inside.
The Traction Avant combined front wheel drive with an advanced independent front suspension with upper and lower control arms and torsion bars, and a rear beam axle with torsion bars. For comparison, in 1934 Chrysler introduced the aerodynamic, unit body Airflow, but it still used solid axles with leaf springs front and rear, as did Ford, Chevrolet and other low and medium priced American cars. In the luxury car market, Cadillac introduced independent front suspension in 1934, with Packard following in 1937 and Lincoln, in the next decade.
The Traction Avant was available with a variety of engines and wheelbases. The 7CV had four cylinder engines that increased in size from 1.3L, to 1.5L, and finally to 1.6L, with a 115 inch wheelbase. Citroen discontinued the 7CV after the Second World War. The standard 11CV had a 1.9L four and a 122 inch wheelbase, while the “light” 11CV had the 115 inch wheelbase of the 7CV (the 11CV engine would outlast the Traction Avant by several decades, continuing in the Citroen DS and CX). The 15CV, introduced in 1938, had a 2.8L six and a 122 inch wheelbase.
Citroen displayed a 22CV with a 3.8L V8 at the 1934 Paris Motor Salon and published sales literature featuring the 22CV, but it built only a few prototypes, and none are known to have survived.
There also were limousines and a “Familiale” 9-passenger, 6-window sedan with a folding third row jump seat, each with 129 inch wheelbases.
Driving a Traction Avant Cabriolet through Paris, you would be certain to turn heads.
In its native country, the Traction Avant also gained a reputation as a gangster’s car. The six cylinder 15CV was one of the fastest cars available in postwar France, so it became a favorite getaway car for criminal gangs. A famous underworld figure of the time was Pierre Loutrel, aka Pierrot Le Fou (“Pete The Crazy”), who was a leader of the so-called “Gang des Tractions Avant.” The cars became a staple in numerous French gangster films and TV shows.
Back to the car at hand, a sedan which could be an 11CV or 15CV, and whose trunk identifies it as being from the later years of Traction Avant production. The original trunk was enlarged in 1952, replacing the earlier version with the spare tire built into its lid. Built between 1952 and 1957, this car would have arrived in Vietnam either soon before or soon after the end of French colonial rule in 1954.
The graceful sweep of the front fender and the headlight pods are in sharp contrast to the shape of the SUV and minivan transportation pods in the background. Note the lack of running boards, which Citroen deemed no longer necessary for passenger access because of the low floor made possible by the unit body.
Citroen’s sense of style extended to the door handles. Let’s open the front suicide doors and look inside.
After the stylish exterior, the interior of this Traction Avant is somewhat of a letdown, and best described as utilitarian. Aside from the odd downward-curving gearshift lever coming out of the dashboard, part of the Citroen tradition of unusual shift lever positions, there is nothing remarkable from the driver’s seat. UK-built cars had more luxurious wood and leather interiors, but the majority made in France had plain painted dashboards.
The driver’s seat behind the big steering wheel is quite cramped. The Traction Avant’s front wheel drive layout clearly did not benefit the driver much.
The real benefit went to the passengers in the rear seat, with cavernous leg room and ample headroom made possible by the low floor. The rear seat space and smooth ride by period standards made the Traction Avant ideal for being chauffeured down rural roads to inspect trees and workers at the Michelin rubber plantation outside Saigon.
This Traction Avant has no doubt seen many dramatic events – the end of French colonial rule, the U.S. war in Vietnam, the fall of Saigon. Now it lives a quiet life as a museum display at the Ho Chi Minh City Museum, itself witness to enormous turmoil over the years: originally completed in 1890 as the headquarters of the French colonial governor for southern Vietnam, it was used as a headquarters by five different governments in 1945 (France, Imperial Japan, the Vietnamese puppet king Bao Dai, the Vietnamese Communists, Great Britain), then used as the Presidential Palace of South Vietnam, before becoming a museum after the fall of Saigon in 1975. The building and the car complement each other well.
The Traction Avant is parked regularly next to an 18th Century Vietnamese cannon from the period prior to French colonial rule, used as coastal artillery in a fortress on the Mekong River south of Saigon.
The museum grounds also have various American classics of the 1960s – a UH-1 Huey helicopter, an F-5 fighter, an A-37 attack aircraft, and an M41 light tank, all of them captured during the fall of South Vietnam in 1975.
This Traction Avant is still very much alive and appears to have become a popular local attraction. Although on display at the museum, it does get driven occasionally, and its unique and antique character appears to have made it a popular subject of photographs. Here, a young couple and a team of photographers are taking engagement photos in it, one of several couples having wedding or engagement photos taken at the museum on the same day. So after decades of war and hardship in their early decades, both the car and the building have become settings for normal and happy events. It is as good a fate as any for a revolutionary French classic created during a turbulent time.