The legendary French carmaker Citroën has a rich history marked by the passion and foresight of the company’s founder: André Citroën, who manufactured not only cars but also angle gears and grenades.
With over one hundred years of history, Citroën has proven itself as one of the top car brands in the world. However, the brand had a bumpy road to where it is now, full of successes and failures.
In 1934, the company brought the first front-wheel drive cars onto the market and revolutionised vehicle construction. There is so much to admire in the history of Citroën and much to learn from! Without further ado, let’s dig into the history of the French Citroën.
The Brain Behind the Brand!
The visionary André-Gustave Citroën was born in 1878 in Paris. André grew up in the 19th century, a time when something new was invented every day! He studied at École Polytechnique in Paris, probably the most prestigious engineering school of that time.
André comes from a family whose all members work in business; however, he had no interest in the family business, but he still inherited the business genes from the family. So, he started up his own business while he was still young. This was after a visit to a factory in the countryside of Poland, his mother’s homeland.
In Poland, he visited a factory that produced more efficient herringbone gears than the conventional gears used at the time. He was fascinated by what he saw and acquired the patent for the production process.
However, this is the great Citroën we are talking about, so he added his touch to the product! While the original gears he saw were made of wood, he improved on the technology and came up with metal herringbone gears instead!
In 1902, André started his first workshop, in which he invested all his money. The workshop was focused on producing herringbone gears. After three years, this workshop turned into the Citroën company!
It all Started with a Gear!
From 1905, André manufactured gearboxes based on his patent. The Frenchman’s talent was already evident at this time. But André showed another facet of his entrepreneurial skills during the First World War.
He realised that the French armed forces were short of grenades. Therefore, in 1915, he proposed to the Ministry of Defence to start arms production. After a short start-up phase, André guaranteed the production of 10,000 grenades per day, with a total of around 23 million.
Nonetheless, André never forgot his main passion, cars! He crafted the Citroën brand, dreaming of a day when he could produce a thousand vehicles a day and make affordable, comfortable cars available to the average family. So, with great ambition, he set out on what would become his robust automotive career.
The First Steps
The post-war world was different, it was a new world where everything was possible, so it was the perfect time for André to take his next step. However, he didn’t wait till the war’s end; the work on the first car started as early as 1916 when André turned to engineer Louis Dufresne to design a car.
Louis had an experience in the field, working for the French motor manufacturer Panhard. He later altered his vision and reached out to the designer Jules Salomon, the mind behind Citroën’s first car. When the time was ready to begin the production, André followed the steps of another legendary man, Henry Ford. Ford was doing revolutionary work across the Atlantic, with his cars spreading in the streets thanks to mass production.
Being the intelligent man he was, André knew that the best way to make his dream come true would be to mass-produce his cars, too. This way, the cars would be cheaper and more accessible. So, in 1919, he began implementing his idea of an inexpensive car for the public. The result was the famous Citroën 10 HP Type A.
The First Citroën
Inspired by Henry Ford’s Model T, André’s vision was to offer the public vigorous, reliable, affordable cars. The first step towards this goal was the Citroën 10 HP Type A, built between 1919 and 1921.
The Citroën 10 HP Type A was successful in every way, thanks to André’s business genes! Not only did he make the car of his dreams, but he also made sure to shower the country with garages and dealerships in case any customer needed service.
The car was the first mass-produced European car to be sold in such big numbers. With a 1327 cc four-cylinder engine, the vehicle could go up to 40 miles per hour! Okay, this might not be a lot according to what we know now, but this was in 1919!
The Beginning of the End
In 924, André presented the Citroën B10; the car was a success, like all the Citroën cars. However, soon the end seemed near, with the company drowning in debt! There are various reasons; while some claim that the main cause was André’s tendency to lead a lavish life, other factors can’t be neglected here!
All the Citroën cars came with steel bodies imported from the US and required tons of money. On the other hand, competitors at that time caught up with the company’s success in offering new wooden designs, which cost less than metal, and soon, the advantage of selling cheap cars became a burden.
At the time, Citroën was in the process of developing its new car Citroën Traction Avant. However, the new technology for this car came with a high price that the company couldn’t afford. Also, at the same time, Citroën was making some changes to its factories to help with the production of the new car, so Citroën began to lose huge amounts of money!
Welcoming the Michelin Brothers
Failing to find proper investors to join in, Citroën became dependable on creditors and banks. Sadly, the debt almost meant the company’s end, leading to bankruptcy. In 1934, Citroën filed for bankruptcy, and the Michelin brothers stepped in, becoming the company’s primary shareholders after being the company’s main creditor.
Shortly after, in 1935, André lost his life to stomach cancer and never saw his company’s comeback. In the same year, Pierre Michelin became the CEO of the Citroën company.
A New Era: Citroën Traction Avant
The Citroën Traction Avant was manufactured between 1934 and 1957. The car helped establish the company’s avant-garde reputation. The name Traction Avant says it all, the vehicle, designed by Flaminio Bertoni, was one of the first passenger cars with front-wheel drive.
The car was ground-breaking in all aspects! This pioneering monocoque construction front-wheel car was characterised by its independent suspension and hydraulic brakes. Individually, these features were not revolutionary, but no one had ever combined them in one model.
The car was about 25% lighter than most cars then, and it managed to do well in the market thanks to its cutting-edge technology.
It’s War Time!
In 1940, World War II broke out, and the world was no longer the same! The Germans occupied France, and like most French factories, the company was obligated to produce trucks for the Nazi forces.
Rumour has it that Pierre-Jules Boulanger, the vice-president of Citroën and engineer in charge of design and conception, came up with a cunning plan to go with the flow and produce the trucks as required and yet fight back in his very clever way!
The story goes that Pierre-Jules Boulanger/ Pierre Boulanger decided to adjust the trucks’ oil dipsticks notch—this notch tells whether the truck has the needed level of oil in it or not.
This way, the trucks would require more oil, but the German engineers wouldn’t be able to tell, and soon while on the road, the trucks get ruined, leaving the German soldiers high-and-dry where they were deployed!
Cult Car Duck
After the second world war ended, the company came up with its new invention, the Citroën 2CV – better known as the Duck. The car rolled off the production line between 1948 and 1990. The 2CV completely transformed the automotive world of its time. It saved the company, which, with the Traction Avant, could not keep its balance as sales volumes were as low as the cars on the road.
Pierre Boulanger wanted to appeal to a new audience, farmers still using horses as their means of transportation. Pierre Boulanger had the objective “to make a car that can carry four people and 50kg of potatoes or a keg, at a maximum speed of 60 km/h”. The gamble paid off, as the 2CV is by far the most popular model in Citroën’s history, with almost 4 million vehicles sold.
Aiming for more pioneering work, the company presented the Citroën Type H in 1947. The corrugated iron van has not only shaped French economic life since its first release but also the design of the modern panel van. As is usual with such cars, the focus was on utility rather than comfort.
Between 1947 and 1981, the company built around 500,000 examples in almost unchanged form. The van was powered by a 1.6-litre engine with just 40 hp.
Lifesaver: The DS Generation and General De Gaulle
The Citroën DS, nicknamed the Shark, was shown for the first time at the Paris Motor Show in 1955. It was an avant-garde car for its time. The car, designed by Flaminio Bertoni, is a goddess. Not only because this is the translation of the model’s French name, “Déesse”, but also because it is simply a beautiful car equipped with refined details— for example, self-steering headlights and an automatic clutch.
The car finally became a legend on 22 August 1962, the day of the failed Petit-Clamart assassination attempt on the then-French President Charles de Gaulle. The assassins shot at the DS where the President was sitting and destroyed a tyre. But thanks to the hydropneumatics suspension, the car was able to go on three wheels, and the driver brought the DS and de Gaulle to safety.
The cooperation between the French carmaker and the Italian sports car manufacturer Maserati was like a wild marriage. As a result, the company presented the Citroën SM Breadvan in 1970, equipped with a V6 engine from the Italians.
The power unit produced 178 hp, accelerating the beautifully designed car from up to 225 km/h. The production lasted till 1975 after around 13,000 units.
The SM was THE front-wheel-drive vehicle in the world at the time. It had numerous implemented innovations, such as speed-sensitive power steering and hydraulic cornering lights. To this day, the SM is a collector’s item for which interested buyers have to invest a lot of money.
Successor to a Legend: The Citroën CX
The Citroën CX replaced the dearly beloved DS in 1974, which was no easy legacy. Accordingly, the car initially failed to meet the expectations of customers and experts alike.
The car was chosen as the European Car of the Year in 1975. Being one of the last cars Citroën made before the Peugeot era, the car has been regarded as one of the last “real Citroën”.
The car can carry a load of 500 kilogrammes thanks to the hydropneumatic suspension. This helped the car gain a lot of popularity that lasted till today.
The PSA Peugeot Citroën Phase
The French carmaker found itself in a bad position financially once again. To save the situation, the French government proposed an offer to merge the two companies of PSA Peugeot and Citroën. After negotiations, the merge of the two was announced in 1974, becoming the PSA Peugeot Citroën.
The merger was a success, especially from the year 1976 to 1979. Many famous cars were produced during the cooperation, like GS, CX, Citroën Visa, and the Citroën Dyane.
The Citroën XM
Having that famous hydropneumatic suspension, The Citroën XM was built from 1989 to 2000. The car had a lot of success and was voted the European Car of the Year in 1990.
The Citroën XM was a hatchback five-door vehicle that could take up to five passengers. The car was the successor of the Citroën CX, becoming the company’s flagship car.
With this high-roof multi-purpose car, first shown in 1996, the French carmaker was hoping for a new beginning. The idea itself of the car is much older; an early forerunner of the cars that start as passenger cars and end up as small delivery vans is, for example, the Citroën 2 CV with a corrugated iron cabinet at the rear— the famous box duck or the Renault R4.
Berlingo has brought the brand back into the consciousness of buyers. After all, the other models of the nineties, like the Xsara, Xantia and Saxo, were hardly noticeable on the roads.
For several years, the company couldn’t find its rightful place among luxury cars. It was not until 2005 that the French carmaker presented a successor to the Citroën XM, the Citroën C6.
The Citroën C6 continued the tradition of extravagant design. Like the DS, the body’s shape is a mixture of concepts such as coupé, hatchback and saloon.
Speaking of the DS, in 2009, Citroën announced the establishment of the DS brand, which stands for Different Spirit or Distinctive Series, and it was meant to focus on premium cars. The brand announced its separation from Citroën in 2015. DS came out with several popular models like the DS 3, DS 7, and DS 9 that were released in 2020.
In the same year, the company had a new CEO, Linda Jackson, and in the following year, with the C5 Aircross SUV, the brand found its way to the Indian market. Also, keeping up with the technology, Citroën developed its electric car range to meet all the market’s needs.
The history of the French automotive giant is not short of surprises. From cutting-edge technologies to not-so-great models, Citroën always found a way to come back stronger after each challenge carving its name in the book of history and still continues to amaze!