The engineering iconoclasts of Paris and the modernist art of André-Gustav Citroën find a home in the Mullin Automotive Museum. By Larry Crane
“France is the only country where considerations of pure form, a concern with form for its own sake, have kept a dominant position.” —Paul Valéry, ‘aphoriste’
From the 700 automobiles considered there were only 26 finalists in the November 1999 announcement of candidates for Car of the [Automotive] Century, but only Citroën was represented by three models; each of those was a radical departure from automotive engineering norms and, curiously, from each other. So too, the three innovative characters who saw to their creation. In final selections the top three were Ford’s Model T, British Motor Corporation’s Mini and Citroën’s DS19.
Peter Mullin and his Scenic Route design team recreated the rocket-launch display stand from the 1955 introduction of the fantastic DS19 as the opening statement for a celebration of André Citroën’s futuristic visions.
Even our protagonist’s name has a story — and no less a debate. Legend suggests that a medieval relative was a vendor of imported fruit in Amsterdam, hence the beginning of the little-known original patronymic Limoeneman (Lemon Man). But our story begins with diamonds. Andre’s grandfather, Barend Baruch Roelof Raphael Citroen (1808-1895), a retail jeweler and goldsmith, was already using Citroen. He sent his son Levie (Louis) Barend Citroen to Warsaw, Poland, to explore the possibility of expanding his market. Louis fell in love and expanded both the family business and the family. But Paris was the most important market for luxury goods and the Citroen family and business were reestablished there before their fifth child, André-Gustav Citroën (fervently French, Louis chose the Gaelic form), was born on 5 February 1878. Little did Louis know of the profound effect his decisions would have on the next century.
At age seven André was enrolled in fashionable Lycée Condorcet, then Lycée Louis le Grand for his Baccalaureate and in 1898, at the age of 20, he joined the celebrated ranks at École Polytechnique, the technical and engineering academy for French national service — a two-year military commitment as a field engineer followed graduation.
André had made a number of childhood visits to visit his mother’s Warsaw family, but a return visit as a credentialed engineer brought him in contact with a relative engaged in a local foundry. One of the projects he saw was a double-row helical gear set being created of iron by a simple sand casting that was proving to be imprecise and unreliable in service. He recognized the problem and quickly resolved to license the gear patent and solve the problem with fine steel and American gear cutting tools.
Engineering was a career; innovative marketing was a talent. During 1905 his success with his new gears quickly grew demand through the next decade and his facility on the Seine continued to expand capacity — and capability. The business community was watching. In 1908 he was contracted to assist the struggling Mors automobile company. He introduced better engineering, more efficient manufacturing — and effective marketing — and multiplied production by a factor of ten. During that challenge he made his first visit to the United States in 1912. It had a profound effect. Manufacturing a complex product in great volume could amortize costs to bring an automobile into the reach of every family. It could change the lives and the political landscape of Europe. But not soon enough.
On 28 June 1914 the Austrian Crown Prince Franz Ferdinand and his wife, the Duchess of Hohenberg, were assassinated outside a bakery in Sarajevo, Bosnia. Within weeks, allegiances were established and ‘The War to end all Wars” was underway. Ill prepared, the French supply and logistics corps announced that within a short time it would be out of ammunition. The largest manufacturing facility in France quickly retooled from gear cutting to cartridge manufacturing and Citroën was in the munitions business. The war did end. On 11 November 1918 it was the largest munitions factory in France and on 12 November it was a startup car company.
The following May saw the release of the fully equipped Citroën Type A convertible sedan. Production reached 30 cars per day. A year later, 100 left the factory every day. Two new models were added to the line and daily production reached 250. Dealerships were established throughout France, Western Europe and Northern Africa. Each one offered Citroën financing and insurance. Citroën Taxis plied the growing traffic in Paris and Citroën road signs directed travelers at every rural intersection in France. André’s marketing piece d’resistance, though, was offering to install lights on the Eiffel Tower, with one caveat: the lighting would include the word “Citroën” from the roof of Restaurant le Jules Verne to the bottom of the observation deck at the top of the historic structure. It could be seen through the front doors of Grand Palais where the 1924 Salon de l’Automobile was being held and where the new Citroën B12 with Citroën’s first all-steel body from massive stamps and dies furnished by Budd Manufacturing Company of Philadelphia was being introduced — “Citroën” remained in the City of Light skyline through the next decade.
With Henry Ford as inspiration, the Type A engine looked like a miniature of the one in a Model T; by 1928 the AC4 and AC6 exhibited the clear inspiration of Ford’s new Model A with Eurocentric styling led by Ford’s son Edsel. French-Italian artist and sculptor Flaminio Bertoni (not Bertone) had joined the Citroën team as stylist in 1925 adding grace and form to the simple engineering of the early series car bodies. It was also Bertoni who created the double-chevron logo as a tribute to the brilliant gear sets that created the company. At the end of the decade, annual delivers reached 100,000 vehicles.
Inadvertently predicting his corporate future, Citroën was famous for his aphorism: “The moment an idea proves desirable, its price becomes of no importance.” The inveterate gambler speaks.
Le Petite Voiture (project PV) would be a complete departure from the Ford/Citroën ladder frame, front engine, rear-drive system. It would be a monocoque (body-as-frame) structure with front wheel drive. Bertoni’s sculptures of the PV were graceful beyond anything done at the time, equal to the great coachbuilt cars of the art deco era. They were so complex to construct, Budd Manufacturing was contracted to create the elaborate dies to be used in Citroën’s own giant American stamping machines. But engineering challenges for the new sciences, particularly the front wheel drive system, that needed to be as reliable as a beam axle, continued to cost time and resources.
The incomparable André Lefebvre would leave Avions Voisin in the early Thirties, before its automobiles filled with complex engineering fueled financial collapse. Gabriel Voisin contacted André Citroën to suggest his master designer could find solutions in the maelstrom of futurist engineering challenges that appeared to be leading Citroën in the direction of Voisin. There were Petite Voiture prototypes on the road in 1934 with Lefebvre-led universal joints at the front wheels and wearing impossibly modern unit-bodies from Bertoni. In fact, the press used the term “Super Modern” Citroën.
As PV development was finalized, its vast new production facility opened and his company on the verge of bankruptcy, André Citroën relinquished control to Pierre Michelin and Pierre-Jules Boulanger in January of 1935. His health was failing. Hospitalized that month, with surgery in May, he lost his on-going battle on 3 July.
He would have been surprised by the energy the Michelin team committed to his company including a massive reengineering of virtually every technical detail of his dream car — making it the best product it could possibly be. The October Salon introduction included three body styles for each of two different wheelbases and track widths.
But his unborn dream of a TPV (Tout Petite Voiture — Very Small Car) was given full support for development as well. Delayed by another war, its prototypes languished in storage until hostilities were brought to an end. André Lefebvre was its creator, Flaminio Bertoni gave it form and Walter Becchia, who had created the grand prix engines for Talbot-Lago between the wars, produced a tiny air-cooled 2-cylinder engine that could deliver more than 70mpg and be maintained by its rural owner. P-J Boulanger made the decisions that gave life to the legendary 2CV. Panned by the European press and loved by everyone else, the Deux Chevaux remained in production for 42 years. Multiple examples of reshaped bodywork did not deter continued sales of the original.
Roland Barthes romanticized the 1955 Citroën DS, with its exotic aerodynamic form and fully adjustable high-pressure air/hydraulic suspension, in his book Mythologies, published in 1957. “I think that cars today are almost the exact equivalent of the great Gothic cathedrals: I mean the supreme creation of an era, conceived with passion by unknown artists, and consumed in image if not in usage by a whole population which appropriates them as a purely magical object.
It is obvious that the new Citroen has fallen from the sky inasmuch as it appears at first sight as a superlative object. We must not forget that an object is the best messenger of a world above that of nature: one can easily see in an object at once a perfection and an absence of origin, a closure and a brilliance, a transformation of life into matter (matter is much more magical than life), and in a word a silence which belongs to the realm of fairy-tales. The D.S. – the Deesse (“Goddess”) – has all the features (or at least the public is unanimous in attributing them to it at first sight) of one of those objects from another universe which have supplied fuel for the neomania of the eighteenth century and that of our own science-fiction: the Deesse is first and foremost a new Nautilus.”
In the span of 15 years André Citroën, Flaminio Bertoni and André Levebvre gave life to three radical departures from automotive engineering norms and, curiously, from each other. So too, the Mullin Automotive Museum celebrates the three innovative characters who saw to their creation.
To schedule a visit: www.mullinautomotivemuseum.com or call: 805-385-5400 The Mullin Automotive Museum, 1421 Emerson Ave. Oxnard, CA 93033