Citroën is celebrating the 80th birthday of the Traction Avant, its first regular-production front-wheel drive car. The numerous versions of the Traction Avant were a common sight on French roads for over two decades and gradually set the course that all of the company’s flagship sedans would follow for decades to come.
Owning a car in the 1920s was a luxury that only the wealthiest households could afford. André Citroën set off to change that trend by introducing a series of small, affordable cars like the C2 and the C3 over the course of the decade. His firm also built several larger models like the C4, the C6 and, later, the Rosalie, but all of them were reasonably priced and largely aimed at middle-class buyers.
The Traction Avant traces its roots back to 1933 when Citroën asked his engineering department to design a mass-produced car that weighed 800 kilos (1,763 pounds), used only 7 liters of fuel per 100 kilometers (roughly 33 mpg), offer four seats, featured a steel body, was powered by an engine rated at 7 CV (taxable horsepower) and cost just 15,000 francs. Although these guidelines were not easy to follow, the first fully-functional prototype was presented just a few months later.
Period reports indicate the prototype closely resembled the Traction Avant with a very low roofline and a swept-back front end that stood out from what other manufacturers were building in France at the time. The Traction’s design was futuristic in the mid-1930s, and dealers unanimously told Citroën they were worried buyers would be put off by the more aerodynamic body. Citroën responded by promising to keep building rear-wheel drive Rosalie until the Traction had gained a secure foothold on the market.
The Traction was just as innovative under the skin. In addition to unibody construction, the Traction boasted a totally flat floor thanks to a front-wheel drive layout consisting of a four-cylinder engine mounted backwards between the rear wheels and the firewall, and a manual transmission installed at the front of the car. The fine-tuning process was long but engineers couldn’t take their time because Citroën was quickly running out of cash so the Traction was introduced before it was truly ready. Partially crippled by the Traction’s expensive development process, Citroën filed for bankruptcy shortly after and was purchased by Michelin.
The Traction makes its debut
Citroën introduced the Traction at a private event held in 1934 and presented the car to the public at that year’s edition of the Paris Motor Show. The name Traction Avant is widely used to denote any model of the lineup but car was initially launched as the Citroën 7CV.
The 32-horsepower 1.3-liter four-cylinder engine that powered early cars was quickly deemed too anemic so it was replaced by a 35-horsepower 1.5-liter unit. 32-horsepower cars were dubbed 7 A, while the more powerful variant was christened 7 B.
Buyers after more grunt could opt for the range-topping 7 S model that was powered by a 1.9-liter four-cylinder rated at 42 horsepower. The 7 S became the 11 towards the end of 1934, a name that reflected its true taxable horsepower, and is went on to become the most popular variant of the Traction.
The Traction lineup quickly grew thanks to additional body styles like a sedan, a convertible, a coupe and even a long-wheelbase model that could seat up to nine passengers thanks to a row of three jump seats.
Interestingly, Citroën briefly experimented with a V8-powered version of the Traction Avant called 22CV. The car was canceled by Michelin when it took over Citroën and every prototype was destroyed but rumors indicate a few cars survived and were still running around in the 1950s. The 22CV’s fascinating story has already been documented in these pages.
With the 22CV out of the picture for good, Citroën tried to take on the top end of the sedan segment by launching a six-cylinder-powered version of the Traction called 15 Six in 1938. Power came from a 2.8-liter straight-six engine that generated 77-horsepower, enough to make the 15 Six one of the fastest mass-produced French sedans of the era. Visually, it looked similar to the 11 but a well-trained eye noted it boasted a much longer hood in order to accommodate the two additional cylinders.
War breaks out
The German forces bombed the Citroën factory in June of 1940 but production of the Traction continued alongside Type 23 and Type 45 trucks built for the French army. The last 7 rolled off the assembly line in 1941, and the 11 soldiered on until the following year. Both models were widely used by the French and German armies across Europe but also as far as Russia, Libya and Tunisia. Later on, the Traction was used by members of the French Resistance who reportedly didn’t hesitate to borrow privately-owned cars when their own Traction either broke down or was wrecked.
The 7 was phased out for good but production of the 11 kicked off again in 1945. Rubber was scarce in post-war Europe so the 11 did not come with a spare tire and buyers could purchase their car for considerably less if they ordered it without tires.
After the war, the 11 and the 15 went through minor evolutions including a plethora of wheel designs, different trunk lids, redesigned bumpers and so forth. Perhaps the most noteworthy upgrade is that a self-leveling hydropneumatic suspension was fitted to the rear axle of the 15 Six H in 1954. Citroën officially claimed the suspension was designed to provide a more luxurious ride, but the real reason for installing it in the Traction was the company needed a way to test the upcoming DS’ four-wheel hdyropneumatic system in a real-life situation.
Like we mentioned earlier, dealers asked Citroën to keep building the Rosalie because they were worried buyers would take a while to warm up to the Traction’s futuristic silhouette. The concern came back in 1955 when the DS was introduced to a speechless crowd at the Paris Motor Show. Would Traction owners accept the DS’ drastically different look? Could they even afford the DS? After all, it was considerably more expensive than the Traction.
To address these issues, Citroën decided to keep producing the Traction for a little while longer. It was finally phased out on July 25th, 1957, a year after a stripped down version of the DS called ID was introduced. The final Traction was sold by a dealership in St. Malo, France, and records indicate it was sent off to the junkyard several years later by an unsuspecting owner who thought he owned just a run-of-the-mill 11.
All photos provided by Citroën’s archives department.