In 2019, French car maker Citroen is celebrating its centenary with a series of events around the world. Australia, although not a key market for the French brand, didn’t miss out either.
At Melbourne’s recent Motorclassica concours, Citroen celebrated 100 years by taking a look back at some of its most iconic models from the past. The Royal Exhibition Centre played host to a static display of DS, SM, 2CV, AMI, 5CV, and H Van models, amongst others.
But, before the show kicked off, Citroen Australia invited CarAdvice to a special drive event, chucking Mandy Turner and I the keys to some of the most esteemed members of its back catalogue for a series of short boulevard cruises.
1953 Traction Avant
While front-wheel drive is nothing out of the ordinary today, in 1934 when the Traction Avant first went on sale the technology was so new Citroen named its flagship model for it. Citroen wasn’t the first company to offer front-wheel drive (beaten by Cord and Alvis) but it combined a number of new or fledgling technologies into one highly advanced package.
While the 1953 version seen here wouldn’t have looked particularly cutting edge for its decade, in the 1930s the Traction Avant, built upon a monocoque chassis instead of a traditional ladder chassis, was able to be lower and lighter than its contemporaries.
To show off the ‘frameless’ construction, running boards beneath the body are conspicuously absent. Other highlights include four-wheel independent suspension and rack and pinion steering – all commonplace today but expensive and revolutionary in the 1930s.
It is, of course, no modern automobile from behind the wheel – yet surprisingly and pleasantly, it’s highly conventional. The three-speed manual exits the dash, but features a conventional H-pattern. The steering isn’t assisted, but it's not uncomfortably heavy most of the time and feels much more direct and stable than some cars of a similar age.
The ride is softly sprung, and the Traction Avant probably wouldn’t be your first choice for a competitive motorkhana, yet there’s road-holding and stability that surprise. It’s adept and confident, not fragile or timid as you might expect.
Like any vehicle of age, it requires care and consideration when driving. It does have hydraulic drum brakes, but narrow tyres and no real performance aspirations make it a leisurely tourer.
Inside the low, flat floor frees up interior space. The packaging is deceptively roomy given the compact cabin and the lounge-like seats invite passengers to sink in and relax on the road.
The example pictured here is a British-built model, meaning a walnut dash, Lucas electrics and Connolly leather trim set it apart from French models, but at its core this Traction Avant contains all the major elements that defined the model at the time.
Somehow putting 2CV and 1987 together seems like an odd fit, but Citroen’s iconic tin snail survived from its introduction in 1948 until production wrapped in 1990 with surprisingly minimal changes.
The 2CV’s development stretches back even further, to the mid-1930s as an attempt to provide low-income farming families with a mode of transport that could cover everything from family transport to field work as required.
That need for cost efficiency, simplicity and robustness is what stands out as you approach the 2CV. Everything seems impossibly thin, from the barely-there doors to the single layer bonnet which has been ribbed to provide strength, negating the need for an inner skin or framework.
The tyres too, look closer to what you might expect on a wheelbarrow than a motor car.
It’s utterly spartan with seats that are little more than thin padding and fabric draped over a tubular metal frame. Being a later model, and a British Dolly-spec car, the version seen here is rather upmarket with velour trim, two-tone paint and, well, uh…
Given that a low-output engine was key to getting the original 2CV to fit within deux chevaux-vapeur or ‘two tax horsepower’ regulations, early 2CVs featured a horizontally opposed 375cc engine which grew to 602cc by the end of its run. Power swelled from a mere 7kW to a whopping 22kW.
Driving is the best bit though. It isn’t fast, yet charges along with determination and an engine note unlike almost anything else. Sliding the cue ball gear stick poking through the dash back and forth has an alien shift gate at first, but it quickly becomes second nature.
Far and away the most thrilling bit comes at the first corner. The 2CV leans excitedly through corners. You’re not travelling fast but it sure feels like it. Through roundabouts the little Citroen adopts insane angles and yet holds on tight and asks for more with suspension travel in reserve to blot out bumps in the process.
1962 ID 19 Parisienne
Alongside the 2CV, Citroen’s achingly gorgeous DS models are about as iconic as cars come. It’s hard to believe both were offered side-by-side given how different they are in appearance and philosophy.
While most might sight this particular car as a DS, Citroen spun a slightly simpler and more affordable ID range to sell alongside. The example seem here is only up to its second owner, and first rolled out of Citroen’s Australian assembly plant in the Melbourne suburb of Heidelberg.
Included are the DS’s hydropneumatic suspension, but power-assisted steering was deleted and a simpler version of the high-pressure brake circuit was subbed in to keep cost and complexity down.
Be that as it may, the ID 19 still feels, and certainly looks, ahead of its time. The biggest difference is – of course – the ride, soft and lilting over the kinds of surfaces that would make regular cars of the era quake and rattle.
The interior is a quaint mix of 1950s-60s era futurism. The textures and surfaces are firmly mid-century but the design is space aged. Peering through the thin single-spoke steering wheel gives a tremendous unimpeded view of the instruments.
The clutch, and wheel are light and easy to use. The column shift is about the most conventional part of the whole car. The brake pedal is short on travel but offers a surprising amount of feel and feedback. In this particular car, it's not the famed mushroom of European DS models, but operates the same way.
Steady cruising is hushed, and settled into the insanely soft seat padding, it's hard not to feel incredibly luxuriant. It comes as no surprise why grander versions of the DS were used as presidential transport well beyond their regular production run.
1979 CX 2400 C-Matic
The name says it all. The blatantly aero-friendly form of the CX gives rise to its name, with Cx used to denote the coefficient of drag. Devised as a mid-sized replacement for the DS, the new model ensured its predecessor's technical innovation lived on.
Cast an eye over the CX and it's not hard to imagine the impact it would have had when it went on sale in 1974. European contemporaries like the three-box sedan Ford Granada, or form over function Volkswagen Passat, look staid by comparison. To say nothing of how the CX would have looked alongside an XB Falcon or HJ Holden.
With evolving expectations the CX moved away from the sci-fi inspired bakelite interior trimmings of the DS and created an open and airy dash design, maintaining elements like a traditional single-spoke steering wheel. The driver focussed control pod placed key control within fingertip reach of the wheel alongside simple altimeter-inspired instrumentation. Under the bonnet, the 2.4-litre four-cylinder engine and front-drive mechanicals are mounted transversely, compared the the longitudinal Traction Avant and DS before it.
Refined versions of Citroen’s hydropneumatic self-levelling suspension, high-pressure brakes, and self-centring highly-assisted power steering that isolates kickback through the wheel for an uninterrupted feel, also feature.
Seems odd now, but Citroen engineers believed the control of the indicators should be fully handled by the driver, so no self-cancelling feature is fitted.
Conversely, in an effort to reduce driver effort the CX was available with a semi-automatic transmission, dubbed C-matic, which replaced the semi-auto system from the DS with what boils down to a conventional manual transmission, separated from the engine by a torque converter.
There’s no clutch, nor is there any shuddering or hesitation at low speeds. Pulling away from a standstill feels much like it would in a regular auto with only brake and accelerator to worry about while a switchpack in the gear shifter detects when the lever is on the move and cuts fluid pressure to the converter to allow smooth changes.
It’s ingenious in its operation and creates a much more convincing form of automated manual than more modern single-clutch systems. Symbolic really, as the Citroen CX maintained the brand’s tradition for forward thinking.
If the DS is a goddess, Citroen’s SM must be a deity from another world. As you would imagine Citroen’s vision for a cross-continental grand tourer takes much of the technical innovation from familiar models and wraps them in a remarkable exterior.
While the looks are attention grabbing, under the bonnet Citroen made the absolute most of its then-ownership of Maserati (between 1968 and 1975) utilising a 2.7-litre version of the Italian brand’s 90-degree V6. Still in line with French road tax obligations, but much more powerful than previous Citroen’s had been.
The result is undeniably impressive. Within a gorgeous sporting two-door kammback form lies a high-performance engine, paired with the smooth glide ride and disturbance-free power steering systems perfected by Citroen.
The example you see here comes in North American spec, where legislation at the time prevented the iconic six-headlight front with swivelling inboard lamps tied to the steering. Be that as it may, the impact of the SM on the effortlessly alterna-cool residents of Melbourne’s Fitzroy and Collingwood was in no way diluted.
Better still, flexing the throttle to let the evocative V6 breathe deeply and flicking through the artistically arranged chrome-gated five speed manual shift gate reveals a car that for all its isolative properties, still feels deftly attuned to the road. Just in its own, peculiar way.
Everything about the interior, from its rolls of tan-coloured hide to the sweeping gauge cowl and squat single-spoke steering wheel, pays tribute to the French-Italian tie up the SM represents, right down to components shared with the Maserati Merak. It’s both comfortable and commanding all at once.