Citroën Traction Avant

Citroën Traction Avant

The Citroën Traction Avant is an executive car produced by the French manufacturer Citroën from 1934 to 1957. About 760,000 units were produced.

The Citroën Traction Avant pioneered mass production of three revolutionary features still in use today: a unitary body with no separate frame, four-wheel independent suspension, and front-wheel drive. Traction Avant Book

Citroën Traction Avant History

Citroën Traction Avant

Citroën Traction Avant

The Citroën Traction Avant, French for front-wheel drive, was designed by André Lefèbvre and Flaminio Bertoni in late 1933 / early 1934.

The Citroën Traction Avant pioneered front-wheel drive on the European mass car market, along with DKWs 1930s models. Front-wheel drive had just appeared for the first time through luxury vehicle manufacturers Alvis, which built the 1928 FWD in the UK, and Cord, which produced the L29 from 1929 to 1932 in the United States.

The Citroën Traction Avant’s structure was a welded unitary body / chassis. Most other cars of the era were based on a separate frame (chassis) onto which the non-structural body (“coachwork”) was built. Unitary construction (also called Unit Body or “Unibody” in the US) results in a lighter vehicle, and is now used for virtually all car construction. Traction Avant Die Cast Model

This unitary body saved 70 kg (150 lb) in steel per car. It was mass-produced, using innovative technology purchased from the American firm Budd Company. Weight reduction was a motivation for Citroën that American manufacturers of that time did not have.

This method of construction was viewed with great suspicion in many quarters, with doubts about its strength. A type of crash test was conceived, taking the form of driving the car off a cliff, to illustrate its great inherent resilience.

The novel design made the car very low-slung relative to its contemporaries – the Citroën Traction Avant was always distinctive, which went from appearing rakish in 1934 to familiar and somewhat old fashioned by 1955.

The suspension was very advanced for the car’s era. The front wheels were independently sprung, using a torsion bar and wishbone suspension arrangement, where most contemporaries used live axle and cart-type leaf spring designs. The rear suspension was a simple steel beam axle and a Panhard rod, trailing arms and torsion bars attached to a 75-millimetre (3 in) steel tube, which in turn was bolted to the main platform.

Since it was considerably lighter than conventional designs of the era, it was capable of 100 km/h (62 mph), and consumed fuel only at the rate of 10 L/100 km (28 mpg‑imp; 24 mpg‑US).

Investing for volume production

The scale of investment in production capacity reflected Andre Citroën’s ambitions for the car. Site preparation began during the winter of 1932/33, and on 15 March 1933 work started on demolition of the 30,000 sq. m. existing factory. Construction of the new factory started on 21 April, and by the end of August the building’s shell had been erected, four times the size of the factory that it replaced, and using 5,000 tonnes of structural iron and steel. All this was achieved while continuing to produce several hundred Rosalies every day. With characteristic showmanship, André Citroën celebrated by inviting 6,000 guests – mostly dealers and agents and others who would be involved in selling and promoting the car – to a spectacular banquet in the new and at this stage still empty factory, on 8 October 1933. Citroën’s gesture quickly came to be seen as hubristic, as the ensuing months became a race against time to finish the development of the car and tool up for its production before his investors lost patience.

Citroën Traction Avant

Citroën Traction Avant

In the end the first car was presented at Citroën’s huge Paris showroom on 18 April 1934, by which time principal dealers had already had their own private unveiling on 23 March. Although there had been much chatter and speculation, before April 1934 the details of the car had been kept remarkably quiet outside the walls of the Quai de Javel plant. Volume production formally started on 19 April 1934. Although the revolutionary unitary bodyshell was, according to most reports, not affected by the rushed launch schedule, problems with transmission joints and the hydraulic brakes – another “first” in a volume car in Europe – reflected the financial pressure to get the car into production as quickly as possible.


The Citroën “Traction Avant”, which translates literally as “front wheel drive,” is not the official name. The car was named according to the French fiscal horsepower rating, or CV, used to determine annual car tax levels. However, manufacturers did not change the model name every time a change of engine size caused a change in fiscal horsepower.

For example, in 1934, Citroën introduced the 7CV, unofficially the 7A. They continued calling the car 7CV when the 7B model’s larger engine pushed it into the 9 CV tax band. Other designations were 11CV, 15CV, and 22CV.

In France, the Citroën Traction Avant is known as “Reine de la Route” (“Queen of the Road”).

Wartime disruption

In September 1939 France declared war on Germany and in June 1940 the German Army rapidly invaded and occupied Northern France. The war years were characterised by a desperate shortage of raw materials for civilian industry and of petrol, but these factors were not apparent instantly. The Paris Motor Show scheduled for October 1939 was cancelled at short notice, but Citroën’s own planned announcements had involved the forthcoming 2CV model rather than any significant changes to the Traction. For the Citroën Traction Avant, the last “normal” year in terms of production levels was 1939, and 8,120 of the 2910mm wheelbase 1628 cc engined 7C models were produced. This tumbled to 1,133 in 1940, which was the first year when the plant suffered serious air-raid damage – on this occasion caused by a German attack – on 3 June 1940. Production of the cars was suspended in June 1941, by when a further 154 had been produced in the six-month period just ended. The 7C would continue to appear in Citroën price-lists until March 1944, but production of this smaller engined “7CV” version of the Traction was not resumed after the war. For the more powerful 1911 cc engined 11 B-light models, the equivalent figures were 27,473 units produced in 1939, 4,415 in 1940 and 2,032 for 1941, though for this model production in 1941 ended only in November 1941 so the figure for that year represents 11 months of production. Citroen in Uniform

In 1945 production restarted only slowly: the 11 B-light reappeared very little changed from the 1941 cars except that headlight surrounds were now painted rather than finished in chrome. By the end of December 1945 the year’s production had reached 1,525. Currency depreciation is evident from the car’s listed price which had been 26,800 francs in January 1940, and had risen to 110,670 francs in October 1945. In 1945 the car was the only model available from Citroën, and as another sign of the times, customers not able to supply their own tires were charged an additional 9,455 francs for a set of five. In May 1946, presumably reflecting an easing of the war-time tire shortage, the car could at last be purchased with tires at no extra cost, but by now the overall price of an 11 B-light had risen to 121,180 francs.

The 11 B-normal model, differentiated from the 11 B-light by its 3090 mm wheelbase, experienced a similar drop off in volumes between 1939 and 1941, with just 341 cars produced during the first seven months of 1941. After the war, a single 11 B-normal was produced in 1946, in time to be presented at the October 1946 Paris Motor Show: production built up during 1947, but during the car’s ten-year post-war period the shorter 11 B-light would, in France, continue to outsell the 11 B-normal.

Initially the French army lacked enthusiasm for the Citroën Traction Avant, believing that it offered insufficient ground-clearance for their needs. Nevertheless, by September 1939 roughly 250 had found their way into military service. With losses of cars at the frontier mounting, Citroën supplied a further 570 to the army between February and May 1940, and subsequent deliveries probably took place before military defeat intervened. During the war many of the cars were re-registered with “WH…” (Wehrmacht Heer/Army command) license plates, having been requisitioned by the German Army. These gave reliable service both in France and further afield, notably in Libya and Stalingrad. Tractions were also favoured by the Resistance, and as occupation gave way to Liberation they turned up all over France with FFI inscribed proudly on their doors. Less gloriously, the cars were known as favourites among gangsters such as the then infamous Pierrot le Fou, and his Traction gang.

Citroën Traction Avant Variants

Standard Production sedans

Citroën Traction Avant - Suicide Doors

Citroën Traction Avant – Suicide Doors

The original model was a small saloon with a 2,910 mm (115 in) wheelbase, and a 1,303 cc (79.5 cu in) engine: this model was called the 7A. All the models have front suicide doors with rear conventional doors. After just 2 months, with about 7,000 cars produced, the 7A was succeeded in June 1934 by the 7B which used a higher-power engine of 1,529 cc (93.3 cu in) and provided two windscreen wipers in place of the single wiper on the original production cars. The manufacturer also took the opportunity to make a start on addressing some of the other initial “under the skin” teething problems.

By September 1934, 15,620 7Bs had been produced before it, in turn, was succeeded in October 1934 by the 7C with an even higher-output 1,628 cc (99.3 cu in) engine.

Later models were the 11CV (launched in November 1934), which had a 1,911 cc (116.6 cu in) four-cylinder engine, and the 15CV (launched June 1938), with a 2,867 cc (175.0 cu in) six. The 11 was an 11 CV, but curiously the 15 was actually in the 16 CV tax band. The 11 was built in two versions, the 11BL (“légère”, or “light”), which was the same size as the 7 CV, and the 11B (“Normale”, or “normal”), which had a longer wheelbase and wider track. Traction Avant Citroen 1934 – 1957

For 1936, at the 29th Paris Motor Show, in October 1935, various modifications were on show. At the front painted front grilles replaced chrome ones and the headlight covers were restyled. The changes at the back were more practical and involved an opening luggage hatch/lid: it was no longer necessary to clamber over the back seats to get at the luggage space at the rear of the passenger cabin (although the overall size of the luggage locker remained at this stage rather restricted). The opening boot/trunk lid made it necessary to reposition the rear-license plate, previously under most circumstances centrally mounted just above the bumper, and now mounted on the rear-wing on the left side. On the original cars it had been possible to access the fuel tank using capped filler openings on either side, but now the left fuel filler cap was removed, and filling the fuel tank had to be done using the filler on the right side. Two months later the radical “Pausodyne” suspension was modified, now incorporating conical rubber rings at the front.

Citroën Traction Avant - Familiale

Citroën Traction Avant – Familiale

In May 1936, recently developed new technology was added – rack and pinion steering replaced the relatively imprecise “worm and roller” steering system.

Despite Citroën’s attention to the perceived shortcomings of the earlier Tractions, significant numbers of customers still opted for the manufacturer’s old rear-wheel drive models which, in 1936, still accounted for more than 10 per cent of the factory’s output.

To expand the customer base, the car was made as an extended length Familiale (family) model with three rows of seats, seating 9 adults. There was also a precursor of the hatchback, the Commerciale (commercial) variant. On this model, the tailgate was in two halves, the lower of which carried the spare wheel with the upper opening up to roof level. A one-piece top-hinged tailgate was introduced when the Commerciale resumed production in 1954 after being suspended during World War II.

Left-hand drive versions were built in Paris and Forest, Belgium. 550 additional cars were built in Copenhagen, Denmark for tax purposes – special 2 door commercial vans.

Citroën Traction Avant Coupes/Convertibles

Citroën Traction Avant - Convertible

Citroën Traction Avant – Covertible

Citroën Traction Avant - Coupe

Citroën Traction Avant – Coupe

In addition to the 4-door body, before the war, the factory also produced a 2-door coupé with a rumble seat, dickie seat, as a convertible also with a rumble seat, dickie seat.

Hydraulic self-levelling suspension in 1954

The 6-cylinder, 2876 cc model was used as a “Test Bed” for the introduction of the Hydropneumatic suspension that underpinned the revolutionary Citroën DS19 that was launched at the Paris Motor Show in 1955. The suspension was fitted to the rear suspension of the 15-6 H with a lever in the boot to permit the ride height to be modified. A dashboard-mounted override control was fitted to allow the rear suspension to be locked in normal ride height when parked, so the car did not drop in response to loading and unloading. It automatically released when the clutch was operated when driving off. A fan-belt driven high-pressure pump was added and an under-bonnet reservoir to hold the “LHS” hydraulic fluid. Many of the hydraulic parts were interchangeable with the early DS 19 models (which also had hydraulic disk brakes, hydraulically assisted steering and a hydraulically operated “semi-automatic” gearbox).

These other hydraulic features were not fitted to the 15-6 H, which ceased production in 1956, one year after the arrival of the DS.

Citroën Traction Avant UK-built cars

Right-hand drive cars were built at Slough Trading Estate, England. The Slough version of the 11L was called the Light Fifteen and the long wheelbase 11 was called the Big Fifteen. This confusing terminology referred to the British fiscal tax rating of the time, which was higher than the French, so the 11CV engine was 15HP in England.

The 15CV model was called Big Six in reference to its 6-cylinder engine.

A 1,911 cc (116.6 cu in) Light Fifteen tested by the British magazine The Motor in 1951 had a top speed of 72.6 mph (116.8 km/h) and could accelerate from 0–60 mph (97 km/h) in 29.7 seconds. A fuel consumption of 25.2 miles per imperial gallon (11.2 L/100 km; 21.0 mpg‑US) was recorded.

A 2,866 cc (174.9 cu in) six-cylinder model was tested by the same magazine in 1954 and for this car the top speed found was 81.1 mph (130.5 km/h), acceleration from 0–60 mph (97 km/h) 21.2 seconds and fuel consumption 18.6 miles per imperial gallon (15.2 L/100 km; 15.5 mpg‑US).

Models assembled in Slough had to consist of 51 per cent UK parts to make them exempt from the import taxes imposed by the UK government to protect British vehicle manufacturers from foreign competition. The Slough-built cars used 12-volt Lucas electrics, headlights, dynamo and starter. The interior had a walnut dash board with Jaeger instruments, Connolly Leather seats and door panels and a wool headlining. The exterior was fitted with United Kingdom bumpers and over-riders and a chrome grille, with the Citroën chevrons mounted behind. Some were fitted with a sunroof. Most of the Slough-built cars were right-hand drive, although a small number of British specification, left-hand drive cars were also built.

Citroën Traction Avant Engineering

The Citroën Traction Avant used a longitudinal, front-wheel drive layout, with the engine set well within the wheelbase, resulting in a very favourable weight distribution, aiding the car’s advanced handling characteristics. The gearbox was placed at the front of the vehicle with the engine behind it and the differential between them, a layout shared with the later Renault 4 and 16 and first generation Renault 5 but the opposite way round to many longitudinal front-wheel drive cars, such as the Saab 96 and Renault 12 and 18 and most Audi models. The gear change was set in the dashboard, with the lever protruding through a vertical, H-shaped gate. Because this vertical orientation could have resulted in the car dropping out of gear when the lever was in the upper positions (i.e. second or reverse gears), the gear-shift mechanism was locked when the mechanical clutch was engaged and released when the clutch pedal was depressed. The result of this layout, along with pendant pedals, umbrella-type handbrake control and front bench seats, was a very spacious interior, with a flat and unobstructed floor. The low-slung arrangement also eliminated the need for running boards to step into or out of the vehicle. These features made them ideal for use as limousines and taxi cabs, and they were quite popular among drivers and passengers alike. Until 1953, black was the only colour available.

Impact on Citroën

Citroën Traction Avant

Citroën Traction Avant

The development costs of the Citroën Traction Avant, combined with the redevelopment of its factory, were very high and Citroën declared bankruptcy in late 1934. The largest creditor was Michelin, who then owned Citroën from 1934 until 1976. Under Michelin, Citroën was run as a research laboratory, a test bed for their radial tires and new automotive technologies.

In 1954 Citroën’s experiments with hydropneumatic technology produced its first result, the “15H” – a variant of the 6-cylinder model 15 with a self-leveling, height-adjustable rear suspension, a field trial for the revolutionary DS released the following year.

Directly after the introduction of the Citroën ID, a simplified and more competitively priced version of the expensive DS model, production of the Traction Avant ended in July 1957.

Over 23 years, 759,111 had been built, including 26,400 assembled in Slough in England, 31,750 assembled in Forest near Brussels, 1,823 assembled at Cologne in Germany, and 550 built in Copenhagen, Denmark. The total reflects the production stoppage during World War II.

Present day Citroën Traction Avant

Citroën Traction Avants are fairly robust vehicles even by modern standards, but they are prone to leaking water inside the cabin. Every four years, Traction Avant enthusiasts ship or drive their vehicles to an exotic location for the ICCCR (International Citroen Car Clubs Rally). In 2002, for example, a group of more than 30 Citroën Traction Avants drove from Los Angeles to New York City without incident.


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