Citroën Traction Avant
|1934 to 1957|
|Also called||Citroën 7CV
Citroën Light 15 (UK)
Citroën Big Fifteen (UK)
Citroën Big Six (UK)
|Production||7 CV 1934–1941
|Body and chassis|
|Class||Mid-size luxury car
|Body style||4-door sedan
|Engine||1.3 / 1.5 / 1.6 / 1.9 L I4
2.9 L I6
|Transmission||3-speed manual, column/dash shift|
|Wheelbase||2,910 mm (115 in)
7CV & 11CV légère (light)
3,090 mm (122 in)
11CV normale & 15-six
3,270 mm (129 in)
11CV longue & 15-six limousine
|Length||4,450 to 4,960 mm (175.2 to 195.3 in)|
|Width||1,620 to 1,790 mm (63.8 to 70.5 in)|
|Height||1,520 to 1,580 mm (59.8 to 62.2 in)|
|Kerb weight||1,025 to 1,170 kg (2,260 to 2,579 lb)|
The Citroën Traction Avant is an automobile which was produced by the French manufacturer Citroën from 1934 to 1957. About 760,000 units were produced.
Impact on the world
The Traction Avant, French for "front wheel drive", was designed by André Lefèbvre and Flaminio Bertoni in late 1933 / early 1934. While not the first production front wheel drive car, Alvis built the 1928 FWD in the UK, Cord produced the L29 from 1929 to 1932 in the United States and DKW the F1 in 1931 in Germany, it was the world's first front-wheel drive steel unitary body frame production car. Along with DKW's 1930s models, the Traction successfully pioneered front-wheel drive on the European mass car market.
The 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, although body-on-frame construction remains suitable for larger vehicles such as trucks.
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 Traction Avant always possessed a unique look, 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 3-inch (76 mm) 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 litres per 100 kilometres (28 mpg-imp; 24 mpg-US).
1949 Citroën Traction Avant side view
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 30,000 M2 of 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.
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 - reflected the financial pressure to get the car into production as quickly as possible.
The original model, was a small saloon on a 2,910 mm (115 in) wheelbase, with a 1,303 cc (79.5 cu in) engine: this model was called the 7A.After just 2 months, with only 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. The number "7" referred to the French fiscal horsepower rating, or CV of the original car, 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, with the result that the 7B's larger engine pushed it into the 9 HP/CV tax band without triggering a change in the number by which the model was identified by Citroën.
Later models were the 11 (launched in November 1934), which had a 1,911 cc (116.6 cu in) four-cylinder engine, and the 15 (launched rather tentatively in 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 HP/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.
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 side fuel filler cap was removed, and filling the fuel tank had to be done using the filler beside the rear wing on the right side.
Two months later the radical "Pausodyne" suspension was modified, now incorporating conical rubber rings at the front. A further improvement across the range, introduced on 15 May 1936, came with the fitting of rack and pinion steering in place of 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% of the factory's output.
Citroën planned two variants that never entered production, since there was not enough funding available to develop them, except as running prototype vehicles. One was an automatic transmission-equipped model, based on the Sensaud de Lavaud automatic transmission, the other a 22 CV model with a 3.8 liter V8. The transmission (which was actually originally designed for the Citroen) was a "gearless" automatic, using the torque-converter alone to match engine revolutions to the drivetrain revolutions, much like the Dynaflow Transmission introduced later in the USA. The car was supposed to have a less spartan interior than the other Traction Avants and it was to feature Citroën's own new V8 engine. About twenty prototypes were made, but the project was canceled at the start of 1935 after the company's bankruptcy and resulting Michelin takeover repidly led to a level of financial discipline that the company had hitherto heroically failed to apply. The prototype 22CVs were probably all destroyed.
In addition to the 4-door body, the car was also produced as a 2-door coupé with a rumble seat, dickie seat, as a convertible also with a rumble seat, dickie seat and as an extended length Familiale, Family model with three rows of seats, seating 9 aduls. There was even a hatchback-type Commerciale, Commercial variant, in 1939, well ahead of its time, in which 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.
The 6 cylinder, 2876cc model was used as a "Test Bed" for the introduction of the Hydraulic Suspension that underpinned the revolutionary Citroen DS19 that was launched at the Paris Motor Show in 1955. The Hydraulic suspension was fitted to the rear suspension of the "15/6 H" with a lever in the real to permit the "ride height" to be modified. A fan-belt driven high pressure pump was added and an under-bonnet reservoir to hold the "LHS" hydraulic fluid. The parts ere interchangeable with the early DS 19 models (which also had Hydraulic Disk Brakes, Hydraulically assisted steering and a hydraulically operated "semi-automatic" gearbox).
Sadly none of these other hydraulic features we fitted to the 15/6 H, which ceased production in 1956, 1 year after the arrival of the DS.
1947 Citroën Traction Avant Light 15 logo
United Kingdom built cars
Left-hand drive versions were built in Paris, in Forest, Belgium, in Copenhagen, Denmark for the Scandinavian market, and right-hand drive cars in Slough, 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. The test car cost GB£812 including taxes.
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). The test car cost GB£1,349 including taxes.
Models assembled in Slough had to be 51% UK parts to make them exempt from the import taxes that the UK Government placed to protect the 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 Citroen 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.
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 Traction, the last “normal” year in terms of production levels was 1939, and 8,120 of the 2910mm wheelbase 1628cc 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 1911cc 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.
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 3090mm 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, 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 reregistered 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.
The 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 color available.
Impact on Motorsport
Another technical significance of Tranction Avant was the cast aluminium alloy transaxle, which was pioneered by Hans Ledwinka in the early 1930s for Tatra V570 used in front of the engine located in the rear, but was quite radical at the time.
As well as being a considerable part of the weight savings, the manufacturing facility for this transaxle contributed to the below mentioned financial crisis. But when John Cooper looked for a light transaxle case for Formula One rear engine revolution, Traction Avant unit was about the only candidate, as Volkswagen magnesium alloy transaxle was much smaller and lacking the space needed to house heftier gears needed for Formula One. The Traction Avant transaxle was used on Cooper T43 which won a F1 championship race as the first mid-mounted engine car to do so in 1958, and on its successors Cooper T45, T51 and T53. Cooper T51 won the GP World Championship in 1959.
Unlike the Volkswagen alloy case used by Hewland, the Traction Avant case could not be used up side down, as the input shaft height was much higher in relation to the output shaft axis so that the oil level needed to lubricate the gears would exceed the then-unreliable input shaft oil seal height if used upside down. So the engine needed to sit high above the ground with the oil sump space below, which was not needed by dry-sump racing engines. But the French transaxle was used by several racing car constructors in the late 1950s to 60's with various levels of success.
In the case of Jack Brabham, who personally visited the ERSA foundry in Paris to discuss a possibility to strengthen the case , the transaxle became known as "ERSA Knight" with an additional spur-gear set mounted in the bellhousing spacer (engine to transaxle adapter) suggested by Ron Tauranac, named for Jack Knight who designed the modification and made the straight-cut gears. The height offset created by the spur gear set enabled the engine to sit lower, and became the reason why Cooper T53 was called the 'Lowline', which not only made Brabham the World Champion in 1960 but also became the precursor to the establishment of Brabham as a Formula One constructor.
Impact on Citroën
The development costs of the 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 still revolutionary DS, 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 and 1,823 assembled at Cologne in Germany. The total reflects the production stoppage during World War II.
1938 Citroen Traction Avant 11B Cabrio rear view