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THE CITROËN Traction Avant’s place in automotive history is at least four times deserved. It was the world’s first front-wheel-drive steel unibody car. Its production life, from 1934 through 1955, is exceeded by only the Volkswagen Beetle’s amazing 65 years, 1938 to 2003 (and, corrected later, the Porsche 911’s 50, 1963-2013!). Mechanicals of the car found their way into Grand Prix racing. And it’s the only car I know garnering its own gangster affiliation.
Three series of these front-drive Tractions Avant were identified by their engine outputs, as specified in their French puissance fiscal (fiscal power) ratings. There were the 7CV, 11CV and several variations of the 15CV.
The CV stood for Chevaux Vapeur, steam horses, specifying taxable horsepower. This had no linear relationship with ch, French horsepower, a unit not to be confused with the 19th Century French poncelet, the definition of which hints suspiciously of the French Revolution.
But I stray from the point.
All Tractions Avant had unitary bodies of pressed and welded steel. (See the Lancia Lambda, which predated them, albeit with a more elemental design, www.wp.me/p2ETap-1CM.) Citroën’s inspiration came from an American firm, the Edward G. Budd Manufacturing Company (later, of Buddliner light rail fame).
The Traction Avant appeared in 1934, the same year as the Chrysler/Desoto Airflow, another unibody design. However, the Citroën was rather a conservative shape, the Airflow jarringly advanced for 1934.
These unibody cars met with initial suspicion as to their “chassis-less” safety. Each manufacturer demonstrated otherwise by filming its unibody car being pushed off a cliff, showing it bounce around at the bottom, then still driving off.
The Citroën flick appears lost to the ages; the Chrysler Airflow video can be seen at http://goo.gl/GIxlk5.
Four-door sedans were the mainstay Tractions Avant, though there were also two-door coupés, convertibles, extended-length Familial models and even a hatchback Commercial.
The Traction Avant’s place in Grand Prix history is owed to its cast aluminum transaxle. John Cooper used it in his T43—the first Formula 1 mid-engine win, in 1958—as well as his T45, T51 and T53 race cars.
Jack Brabham took the Formula One World Drivers’ Championship in his Cooper T51 in 1959 and T53 in 1960; Cooper earned the Constructor’s Championship those years as well.
Last, there’s the wonderful gangster connection. After World War II, Traction Avant production was initially limited to sedans only—all painted black with ivory wheels.
Among these gangsters was Pierre Loutrel, aka Pierrot le Fou (Crazy Pete), France’s first Public Enemy No. 1. Pierrot le Fou operated his Gang des Tractions Avant out of Paris’s notorious Pigalle quarter. These ruffians had progressed from being Nazi collaborators, through ersatz French Resistance members (joining seemingly the rest of Frenchmen) to les bad guys ordinaires.
Jean-Luc Godard had Jean-Paul Belmondo play the title role in Pierrot le Fou, 1965. There were other flicks, a TV series and even a board game. All featured the Citroën Traction Avant, especially the 15CV because its six-cylinder could outrun the flics’ feeble four-cylinder cars.
Vive les Tractions Avant! ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2013