The Funky French Designs Of Citroën Are Coming To The Mullin Automotive Museum
Photography by Alex Sobran
We would like to extend a thank-you to the Mullin Automotive Museum for allowing us to photograph and drive these exceptionally cared-for cars. You can find these and more from Citroen at the museum when it opens its “Citroën: The Man, The Marque, The Mystique” exhibit on March 11th.
What does “France” conjure for you? Long bicycle races, the Louvre, baguettes, fries? Chances are it doesn’t bridge together the places in your brain that house cutting-edge technology and automobiles. That is, unless you’re familiar with Citroen.
Called every nice and nasty synonym of quirky, the French carmaker has been praised and maligned for pushing mechanical and aesthetic boundaries for longer than most people can literally remember. Citroen has managed to occupy multiple worlds with their cars; that of the common farmer and of the most discerning aristocrat, and that of our present and of our future.
That might induce some eye-rolling, but the company really was that avant-garde. Take the 2CV for example, of which millions were produced over more than 40 years; it is the perfect embodiment of practical technology for the everyman. Designed as an alternative to the horse to drive over the less than pristine French roads post-WWII, Citroen’s president at the time, Pierre Boulanger, ensured that the initial cars would go first to those who required efficient transportation over said roads; country doctors, bakers, electricians, midwives, and other traveling workers had cars sold to them first as a result of this directive. Truly this was a car that offered revolutionary advancements in travel for the masses. Including the many variants of the base car, almost 9 million units were produced between 1948 and 1991.
The 2CV was certainly not the first car from Citroen to make a statement though. The Traction Avants before it might not have brought the automobile to the majority, but they did harbor some revolutionary DNA. These cars had major advantages over their contemporaries in the late 1930s: front-wheel drive (try translating Traction Avant), a unibody construction, and independent suspension on each corner. The low-slung look provided by the unibody made this a popular choice for gangsters of the era, but perhaps they were swayed more by the lighter weight and superior handling offered by the torsion bar setup… who’s to say?
So how did they follow the Traction Avant? Sometimes the best sequel to a paradigm shift is to just, do it again.
Enter the DS, the car that still looks like it belongs in the future. Following its unveiling in 1955 at the Paris Motor Show, 8,000 purchase orders were received on that very day when it was first shown to the world. And for good reason: the DS was the first production car to offer 4-wheel disc brakes, headlights that turned with the wheels and adjusted themselves based on the car’s ride height, and, speaking of changes in height, the DS also pioneered a hydropneumatic suspension system which provides arguably the most comfortable experience one can have in a car. The ability to raise and lower the car was great for adjusting clearance over the road, but it also allowed for another unique feature: the ability to change your tires without a jack. Definitely worth a quick search on YouTube.
The DS was offered in an array of models and trim levels, from the lower-end ID variants, to the Pallas editions that featured extensive luxury options, even all the way up to coach-built rarities like the Henri Chapron Concorde, pictured here in contrasting silver and burgundy, which entailed a new body and redesigned interior for those looking for the highest echelons of exclusivity without straying from what made the DS such a pleasant car to drive.
While the DS undoubtedly had the comfort and style requisite of any respectable grand tourer, the first true GT car from the Gallic brand came to fruition in 1970 with the release of the SM. Citroen had recently purchased financially-troubled Maserati, and went about exercising their engine expertise not long afterward. The SM was the successful product of this union between France and Italy, receiving the innovative hydropneumatic system first introduced in the DS, as well as a V6 motor engineered and built by Maserati. At the time of its release, the SM was the fastest front-wheel-drive car in the world. And to maintain the adequate amount of steering feedback necessary to drive at high speeds for long periods of time, Citroen equipped SMs with an early form of variable power steering; at low speeds the wheel would turn lock-to-lock with much less resistance than it would traveling along the road, making it as easy to park as it was to accurately control at highway speed.
The cutting-edge styling of the SM really started to embody that adjective; hard lines and distinct angles make up the unique look of the car, which at once harkens back to the DS in the way the car sort of launches up and out from the rearmost corners, and yet carves out its own presence too, never to be considered an update or a “re-imagining.”
It goes without saying that the interior design of cars that look they way they do on the outside should be equally radical, and the SM does not disappoint once you open the door. The inside features a single spoke steering wheel, scorpion-like ribbed leather seats, and a brushed metal surface atop the center console that provides the backdrop for that too-cool shifter; I had a hard time watching the road instead of that complex chrome cylinder during every gear change.
So the next time someone tells you that France is only good at hoisting white flags, tell them to read a history book, and preferably one with some Citroens. They certainly deserve a place in it.