The Citroën car brand has a vibrant history, going as far back as 100 years. It’s a story that showcases the daring and pioneering spirit of André Citroën, the man behind the car brand. André-Gustave Citroën was a French industrialist and Freemason. He was born in Paris to a Jewish family who originally came from Poland.
As a young boy, he had shown great interest in the works of Jules Verne and watched the construction of the Eiffel Tower. During a trip to Poland, Citroën—who was 22 years old at the time—got curious about a chevron-shaped wooden milling gear. He bought the patent for the gear and later applied it using steel. This concept would become the basis of the herringbone bevel gears used in early Citroën cars.
Founded after WWI
During the war, Citroën worked as an armaments production expert for the French government. Even as his facilities churned machines designed for mass destruction, the idea of building cars in more peaceful times had always been at the back of mind.
Before the war ended, he had already discussed his ideas with at least two automotive engineers. Shortly after the last gunfire was heard, Citroën—the company—was born.
The First Citroën Car
1919 - Citroën Type A
Just a few months after the war, Citroën’s first automobile rolled out of the factory - the 10HP Citroën Type A. It had four cylinders and a maximum speed of 65 kph. This vehicle would mark the beginning of Citroën’s tremendous success and popularity among the French people.
André Citroën changed the face of France’s automobile industry, as well as that of Europe. In 1920, his company started mass production. Innovative and visionary, Citroën employed mass production techniques which were, as then, unknown in Europe. He took a page from Henry Ford’s book and went on to produce as many as a hundred cars a day. In just one year, the company sold 10,000 Citroën Type A automobiles.
1921 - Citroën B2
The second Citroën car was released in 1921. This was the Citroën B2 and was, by all accounts, a more robust and better version of Type A. It further secured Citroën’s status as a leader in car manufacturing in France and Europe.
1924 - Citroën B10
In another innovative design, Citroën came up with the B10—the first automobile with all-steel bodywork in Europe. This year, Citroën began producing 50,000 cars a year. By 2017, it had become the 4th largest car manufacturer in the world.
1926 – Citroën B14 and B15
Another landmark innovation was the B14, which was designed for the mass market but with luxurious features. The B14 was to become the most popular car built between the two world wars. In the same year came B15, a closed-cab commercial vehicle. Soon enough, with these groundbreaking inventions, Citroën vehicles would invade the roads of France.
2CV – The Car Like No Other
Citroën opened the Quai de Javel factory in 1929 and went on to make more cars. From the very first model, Type A to commercial cabs, high-speed trucks, mass-market vehicles, and luxury cars. They were the first car manufacturing company to produce vehicles with front-wheel drives (named the Traction Avant).
His concepts for revolutionizing cars didn’t wane whatsoever in the years to come. He continually tinkered with his designs. In 1934, Citroën became the number one carmaker in France and Europe, and number two around the world.
In 1935, a few years before the war, André Citroën died of an illness.
The company, however, lived on with his legacy. They started working on the designs of what was to be the most celebrated Citroën – the 2CV. Referred to as “the car like no other,” “the most original since Ford’s Model T,” and a car of “remorseless rationality,” the 2CV sold 3.8 million units, 1.2 million small variants, and over 3.5 million mechanically-identical variants.
Surviving War (WWII)
The production of the 2CV trailed off due to bombings of Quai de Javel. From their annual production of 100,000 units, they went down to 9,000. Undamaged 2CV prototypes were hidden and kept safe from the destructiveness of war.
The then Citroën CEO, Pierre-Jules Boulanger, was considered one of the most prominent enemies of the Reich. Boulanger and the company researchers had to keep their work in utmost secrecy. Their efforts paid off after the war. They brought to the world avant-garde models—such as the 2CV, the Type H delivery van, and the DS swift family car—all of which captured the hearts and loyalty of car owners in no time.
Citroën survived WWII and positioned itself at the forefront of modern automobiles, mainly due to its landmark innovation—the Traction Avant technology. Equally revolutionary was the production of the first hydro-pneumatic self-levelling suspension system, floating-power engine, modern disc brakes, swivelling headlights, and cars that used electronic fuel injection. It has also introduced the use of gas fuel as petrol alternative, the principles of aerodynamics in designing cars, high-pressure hydraulic systems, all-electric car design, and countless technological leaps.
A Century After the First Citroën
Between the post-WWII success of Citroën and now, the company had to face bankruptcy and ownership instability. Citroën merged with Peugeot, forming PSA Peugeot Citroën.
The last decade showcased sleek, bold, and powerful Citroën cars—from the sporty DS3 racer to the visually striking C4 Cactus. Citroën never failed to wow car enthusiasts during motor shows as well. Its futuristic Tubik concept car is a far cry from its Type H post-war precursor but as robust.
The partnership of Peugeot and Citroën continues to reap the seeds sown by André Citroën. Its 3-cylinder Turbo PureTech engine was awarded the “International Engine of the Year” in 2015. Citroën remains to be a respected force in the automobile industry today, though perhaps not as much as before.
Innovator and Marketer
Looking back at this 100-year history, Citroën’s genius as an unrelenting innovator is quite apparent. The other thing that stands out is his characteristic showmanship. Citroën was a keen marketer of his ideas. He never failed to pull the klieg lights towards his company when his cars needed highlighting, such as shown in the following:
- He sent his half-track cars across the Sahara (from Touggourt to Timbuktu, and back) in 1922 to highlight their important qualities.
- He followed this up with the Croisière Noire expedition which crossed the African continent and five years later the Croisière Jaune which crossed Asia.
- In 1926, Citroën’s 250,000-bulb advertisement on Eiffel Tower caught the attention of the world because it served as the beacon for Charles Lindbergh’s epic flight across the Atlantic.
- He knew how to tug at the hearts of people—such as when Citroën produced small cars just like Dad’s.
- He knew how to be relevant. He even published a repair dictionary and catalogue—the first of its kind—in 1925.
The double-chevron logo of Citroën is a fitting token to a young man’s curiosity that built an empire. That same curiosity kept him innovating relentlessly. However, it was his ability to keep the company relevant that caught the world’s attention.
When 2CV was designed, it had to work around rigorous requirements. Its specifications stated in no unclear terms—the car had to have the capacity to carry four people and 50 kilograms of potatoes! That was the time of post-war famine, and Citroën felt the real-world need. No other carmaker could have shown more relevance than Citroën had at that time.