He pioneered many mass production techniques which created much needed productivity and came in useful later for his dreams of cars for growing markets. After the war he turned his Paris factory over to making cars. Much influenced by Henry Ford, he brought pressed steel construction to Europe and overcame the practical limitations of building wooden framed bodies on a steel chassis.
Citroën was above all a showman and a salesman. He invented an endless series of new marketing techniques and events to promotes the products with his name. The Eiffel tower even carried the name, complete with both dots, down its length, in lights. His approach to the Depression was to spend ever more on marketing, until the company went broke and fell into the hands of its bankers. His style and that of the bankers were irreconcilable and so in his usual way he turned to the public, spruking shares instead of cars. The challenge then was to re-capture a car market. His style, which lived on three decades beyond him was never to seek out public opinion. He ignored market research as a tool and instead drove his vision and that of his engineers, to create a new public taste.
1n 1934, to restore the Company fortunes he launched a revolutionary transport concept, the Traction Avant 7cv, known ever since as the Traction. This car set a completely new standard in road holding and drivability. He combined in one integrated innovation a number of engineering concepts to give the public what they would came to realise that they needed. The designed lasted in production until 1956, around a million were made and its ideas are embedded in most production cars today.
The Traction had no chassis, the first production steel body which carried the structural stresses - a technique now taken for granted. The transmission was front wheel drive, another mass production first. The moving bits were carried on subframes to insulate the vibration and to simplify service and manufacture, later used in the Mini. The suspension redefined road holding and handling to standards not seen on Australian made cars until the 1980's. His used torsion bars instead of the cart springs of the day, to appear later in even larger numbers on the rear of the VW Beetle.
The car was introduced too early, had technical problems and was another financial disaster. Once again bankrupt, the company passed to its creditors and eventually was taken over by Michelin who had designed the special tyres for the Traction. André died, it is said, heartbroken by the stress but the car lived on and above all, his spirit of market creativity survived another generation.
The Traction became a symbol - actually a number of symbols of French life and character. The convertible, driven by a couturier dressed belle, en route to a summer's picnic, became the symbol of chic before the war. The car's street smarts and sheer handling made it the getaway vehicle of choice for criminals. Only available in black, it carried the image of the Chicago gangster across the Atlantic. The police had no choice but to follow and soon any cops and robbers incident seemed designed for Pathe newsreel excitement, as Traction chased Traction. The suspension and the newly created Michelin X radials gave it a performance on Paris cobblestones, never before attempted.
When the war came, the factories next revolutionary prototypes were hidden away. The employees became reluctant contributors to the war effort and a cell of the Resistance. The cars themselves became the symbol of the resistance as the Maquis used them as nimble machine gun carriers. In Paris they were commandeered as the transport for the Gestapo.
German troops 'captured' them and drove them to the outskirts of Moscow - few other cars could cope with the roads of the day.
After the war, as before, they become the taxi of choice. Many a GI took home as his most terrifying experience of the liberation, a ride over the cobblestones in a Traction taxi driven by an over-enthusiastic Parisian. Perhaps that was the start of its acceptance as a cult car in the US?
As production resumed, the secret weapon was recovered from storage and the French public, once again, was forced to reconsider its definition of personal transport. The 2 c.v was shown, only to be laughed at and panned by the motoring writers. It went on to create its own raison d'être and millions took it into their lives. The legendary specification was for transport for a farmer and his wife to take a basket of eggs, under an umbrella, to market in comfort and safety. Practicality was all and ugliness became recognised as one of its endearing qualities. It took over from the Percheron working horse which was still in use in rural France to overcome the war time fuel restrictions. A farming friend of mine had five, which he left around his fields to use between the rows of corn and to cross ploughed fields without a bump. The only thing it couldn't do was jump a fence - but it did carry a pig.
The engineering was again different, designed for purpose and ignoring convention. The suspension, on swinging arms had huge travel, with a gait now recognised on Martian lander modules. The front and rear were linked by long springs having the effect of apparently lengthening the wheelbase and enabling it to float over the corrugations of poor roads. The motor was an air cooled flat twin with spine compressing acceleration from 430 ccs. Original versions were very basic and included out such things as electric start, door and ignition locks, automatic windscreen wiper and direction indicators. They did have a roll back roof and the most comfortable light weight seats, drawing on Cote d'Azure beach deck chair technology. Along with the van or camionette version, they delivered most of what France consumed in the 50's and 60's.
Poor acceleration and exceptional roadholding at the price of uncontrolled body roll gave rise to a new driving technique. Never slow down for anything and hold on tight.
The car was taken up by London, Amsterdam and Hamburg trend setters as the city car to be seen in, if you cared about style(?), value and minimal environmental impact. All efforts to bring the design into more conventional definitions of automobile beauty were relative failures. It works because of what it is - cheap, usable, different and cheekily ugly.
Although production stopped five years ago, the car persists as a cult icon. The Germans and Dutch have turned it into a mobile graffiti platform. It has become the basis of a new art form of extravagances of mechanical improvement and decorative styles. The factory made a push-me pull-you with an engine at both ends and an American made an inflatable version.
The final and definitive expression of the André Citroën approach to life came in the early fifties. The Traction was looking decidedly pre-war and the company needed a flagship model, hopefully to carry it forward another twenty five years. The engineers and stylists were given free reign to conceive what they believed the public should drive and even how they should do it. The result was launched at the 1955 Paris Auto Salon to rave reviews and for many including competitors, stunned disbelief. The DS ( a pun on Goddess) was a Jules Verne spaceship on wheels. It ignored the styling and engineering conventions of the day.
Representation of the design may be seen today in most museums and records of 20th century art. It was considered by many as, along with the VW Beetle, forming the greatest influence on car design. Others see it as a triumph of engineering over common sense. It is instantly recognised as a French symbol. It is the other marque that most car buffs would have liked to own.
More seriously, it rewrote the ergonomic interface that formed a driver's expectation of how to control a car. It was this effort to tell the market how a car should be driven, that was probably its Achilles heel. Although the pre-war period had seen car designers experiment with different controls and positioning, by the fifties drivers had come to expect three pedals and mechanically linked steering, braking and gear change. The DS attempted to rewrite the rules using aircraft inspired hydraulics technology to provide all the operating forces.
The first surprise that greeted the novice driver was the single spoke steering wheel. Once you drove the car and realised that steering was a two finger task, then you saw the wheel for what it was, a collapsible safety feature. The gear lever, mounted above and behind the wheel was merely a hydraulic valve selector. Again one finger, without the hand leaving the wheel could change the gears and the hydraulic 'computer' looked after the clutch. The lever also incorporated the starter switch, preventing a start in gear.
Since the brakes were powered by the hydraulic pressures in the system, there seemed no need for a brake pedal. A rubber mushroom on the floor concealed the brake valves. A dab from a big toe could create such an emergency stop that rear fender damage was a persistent risk. The clutch pedal was replaced by a parking brake, but the accelerator was in the expected place and required a conventional amount of force to operate. The designers had a mental block about self canceling indicators, they reduced driver responsibility or something , so they were manual. All the auxiliary controls were grouped around the steering wheel rim, the one bit of ergonomics to survive and to become embedded in contemporary design. Difficult, though, for drivers used to leaning forward to operate switches on a vertical dashboard.
The suspension took full advantage of hydraulic engineering. Valves and sensors controlled the pressure to lift the car to a cruising altitude and to continuously self level the front and rear. Springs were replaced by compressed gas in spheres - Boyle's Law moved out of the classroom onto the road. Front wheel drive, a long wheelbase and powered steering combined, like the Traction, to set new standards of roadholding and handling. This time, though, with a softness and height range which made long distance travel a pleasure for most. Some never adapted to the wallowing, boat like motion and travel sickness turned many off from the concept.
Driving technique had to be re-learned. The early cars were under-powered and highly geared. Like the 2 cv, outstanding cornering ability and braking allowed one to build up speed and cling to it, judging the timing of avoiding obstacles with precision. It was a long distance touring car without peer on poor roads. In town it was slow and limited in smoothness by its fixed clutch re-engagenment timing. Primary safety was its winning point, many is the time that one of my DS's has covered for my bad driving by swerving and braking under full control, when a lesser car would have skidded to disaster. Unfortunately, using its features to turn them into benefits, was a skill that many could not be bothered to develop.
Once again, under financial pressure, the car was launched with inadequate testing and without sufficient technical support. First owners were ecstatic until the cars died from mysterious hydraulic ailments. The factory had arranged to provide instant replacements in Paris which helped. The cars depended on complex components never before fitted in vehicles and beyond the experience and training of garage mechanics. Eventually a whole new generation of professional and amateur mechanics were created who had the spares, diagnostic equipment and knowledge to fix the cars. The investment clearly hampered the car's export prospects as only high density, sophisticated markets could be addressed.
The issues involved have resurfaced, as alternative power sources such as batteries and hydrogen are being proposed for vehicles. The cost of infrastructure that has to be in place to support them is a serious barrier to investment in such new concepts. Enhanced market expectations make it even more expensive to implement than in 1955.
Citroën battled on, sorted the hydraulic problems, mainly by changing to a less corrosive fluid and progressively refined the detailed design. Over the model life until 1975, another twenty year triumph, nearly a million were made. The market position they occupied was at the top end of the family saloons, where they had to compete with the likes of Mercedes and Rover. There was little price premium for the complexity, as the market did not share the designers' sense of value in the features. As a result, it was not a profitable product and was further hit by being conceived at a time when labour was relatively plentiful and cheap. At the end of its life, it was supporting a hopelessly over-manned factory in prime real estate in Paris, when competitors were automating in decentralised industrial sites.
The solution was a government funded rescue, which led to Citroën becoming a division of Peugeot, where it remains today. Today's cars bearing the double chevron logo are presented as conventional, well styled and value engineered. All that remains of the DS leap forward is a very refined suspension, braking and steering system which hides behind a bland international control and instrument layout. Profit has at last become a design feature of the marque.
The twenty year model life has gone, partly in response to the Japanese led techniques for speeding the redesign process and partly responding to the realities of customer boredom. In the twenty years of the DS and Traction they went from five years of being ahead of the time, through ten years of unspectacular acceptance then to a five year period of looking distinctly dated.
The extreme differentiation of the three Citroën masterpieces did not bring a lasting capture of market preferences with a consequent financial benefit. The market itself differentiated into those who enjoyed being different, sharing the values of the designers and those who rejected them in favour of simple, reliable transport. Ownership, particularly after production ceased, implied commitment. Now a strong sense of common group membership links those who enjoy driving and maintaining them.
An interesting story of failure, yet seen by many as an outstanding success. It does have pointers within it that can guide business strategy today.
Differentiation for the sake of being different is not a source of profit. It has to be combined with a recognition or a change of market perceptions, so that the differences are valued.
As the car industry has matured and concentrated globally, design is stagnating. Regulatory controls and prudent financial constraints inhibit trying new ideas. They particularly hinder new totally integrated concepts from reaching markets and changing taste. Incremental improvement is all the industry can afford until the oil runs out.
The outcome is an efficiency driven convergence of profit margin. Perhaps we adapt to a future in which the motor corporations all settle for the same return on shareholder's funds and a static market share. If not, then new management techniques are needed to allow a break away from the pack.
The challenge is to allow a Citroën vision to flourish alongside marketing activities and investment which alters market preferences in one's favour. This needs to be done while still maintaining steady cash flows from current sales in a margin driven operating environment.
The risks of betting the whole company on one idea are today unacceptable to shareholders, just as is indifferent financial performance.
It is tempting ,as an engineer, to say that Citroën cheated. By removing the two design constraints of having to make a profit and having to create something people recognised as valuable, the design process can create 'masterpieces' more easily. Now we have access to technology which removes many of the design process limitations, we have a new chance to build in the cost constraints, without inhibiting creativity.
Getting the balance right between leading a market and responding to it, is much more sensitive to issues of corporate culture and brand identity than technological leadership. It is in these areas where the Citroën experience is still a valid model and where learning organisations need to focus.
Comments, please to gfreed@home
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Last edited Thursday avr 16 2012 - written 1997