by Andrew Maness
Tucked away in a nondescript warehouse in an industrial park 60 miles northwest of Los Angeles in Oxnard, California, is the Mullin Automotive Museum. The unusual location is rather fitting for the current exhibit filling the well-curated space. Running now through March 2018, “Citroën: The Man, The Marque, The Mystique” is a comprehensive look at one of the most revered automakers in history and features 46 cars that range from the very first Citroën ever built, the 1919 Type A, to the 2009 C3 Pluriel. If we were lucky enough to have Citroën sold here in the United States, there’s no doubt the funky C4 Cactus would have a place front and center in the museum. As we are not, the more modern models are omitted from the showing, but that’s just fine as the relatively small building is full of classic hardware to fawn over.
On the day we visited we were fortunate to be treated to a look under the hood of many of these vehicles. It’s quite special to see the innards of a car that’s nearly 100 years old and especially one in good condition. The 1919 Type A was the first mass-produced car in Europe, a feat pulled off by the forward-thinking founder of the company, Andre-Gustave Citroën. Citroën the man is equally as interesting as Citroën the brand. An industrialist who got his start in 1904 manufacturing gigantic double-helical gear sets (featuring a unique chevron pattern that later inspired the Citroën logo) he successfully implemented mass-production techniques and increased production ten-fold as Managing Director at Automobiles Mors. When WWI broke out, the French government enlisted Citroën to manufacture munitions and he did so with stunning efficiency—making more than anyone else in France.
When the war ended, Citroën returned to cars, but this time with his own company that bore his name. He adopted the assembly line techniques implemented by Henry Ford and from that the 1919 Type A was born. Some 24,000 of these low-priced cars were produced though 1921 and Citroën established a network of sales and service dealerships throughout France to make sure they were widely available and could be easily maintained. Ever the innovative marketer, Citroën also supplied the French government with over 65,000 road and traffic signs, that just happened to have his name on them as well. Most famously though, he negotiated the instillation of the Citroën name in lights on the Eiffel Tower, for nine years.
With debts piling up due to the development of what would ironically go on to be the saving grace of the company, Citroën was taken over by Michelin (who was also their largest creditor) after declaring bankruptcy in December 1934. Andre Citroën died as a result of stomach cancer in 1935 and would not see the aforementioned development project come to fruition. When it did, Europe was given its first mass-produced front-wheel-drive vehicle, the Traction Avant.
Manufactured from 1934 to 1951 the Traction Avant brought with it not only front wheel drive (the literal translation of Traction Avant) but also four-wheel independent suspension and unibody construction. The latter made the car light, saving 150 lbs of steel per body, which in turn gave it a top speed of 62 mph and an equivalent fuel consumption rate of 24 mpg. Being a groundbreaking automobile, it saved Citroën from financial ruin after the Michelin takeover and established a brand ethos of putting innovation first. Subsequent post-war models that were worked on in secrecy during German occupation would cement Citroën as a quirky, individualistic brand. These iconic vehicles, the 2CV, H Van, and DS are all well represented at the Mullin exhibit, and each enjoys their own fascinating history.
Manufactured from 1948 until 1990, the 2CV or “Deux Chevaux” was initially intended to be an affordable way for people in rural parts of France to switch from using a horse and cart to get around. Famously touted as being able to “carry two peasants, 50 kg of potatoes, and a box of eggs” 8.8 million variants of the 2CV rolled out into the world during the historic production run, and an icon representative of the nation in much the same way as the flag or the Eiffel Tower.
The exhibition is filled with rare favorites including oddball special editions such as the “007” edition that paid homage to the car’s appearance in “For Your Eyes Only,” featuring yellow paint and fake bullet hole stickers. Another favorite surprisingly in the Mullin collection is the nautical themed “France 3” edition that marked the company’s sponsorship of the French yacht entered in the 1983 America’s Cup. As for the H Van, there’s only one to be seen in the exhibit, but any chance to lay eyes on the distinctive corrugated body works. The Mullin example is a beige van set up for champagne sales.
Finally, there’s the DS, aka “Déesse” which translates to goddess. When the DS 19 was introduced at the 1955 Paris Motor Show it was pure mayhem. Within the first 15 minutes 743 orders were taken and over the next 10 days 80,000 deposits were made, a record that still stands.
The DS debuted a fully hydropneumatic suspension that was self-leveling and offered variable ground clearance. It set a new industry standard for ride comfort and handling capability, a point driven home in 1959 when a DS 19 on the Monte Carlo Rally. It has been hailed as the most beautiful car of all time by automotive design luminaries such as Ian Callum and Paul Bracq, placed third in the 1999 “Car Of The Century” competition and is currently enjoying record valuations. This exhibit features many variations on the DS spanning the 1955-1974 production run, including multiple custom-built Henri Chapron examples. These cars are simply stunning and worthy of a dedicated exhibit of their own, given their place in French history and culture. The failed attempt on his life in 1962 led to French President Charles de Gaulle not wanting to ride in any other car than a DS and the innovative nature of the car became a point of pride for the French at a time when the nation was working out their place in the modern world.
In many ways, to learn the history of Citroën is to learn the history of France in the 20th century. There are countless threads to be pulled when it comes to the brand, each yielding some new discovery regarding design, technology, or French culture. There’s so much value to learning about Citroën the man, whose years running the company certainly require deeper study as to fully grasp their importance. We wholeheartedly recommend getting to the Mullin before March 2018 but if you can’t make it to California, certainly dig deeper into these incredible machines, especially on YouTube. Start by searching “Citroën DS Rally”—just make sure you have some time to kill because once you go down the rabbit hole, it’s hard to climb out.
Images by Andrew Maness