By on February 9, 2017

Citroen Traction Avant 11C, Image: Citroen

The Volkswagen Golf GTi may be what many consider the definitive “hot hatch,” and most enthusiasts credit it with popularizing the idea of a functional yet fun-to-drive and economical daily driver. From its roots have sprung countless pocket-sized performance variants, right up to today’s current Focus RS.

But the Volkswagen Golf was far from the world’s first hatchback. It wasn’t even close.

So where did the idea of a hinged-rear body panel begin? More than 40 years prior to the launch of the GTi, another innovative car introduced the world to the idea of the hatchback, among a few other new features. Are you surprised that it was French, after our Matra article last month?

1934 Citroen 7A, Image: Citroen

Until 1934, Citroën had produced cars much like every other manufacturer at the time: rear-drive, body-on-frame construction. But in 1934, the French company introduced a new concept with its Type 7A model. The drivetrain moved entirely to the front, with the 1303cc inline-four good for 32 horsepower powering the front wheels. The innovative change meant that there did not need to be a conventional transmission tunnel, or indeed any running gear behind the firewall.

1934 Citroen Traction Avant, Image: Citroen

As a result, Citroën abandoned the traditional body-on-frame design and utilized new all-steel unibody construction. Innovation on the 7A didn’t end there, as the car had independent torsion bar suspension, four-wheel hydraulic brakes and rubber motor mount technology licensed from Chrysler that Citroën called “Floating Motor.”

Citroen Badge, Image: Citroen

The name given to the 7A was “Traction Avant” — forward drive — to help differentiate it from the automaker’s normal rear-drive cars. Shortly after introduction in 1934, an enlarged version of the 7A — the 11A — was revealed. Some 5.5 inches longer and nearly eight inches wider than the 7, the new 11 had an upgraded 1911cc motor producing 46 hp. As with the 7, the 11 was initially available in Berline, Cabriolet, and Faux Cabriolet models. However, Citroën further stretched the wheelbase another eight inches to create the “Conduite Intérieure” and the “Familiale” models. Starting in 1936, the trunk was hinged on the bottom, granting access to the back from outside for the first time.

1936 Citroen Traction Avant, Image: Citroen

This bottom hinge formed part of what would become the next important step for the 11. In 1938, the 11 (now with CV suffix) model added to its lineup the “Commerciale” model. The major change was the addition of a hinged roof section that allowed access to the entire rear of the car. The lower portion containing the spare wheel, supported by large chains, swung downwards and formed a platform, while the window section folded upwards and out of the way of cargo.

Citroen Traction Avant, Image: Citroen

Intended for craftsmen and families in need of moving cargo, Citroën marketed the extreme versatility of the 11CV with an advertisement campaign highlighting the many things which could be loaded into its new configuration. It didn’t matter if you were just trying to move some baguettes or if you were a butcher in need of transporting a few vache — the Commerciale was the hatchback for you!

Citroen Traction Avant 11CV Commerciale, Image: Citroen

Citroen Traction Avant Commerciale, Image: Citroen

Citroën arguably also created the world’s first crossover with its “Familiale” model. Built on the same lengthened chassis as the Commerciale, it featured a third row of convertible folding seats called strapontins. This gave the Familiale model a total passenger capacity of nine, though admittedly it wasn’t quite as spacious as a modern-day Suburban. The storable seats slotted into the middle of the passenger compartment, unlike the contemporary rear placement, thoroughly eliminating legroom for all.

Citroen Traction Avant Familiale, Image: Citroen

Unfortunately for the firm, the outbreak of World War II signaled a new chapter in French history, instead of the triumph of the unique platform. As fuel shortages set in, companies such as F.A.P. Elgazo Tarbes created a coal-powered alternative that could be grafted onto the Traction Avant. Large “aerodynamic” coal containers flanked the front fenders, and when ignited they produced methane that could be run through a special carburetor. The unique solution to a problem that probably shouldn’t have existed gave you a 30-mile range on coal alone. Only a few of these 11 Gazogene models still exist, but you can visit one at the Lane Motor Museum.

1938 Citroen Berline 11 Gazogene, Image: Lane Motor Museum

As Citroën struggled to get its feet underneath it following the destruction of World War II, the 11CV Commeriale model continued with minor modifications. Now simply called the 11C, the most recognizable difference was that the lower portion of the hatch was incorporated into the upper portion. This formed a much more identifiable hatch, no longer with the spare wheel integrated.

The Traction Avant was a very dated design by that point, and the car was anything but a sales success, though it helped to keep the lights on until Citroën introduced its new — and equally forward-thinking — DS was ready for market in 1955. 11C production lasted through the end of the 1957 model year, with only a few thousand ultimately produced.

1956 Citroen Traction Avant 11C, Image: Citroen

There would be other hatchbacks built in the 1950s, such as the Kaiser-Frazer Vagabond, but none really caught on until the 1960s. Based upon the basic formula of the 11C and the 2CV, rival Renault would go on to produce what many feel is the first “true” hatchback in 1961 with its model 4. Though not as innovative as the 7 and 11 models had been for Citroën, the Renault 4 would go on to sell in the millions as a lower cost, extremely versatile family hatchback, the success of which would create many copies in the 1970s and into the 1980s. The hot hatch era had arrived.

[Images and Sources: Citroën, Lane Motor Museum, Citroenet.org]

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31 Comments on “Citroën Traction Avant 11CV Commerciale – The World’s First Hatchback?...”


  • avatar
    OldManPants

    Another great look at Euro cars that aren’t useless little sportsters! Thanks for that focus.

    And f*ck Germany again. What could the French auto industry have been without that nation full of Drumpfs next door?

    • 0 avatar
      greatpaper

      The Honda Element rear hatch reminds me of that Citroen.everything old is new again. I plan on running my element until it turns to dust.hey Honda- bring back the element.

    • 0 avatar
      Carter Johnson

      Thanks @OldManPants – figured you’d like this one!

    • 0 avatar
      FreedMike

      Actually, I’d say France came out of WWII in fairly decent shape, all things considered, OMP – they were certainly better off than the Germans were.

      And yet, 20 years later, Germany was making some of the best cars in the world…while France was still making weird cars that had an annoying tendency to fall apart.

      I’d say the French auto industry had no one to blame but itself for not keeping up with Ze Fatherland.

    • 0 avatar
      Shortest Circuit

      They’d probably ended up with side wheel drive without ‘zee germans’. Have you ever worked on a French car? It’s like they have no respect to technology, not back then, not since. They just lacked the finesse back then to really overcomplicate things.

  • avatar
    psarhjinian

    Pfft, look at them. Tall roofs, rear hatches, big rims. They’re all _crossovers_.

    /s

    • 0 avatar
      markogts

      Exactly. Crossovers of today are the cars of yesterday, with added environmentalist stigma.

    • 0 avatar
      wstarvingteacher

      Yup. Just thinking that one of these would be ok for my little hobby farm. Then I realized I already have two. A Nissan Cube which actually is only useful for moving people despite the look and a 4runner that could outwork the big one. The more things change……

  • avatar
    True_Blue

    EXCELLENT article! Always admired the Traction Avant. Ridiculously forward-thinking (and driving).

    The diagram with the engine/transaxle pulled away from the body – must have spent five minutes staring at it.

    Outstanding work.

  • avatar
    Zackman

    There’s another one of the very few French cars I actually like.

    Gimme my 2CV… NOW!

  • avatar
    Big Al from Oz

    When in France in October of last year I took to having a 2 to 3 hour walk every morning.

    One morning I happened to come across a Frenchman towing what could of been a 7A in a service station. I spoke to him in my broken French and he was proud of his restoration and explained to me the significance of the vehicle.

    I have some good photos of the vehicle. They are alot smaller in real life than the photos let on in this article.

    They are quite an attractive design.

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    Growing up in North America post-war we scoffed at most European and in particular French and Italian vehicles.

    In retrospect in many ways, they and in particular Citroen were far ahead of our domestic manufacturers.

    • 0 avatar
      Big Al from Oz

      Arthur,
      A good example of a great French design or significant input into a design is the XJ Cherokee chassis.

      Many on this site put down the Europeans, but the basis for most any small to medium size car has its roots in the EU.

      Japan went all out and used alot of EU engineering in the 50s and 60s which produced the foundation for the current, diverse Japanese and Asian auto industry.

      The US is really only good at large full chassis vehicle design.

  • avatar
    Add Lightness

    The Citroën Avant was also used the classify mountain cycle climbs. Cat 2 = needs 2nd gear to get up etc.

  • avatar
    Ermel

    Interesting, I’d never seen a pre-war Commerciale. Thanks for that! But from the size of the car, I’d rather be tempted to count it as a wagon, not as a hatchback. Which does not reduce its progessiveness at all, of course.

    • 0 avatar
      Carter Johnson

      @Ermel – a reasonable thought, except that the basic shape is the same as the sedan’s, yet the rear opens. It didn’t have a modified roofline that is the signature of many wagons.

  • avatar
    theonewhogotaway

    If that’s a hatchback, so is the V90 pictured in the previous post ;)

    It’s a station wagon.

    • 0 avatar
      Carter Johnson

      @theonewhogotaway – so, a bit semantics here, but since the regular extended version of the 11 was a sedan and the roofline wasn’t modified, it’s technically not considered a wagon by the strict definition, while the V90 clearly does have a modified roofline. However, it’s certainly a fuzzy area, agreed.

  • avatar
    Featherston

    An interesting factoid about the Traction Avant is that in its twilight it received, at least in a limited way, the hydropneumatic suspension: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Citro%C3%ABn_Traction_Avant#Hydraulic_self-levelling_suspension_in_1954

  • avatar
    FreedMike

    Unfortunately, folks in this market haven’t had any exposure to Citroen. From an innovation standpoint, they were hard to beat.

    But, equally unfortunately, those of us in this market who did have exposure to Citroen – as I did with my dad’s SM – came to regret it. The car had innovation in spades…and started about 40% of the time.

  • avatar
    DAC1991

    In Europe indeed Renault is credited with inventing the hatchback. Although the R4 was launched first, it was eventually the Renault 16 (R16) that set the standard for this type of car.

  • avatar
    brandloyalty

    These show up in family photos taken for a few years in France starting in 1958. We found it very odd that such apparently old fashioned cars were still around. We kids referred to them as “gangster” cars. As I recall there were only black ones.

    • 0 avatar
      Carter Johnson

      @brandloyalty – you’re correct, for a period following WW2 the company only had access to black paint, so all of their production cars were that color.

  • avatar
    DC Bruce

    There were lots of these in Spain when I lived there in the late 1950s. They were in fact, about 7/8 of the size of other between-the-wars classics with the sweeping fenders, running boards, etc. 300 kg in the back is a pretty impressive payload.

    I remember riding around in these cars a few times; they were neat… at least to a 10-year old kid whose dad had a ’57 Chevy. They were a very few DSs around. I remember seeing one flipped on a highway. The entire bottom of the car was covered in sheet metal. The only external piece was a dual exhaust and muffler. I thought they looked like frogs, coincidentally, a derisive term used by the English to refer to the French.

    Speaking about reliability in those days is really unfair . . . if you’re imposing modern standards. Although my dad’s Chevy ran 2 years in Spain on crappy roads and questionable gasoline without complaint or need for repair. In fact, he didn’t trade it in until 1963, after we had returned to the U.S.

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