Rare Rides: A 1955 Citron Traction Avant - the Front-Drive Car That Started Everything

Corey Lewis
by Corey Lewis
rare rides a 1955 citron traction avant the front drive car that started

The car you see here is quite possibly the most important vehicle to ever come out of France. Pioneering no less than three major advances in automotive technology, it would effectively set the stage for passenger cars of the future — continuing to this day.

It’s a 1955 Citroën Traction Avant, and its importance cannot be overstated.

Produced between 1934 and 1956, the Traction Avant was the flagship of the Citroën fleet. The design was penned by André Lefèbvre and Flaminio Bertoni. Setting a styling precedent, these two men would collaborate in future years on Citroën’s 2CV, the beautiful DS, and the HY Van that would remain in production for 34 years.

There were two- and four-door versions of the Traction Avant, along with convertibles and hatchbacks (another Citroën innovation). Different body lengths were available, and there was even a pickup truck variant. The Traction Avant could seat two as a roadster, or nine as a large family sedan. Also marketed as a commercial vehicle, its innovative hatchback provided a flexible covered rear cargo area.

The length of the Traction Avant varied a full 20 inches between models, the width by 8 inches, and the height by 3 inches (some of these would obviously be called “crossovers” today). Such flexibility was allowed because the Traction Avant was a unibody design — the first passenger vehicle to be mass produced with such underpinnings.

With its typical eye on comfort, Citroën developed a revolutionary four-wheel independent suspension for the Traction Avant. At a time when many roads were rough, allowing independent wheel movement greatly improved ride quality. Other contemporary vehicles had compromised rides because of solid axles front and rear. Citroën also used a Traction Avant as test rig for its next revolution in comfort, the hydropneumatic suspension. While the company implemented it for the final two years of the Traction Avant (rear wheels only), the new dampers would soon grace all four corners of the 1955 DS.

The most important innovation of the Traction Avant was its namesake feature. Translated into English, its name is “Front-Wheel Drive.” Such a drive setup was only implemented before in limited-production luxury vehicles like the Cord.

In the Traction Avant, the engine was mounted behind the front axle, creating a mid-engine front-drive layout. The engine’s placement made a big difference in weight distribution, helping the car handle better than other front-engine, front-drive vehicles. The long hood also contained the transmission. Putting all drive components at the front made body modifications at the rear easier.

All models had three-speed manual transmissions with column shifter. The parking brake was located on the dash, and the only obstructions on the completely flat floor were the pedals.

The result of all of this innovation? Though the model sold well after introduction, development of the Traction Avant was incredibly expensive. Soaring costs forced Citroën to declare bankruptcy in 1934, the year of the Traction Avant’s debut.

Tire manufacturer Michelin picked up ownership of Citroën as its largest creditor. Under the Michelin umbrella, between 1934 and 1976, the company used Citroën as a research facility for their new radial tires and other automotive technologies. But the precedents set by the Traction Avant remained, and would shape the vast majority of passenger cars right into modern times.

Our subject today is a lovingly-restored example that’s available in Colorado via Craigslist. The seller is asking $36,000, which seems reasonable for the car that started just about everything.

H/t to FreedMike for today’s Rare Rides submission. Have a Rare Ride you want to submit? Email it to editors@ttac.com.

[Images via seller]

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  • Lon888 Lon888 on Nov 21, 2017

    I remember reading stories about the Traction Avant when it came out. It was very fast at the time and gangsters loved to use it as a getaway car. The cops weren't very happy since they didn't a car that could catch a Traction Avant. Took several years before the police could buy them. Love me some French engineering - now if I could afford a nice Citroen SM or XM.

    • See 1 previous
    • Ghostwhowalksnz Ghostwhowalksnz on Nov 23, 2017

      @Jack Denver They made a 6 cylinder version and there were 20 prototypes made with Citroens 3.8L V8, but that didnt get into production. The Citreon bankruptcy and takeover by Michelin in 1935 ended that.

  • Islander800 Islander800 on Nov 21, 2017

    While Americans like to turn up their noses and sniff derisively at anything French, in an ironically stereotypical Gallic fashion, the Traction Avant was decades ahead of anything mainstream American auto makers offered during its manufacture. If that wasn't enough, the replacement, the DS, was, again, almost 40 years ahead of the Americans when IT was introduced in 1955. The design of the DS still looks modern today. The DS's unique hydropneumatic independent suspension is credited by French president Charles de Gaulle with allowing him to escape an August 22 1962 assassination attempt by rogue French military officers, angered with his decision to grant independence to Algeria following the disastrous French-Algerian war, while riding in a DS: while the car was riddled with machine gun fire and two of the armored tires were blown out, the car was still able to drive away, saving his life. This event inspired the story and movie "The Day of the Jackal". It's unfortunate that the Traction Avant was also the ride of choice of the Gestapo during the nazi occupation of France in WW II...

  • Zerofoo I learned a long time ago to never buy a heavily modified vehicle. Far too many people lack the necessary mechanical engineering skills to know when they've screwed something up.
  • Zerofoo I was part of this industry during my college years. We built many, many cars for "street pharmacists" that sounded like this.Excessive car audio systems are kind of like 800 HP engines. Completely unnecessary, but a hell of a lot of fun.
  • DedBull In it to win it!
  • Wolfwagen IIRC I remember reading somewhere that the Porsche Cayenne was supposed to have a small gasoline-powered block heater. There was a loop in the cooling system that ran to the heater and when the temperature got to a certain point (0°C)the vehicle's control unit would activate the heater. I dont know if this was a concept or if it ever made it into production.
  • Jeffro As I sit here this morning with my 2 day old TRD OFF ROAD 4RUNNER tucked safely away in the garage, my head spins with this weird desire to locate a 85 LTD equipped with the epic 😵‍💫2.3 and the FOUR ON THE FLOOR. THE HOLY GRAIL. Ying and yang baby!The search begins.