By on November 20, 2017

Image: 1955 Citroën Traction AvantThe 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.

Image: 1955 Citroën Traction AvantProduced 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.

Image: 1955 Citroën Traction AvantThere 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.

Image: 1955 Citroën Traction AvantThe 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.

Image: 1955 Citroën Traction AvantIn 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.

Image: 1955 Citroën Traction AvantAll 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.

Image: 1955 Citroën Traction AvantThe 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.

Image: 1955 Citroën Traction AvantTire 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.

Image: 1955 Citroën Traction AvantOur 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 [email protected]

[Images via seller]

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51 Comments on “Rare Rides: A 1955 Citroën Traction Avant – the Front-Drive Car That Started Everything...”

  • avatar

    Very cool car….always reminds me of the drive by shooting scene in The Great Escape after James Coburn ducks behind the bar at that Paris Cafe.

  • avatar

    Gorgeous – that width variation is eye popping.

    With all the modular platforms today, does any manufacturer do that now?

    • 0 avatar
      Kyree S. Williams

      Yes, all the time.

      Take, for example, Volkswagen’s MQB architecture, which scales from the Golf all the way up to the Atlas. The Atlas is much wider than the Golf, at 6’6″ vs 5’9″, respectively.

    • 0 avatar

      Sounds like VW’s MQB might; perhaps also Toyota’s TNGA.

      • 0 avatar

        I only wondered because after the Impala and XTS went to their current platform there was a bit of criticism of the cars being too narrow for their full size mission. I had assumed that GM was too lazy to widen the platform and only lengthened it but I’ve never checked it against other vehicles on the same platform.

    • 0 avatar

      A good modern example of exactly the same kind of application is the Ram ProMaster/Fiat Ducato. It’s a Front-Wheel-Drive, unibody van for the same reasons the Traction-Avant ended up with so many applications. The van is offered in a large variety of lengths and configurations without having to accommodate drive-train modifications. Weight savings from eliminating a separate rear differential and driveshaft can be added to cargo capacity with at same GVWR.

  • avatar

    Great history lesson…thanks. Love me some Citroen.

  • avatar

    They are stunning cars, and thanks for even posting a picture of one, let alone writing about it. Another feature of it’s front drive layout was that all the components were mounted to a sub-frame that could be slid out for easy servicing. If you look at the cars the rest of the world was producing during both the traction avant and ds periods, these things might have been dropped from outer space – they were that advanced.

  • avatar

    Corey – Did it surrender to you when you got close to take the pictures?

  • avatar

    They are a great car but performance wise…
    Couldn’t pull the skin off a rice pudding.
    The best film role for them I think was “Diva”

    • 0 avatar
      qwerty shrdlu

      Rififi has a chase scene that shows the cars to good effect. Possibly the worst appearance of a Traction Avant would be in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade- the car looks good but they smoked the _rear_ tires.

  • avatar

    Beautiful car, Corey, and great article as usual.

  • avatar

    Corey as always well done. Can you investigate as to why we can’t have teal engines and yellow wheels? Also Toyota has a spokesman called Corey Proffitt, time to think about a name change if you can afford the extra f and t.

  • avatar

    I’ve always been fascinated by the Traction Avant. This one looks like it’s been modified to make it more usable on a (somewhat) regular basis. I thought I was looking at a 12-volt battery and a 12-volt GM alternator (a one-wire setup), but the ad says it’s still 6-volt, with a 6-volt alternator (I’ve never heard of one of those). How do you get a 6-volt alternator? Switch out the rectifier bridge and voltage regulator? The two-pin connector is blocked off, so it looks like a one-wire. It did confirm my suspicion that it’s running a Pertronix Ignitor, although I wasn’t aware those would work on six volts.

    I notice an ammeter, and an Essence gauge, which I assume is a fuel gauge (50 liters?), along with a trip odometer, which is a nice touch. But, no temperature gauge? Also, isn’t the shifter sticking out of the dash, through that rectangular hole, rather than on the column?

    All in all, a fantastic car. You’d never win a concours award from Citroën purists, but I’ll bet it’s a dependable driver.

  • avatar

    Man, look at all that glass…

  • avatar

    People forget that it was France who’s middle class was flooded with cars long before America (or Germany or England or Italy) got to that point. France’s lead in engineering (note their WW1 aviation engines) was clear from the time Eiffel replaced stone RR bridges with iron. When the best and most efficient steam locomotives were born from French engineering … the Citroen developments were indeed as if they came from another planet. French engineering has always been cutting edge. Even their standardization of the worlds most reliable
    nuclear power plants marks the French approach to advanced thinking as valid. And worthy of recognition.
    This Citroen is merely one more example of classic French “out of the box” thinking and a beauty it is. What a car(!)
    $36,000 is very reasonable.

    • 0 avatar
      Arthur Dailey

      Have to agree. In the 1930’s the French were building the world’s most expensive cars (Bugatti), the world’s most beautiful cars (Delahaye) and technologically innovative vehicles like these.

      In the 1950’s the Brits were the world’s largest exporter of vehicles.

      From the 1980’s on the Japanese have been the nation with the most auto manufacturers.

      In this century the Germans have manufactured the most prestige vehicles and have had the most profitable auto makers.

      Yet many of us North Americans continue to think it is some sort of anomaly that our domestic manufacturers are currently not the world leaders. Aside from large pick-up trucks, what have we done better than the other nations?

      Even in the D3’s heyday of the 1950’s to circa 1973 the lowly air cooled VW Beetle was more reliable than nearly all domestic vehicles. And since the Model T passed into obsolescence the rest of the world has been even better than us at building ‘peoples cars’ such as the Beetle, 2CV, Mini and Corolla.

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Denver

      The unibody construction in the Traction Avant was developed by and sourced from the American Budd Company.

  • avatar

    Not to go on a rant here….

    But, I can’t stand front wheel drive. Always have, always will. I understand all the reasons why it’s useful and efficient. I’ve owned several perfectly fine FWD appliances. But, that’s all they are or every would be. Because of my generation, I missed out on the hot hatch era. Maybe I’d think differently if I hadn’t.

    Currently, I have three RWD autos in the family stable (300, 300C and Durango). I feel blessed to have them. Not that they’re stellar cars. They just happen to have their engines drive the proper set of wheels. And, that goes a long way… :)


    • 0 avatar

      FWD was pretty handy when I was a stupid kid in the Midwest and snowdrifts to the bumper of my Celebrity were pretty common. Didn’t hurt that my Dad would no more spend money on snow tires than he would on a new Cadillac.

    • 0 avatar

      They both have their thing, but it’s no surprise that saab dominated the rally world with FWD before audi awd. It’s a different technique, but controlling the car with the throttle is a lot of fun with fwd.

  • avatar

    I’ve always liked those, and the mid-century modern paint touches on this particular example only makes it better. The Traction Avant was still quite commonly seen on the streets when I lived in France in the 60s and 70s.

    I’m pretty sure that’s the shift lever sticking out of the dash, the long spindly chrome stick with a black knob. Its principle of operation is somewhat similar to that of the 2CV, with an actuating rod that goes over and to the left of the engine to reach the gearbox at the front. The parking brake is likely the smaller chrome T-handle, also on the dash.

    Citroën were always known for innovation. The oddly corrugated HY van was also FWD, making for a low cargo floor and excellent carrying capacity in a fairly small vehicle. This was quite unusual at the time. As a college student I drove an HY delivery van in Paris one summer.

    The 2CV itself exhibited all kinds of original thinking, and not just in its unusual front-rear interconnected suspension, designed so that the car could be driven across a ploughed field. A pig could also fit into the cargo area. Face level ventilation was provided by simple flaps in the base of the windshield surround. Wire mesh screened out the larger insects. The windshield wipers were mechanically driven from the speedometer cable, so the quicker you drove the faster they wiped. Not so good at stoplights, but hey, you can’t have everything. They seats were lightweight tubular affairs that could easily be lifted right out for picnic use.

  • avatar

    It was also the car used by the police in in “To Catch a Thief.”

    Saw one in person this summer at a car show it was her Survivor so a little rough but very impressive.

  • avatar

    Nice photographs indeed. Quite the old bus. This one needs all new rubber weather-stripping/window surrounds and some bodywork, should be easy to source parts from France.

    Engine next to firewall and forward-mounted transmission and road wheels. Remained typical layout of the French up to the mid to late 1970s, and doesn’t give great traction. It took Audi to hang an inline four and then a five, V6, V8, V10 and W12 in front of the front axle, for that special handling advantage of terminal understeer and tortured tires.

    Traction Avant rear suspension wasn’t independent. Trailing arms and a beam axle with Panhard rod, last used on Citation and Celebrity and kin. Not a torsion beam, but transverse torsion bars for springs. Wasn’t long after the intro in 1935 before it got rack and pinion steering about two centuries before the idea finally managed to seep into the consciousness of Detroit executives. On the other hand Detroit made super gigantic cars and none of the foreigners ever really caught up with just plain big, super huge and Giganto Brougham featuring Naugahyde Classic Landau roof with Portholes as a prime automotive attribute, the wimps. Yeehaw!

    Pity this example wasn’t the six cylinder, never seen a decent picture of that.

    Front subframe was bayonet mount to the body and a coupla bolts, sturdily made. Change the power pod and you had a different vehicle.

    There are many decent articles on this car, even the Wikipedia entry isn’t bad at all, but then you’ve also got Curbside Classic and Ate Up with Motor articles that are much more in-depth.

  • avatar

    It was also the police chase car in To Catch a Thief. I saw one in person at a car show last summer it is impressive.

  • avatar

    The importance of the Traction Avant is grossly overstated. It may have sold better than the Cords, but its engineering was cloned and its design was just as much of a dead end. Tell me about the other mid-engine front-wheel-drive cars on the market today, and you’ll be telling me about the real significance of the big FWD Citroens. The layout packages badly and puts power down in the snow and on hills even worse. Where you see importance I see novelty. The first production car with a unibody was the Lancia Lambda, over a decade earlier.

    • 0 avatar

      You are very harsh on the T/A. Tell me, have you ever taken an exchange term in France? Had a T/A with dodgy registration and no insurance? Ever skipped some lectures to tour France and the Lowlands? Ever “borrow” a battery from another T/A in a parc ferme? Camped in one? Made love in one? Wondered why they all smelled like that? Left it, sadly, with a full tank and the keys on the seat hoping the guy who stole it would also love it?

      Have you ever actually sat in one? Used that lousy gear change? Or, is your harsh opinion based on other “experts” who don’t know their derrier from their croude?


  • avatar

    Thanks Corey (and FreedMIke) for the interesting article on a great car. Well done!

  • avatar

    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.

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Denver

      Don’t imagine this was like some Ford V-8 beloved by gangsters. The early cars made 30 horsepower and had a top speed of around 60 mph. Later on it got better but not much better. French cars always had anemic little engines because of their horsepower based vehicle tax system. They were great for smoothing out bumpy French country roads but they were not made to be highway cruisers – France didn’t have any highways to speak of back then.

      Whoever buys this needs to understand that it’s not really possible to take a car like this out onto a modern expressway. 0 to 60 takes all day.

      • 0 avatar

        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.

  • avatar

    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…

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