Society

Meet Andre-Gustave; Man behind making of the Citroën car model

Citro

Side view of a grey classic Citroen DS at a classic car meeting. This is one of the most famous french cars ever built. PHOTO | COURTESY

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Summary

  • Refusing to retrench during the Great Depression Citroën was forced into bankruptcy in 1934 and he died one year later of stomach cancer.
  • Nevertheless, his genius lives after him even today.
  • The company of André Citroën is perceived in some quarters as the most innovative brand of the 20th century.

That Sunday morning, we jumped into the new car for the ride to Ruiru Town to buy newspapers. In our excitement we had all forgotten that the previous night the girls had braided dad’s hair and it was not until we reached Ruiru that dad looked in the rear view mirror and swiftly donned a hat that was lying at the back of the car, saving himself embarrassment.

The year was 1967 and the previous day, dad had arrived home in a spanking new Citroen ID 19 finished in Sardony Brown with an ivory coloured fibre glass roof.

This model had the groundbreaking hydropneumatic self-levelling suspension producing the most comfortable ride on the road.

The seats were covered in a light brown leather material with super soft cushioning such that you felt like you were sitting on the home sofa. It was, all round, a fabulous car.

André-Gustave Citroën was an industrialist and a visionary who always went extraordinary ways in his life during which he is credited with several outstanding achievements.

Born in Paris on 5 February 1878, he was the fifth and last child of Jewish parents, diamond merchant Levie Citroen from Netherlands and Masza Amelia Kleinman from Warsaw, Poland. The family had moved to Paris in 1873 and upon arrival the French diaeresis was added to the Dutch name, changing Citroen to Citroën.

It is reputed that young André was inspired by the works of Jules Verne and had seen the construction of the Eiffel Tower for the World Exhibition, making him want to become an engineer.

Graduating from the École Polytechnique in 1900, he visited Poland, the birthplace of his mother who had recently died. During that holiday he saw a man working on a set of gears with a fish-bone structure and learned the principle of power transmission through angled gearing.

These gears were less noisy and more efficient. Citroën bought the patent for very little money. Soon thereafter upon his return to Paris, he began the production of angled-tooth and helical gears and reduction gears for automobiles in the form of double angles or double chevrons the basis of the company’s logo which still exists today.

In 1908, he helped the Mors automobile firm increase its production from 125 cars to 1,200 cars per annum by introducing Henry Ford’s mass production methods. At the outbreak of World War I, Citroën persuaded the French army to mass-produce munitions. In 1915, he built a munitions factory whose production of shells reached 55,000 per day and he was awarded the contract to supply all French munitions plants with certain raw vital materials.

After the war, with munitions no longer in demand, Citroën turned his attention to building affordable and practical cars, proving his creativity with models such as the Type A, the B 10 and the Traction Avant (front-wheel drive).

He was the first European to produce cars on an assembly line. One of the pillars of that process was his ability to quickly pick up and evolve technical innovations leading him to become the fourth largest automobile manufacturer in the world by the early 1930’s.

In 1925, Citroën introduced the first all-steel body production of a European car, the Citroën B 12 which also featured the first mass-produced car with four-wheel brakes which were hitherto available on expensive luxury vehicles.

This was a major departure from the traditional cab-on-chassis, solid rear axle and rear-wheel drive but it is the reason why modern cars are more like the Traction Avant under the skin.

In the following years he was also responsible for introducing the development of various techniques in the automotive industry, including the first adjustable front seats and the first stop light, things that have long become standard equipment in modern cars.

Not only was Citroën responsible for technical innovation but, he also showed his genius elsewhere in advertising, production and sales where he was a pioneer of his time, re-inventing and re-iterating methods again, similar to what such people like Steve Jobs have done decades later.

He was, among other things, a pioneer in advertising, financing and the development of a commercial and dealership network. He deployed a total of 150,000 traffic signs in France, marked with the Citroën brand and organised mobile advertising campaigns to showcase new models and simulated accident scenarios with his vehicles long before the term “crash test” showed up in the vocabulary of the automotive industry.

He used the Eiffel Tower as the largest advertising sign, as recorded in Guinness World Records. Citroën also sponsored various scientific expeditions, including one that travelled 13,000 kilometres by car from Beirut to Peking (1931-32) and others to North America and Africa demonstrating the potential of vehicles equipped with Kégresse track systems to cross inhospitable regions. These expeditions conveyed scientists and journalists.

Refusing to retrench during the Great Depression Citroën was forced into bankruptcy in 1934 and he died one year later of stomach cancer.

Nevertheless, his genius lives after him even today. The company of André Citroën is perceived in some quarters as the most innovative brand of the 20th century.