André Citroën (1878–1935)

Paris, for many decades in the twentieth century, was one of Europe’s principal motor car manufacturing centres, and on a 19 ha site at Jarvel, on the River Seine in the 15th arrondissement, André Citroën built what was to prove the largest factory ever seen within the French capital.

Citroën was born in Paris, the son of a diamond merchant who had moved with his family from Warsaw in 1873. He was inspired to be an engineer by the writings of Jules Verne (1828-1905) and by watching the construction of the Eiffel Tower. He graduated from the École Polytechnique in 1900, and on a subsequent visit to Poland saw a carpenter working on a set of wooden gears with a fishbone structure. He purchased the patent and became known as the developer of double helical gears, from which the double chevron logo of the Citroën company was derived. Nevertheless he was always more an entrepreneur than an engineer, and his success derived largely from his skills in marketing.

He became involved with motor car manufacturing in 1906, and, like many European industrialists, was impressed with Henry Ford’s River Rouge plant in Detroit when he visited the United States in 1919. He applied the principles of mass production to the manufacture of shells for the French armed forces during the First World War, and in 1919 established his own car making company in Paris. By 1930 he was the world’s fourth largest car manufacturer. He established dealer networks across Europe, and gained publicity by declaring his plant ‘the most beautiful in Europe’. The Citroën name and logo appeared in lights on the Eiffel Tower, and after Charles Lindberg flew the Atlantic Citroën hosted a party for him at the factory. Citroën planned to introduce a revolutionary new car, the Traction Avant, which had front wheel drive and a welded steel unitary body frame for which from 1933 the factory was demolished and  replaced by another, four times larger, where the first cars were produced on 19 April 1934. The cost of development of the new model drove the company to bankruptcy and it was taken over by the Michelin rubber company before the end of 1934.

André Citroën died the following year but the firm, in new hands, continued to prosper. The Traction Avant was assembled abroad in factories at Vorst (Belgium), Cologne, Slough (England) and Copenhagen, and such was its success that some 760,000 models were made and it continued in production until 1956. The archetypal car for rural Frenchman, the 2CV was planned to launched at the Paris Motor Show in 1939, but the intervention of the Second World War meant that it did not appear in public until 1948. In 1955 the Traction Avant was replaced by the celebrated DS with its hydro-pneumatic self-levelling suspension system.

Most of Citroën’s historic factories have been demolished but the name of the founder of the company is commemorated by the Parc André Citroën, opened in 1992, alongside the River Seine on the site of the company’s first large works.