André-Gustave Citroën

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André-Gustave Citroën

French automobile manufacturer André-Gustave Citroën (1878-1935) brought the cost-and time-saving methods of mass-production to the European automotive industry. His Type A car, introduced in 1919, became the European version of Henry Ford's Model T, bringing the automobile within the grasp of the average consumer. His TA 7 was another long-running success, becoming the first popular car to feature front-wheel drive.

André-Gustave Citroën revolutionized the French automobile industry in the early 1900s with his creation of mass-produced vehicles that were affordable to the average consumer. His cars were known for their innovation designs and features that focused on the comfort and practical needs of the driver, rather than placing a priority on style. The durability of Citroën's vehicles was highlighted in the 1920s with a series of strenuous long-distance scientific expeditions over the continents of Africa and Asia that used specially adapted caterpillar tractors supplied by the manufacturer. Although he eventually lost control of his business in 1935, Citroën is remembered for his daring engineering and business ideas that brought Europe into the technological and consumer age. David Owen, in an Automobile Quarterly article, summed up the ongoing influence of Citroën in the company he founded and throughout the automotive industry: "His ideas, attitudes and influences have lived on through successive take-overs and mergers [in his Citroën automobile company] in such an extraordinary way that even now Citroën cars owe far more to him than those of most other firms have inherited from their original creators."

Citroën was born on February 5, 1878, in Paris, France. He was the fifth child of a Jewish family originating in Amsterdam that had accumulated a substantial fortune in the diamond trade. As a young child, however, his home was filled with financial and personal tragedy. His parents were the victims of an investment scam which claimed most of their money. When the boy was six, he lost both parents with his mother's death and father's suicide. He was subsequently placed in the Lycé Concordat at age seven and then distinguished himself as a top student at the Lycée Louis le Grand, graduating in 1894. His excellent grades won him entrance to the highly-regarded école Polytechnique. But there his interest in academics lagged. When he left the school in 1900 he did not follow his more successful classmates into the professional sphere but joined the French Army as an engineer officer.

Founded Thriving Gear Company

During a leave from the military, Citroën went to visit some relatives in the textile center of Ludz, Poland. It was there that he seized upon the idea for his first engineering success. He observed the wooden gear drives used in the cotton mills and developed an improved design. After returning to duty in Paris, he obtained a patent for a steel gear using a herringbone, or V-shaped, pattern that provided increased strength. In 1904, he started up a small workshop to produce the gears with two friends. The business grew quickly, and by 1910 it had annual sales of one million francs. By 1913, the company had tripled its sales and taken on the name of Société Anonyme des Engrenages Citroën. His first venture had at that point produced more than 500 gears, including the steering gear for the famed ocean-liner the Titanic. To accommodate the expanding company, a new factory was procured in Paris on the Quai Grenelle.

Citroën's business had attracted the attention of other engineers and manufacturers impressed with his mass-production techniques. Around 1909, he was hired as a consultant by Emile and Louis Mors, brothers who owned a prominent automobile company known for its racing vehicles. The Mors wanted to find a way to bring their quality designs to a wider clientele and increase sales by reducing costs and improving marketing techniques. Under Citroën's guidance, sales at Mors improved from 10 cars a month in 1909 to 100 a month by 1914. The engineer was not particularly drawn to the automobile industry personally. But after a fact-finding trip to the American auto plants of Henry Ford in 1912, he began to see the improvements that could be made to the French auto industry using assembly-line techniques.

Citroën's musings on automobile production were interrupted by the beginning of World War I in 1914. He was drafted to serve in the French artillery, where he saw that the French were at a severe disadvantage due to their limited supply of ammunition. He drafted a proposal to build a factory that could efficiently mass-produce artillery shells. The idea was immediately accepted by the French government, which provided him with the resources to establish a munitions factory on the Quai de Javel in Paris. Not only did Citroën successfully create a system for producing tens of thousands of shells a day, he was also instrumental in improving processes at all factories participating in the war effort. His other wartime activities included securing a steady supply of coal for factories and power plants as well as organizing civilian food distribution through the use of ration cards.

Produced Affordable Cars for Europeans

When the war ended, the factory at Quai de Javel was left in Citroën's hands. The engineer decided to use the site to launch his plan for producing a practical, affordable car. His goal was to obtain the kind of success that Henry Ford had had in the United States by changing the image of the automobile from an exotic toy of the rich to a pragmatic item within the financial reach of the working class. His Type A automobile began production in 1919. This initial model featured an efficient four-cylinder engine, an electric starter and lights, and a top speed of 40 miles per hour. Citroën's cars were completely assembled when they left the factory, an innovative development in Europe, where autos had previously required individual assembly in a specialty workshop. Word of the low-cost Type A generated consumer excitement even before the first public demonstration of the vehicle, and thousands of orders began to pour in. 2,000 cars were produced in the first year of business; that number increased to 8,000 in 1920, making Citroën the leading manufacturer of automobiles in Europe.

The Type A was soon being offered in a number of styles and sizes to meet consumer needs, including the Coupé, Limousine, City Coupé, Torpedo, and a delivery van. In 1922 a new model, the 5CV Type C, was introduced as sporty option for younger buyers. Sales continued to grow thanks to this wide variety of products as well as Citroën's uncanny marketing instinct. He gained the confidence of buyers by becoming the first company to offer test drives. By opening his own insurance company that offered low rates to Citroën owners, he was able to overcome the financial concerns of many people. He also was a talented promoter who staged exciting stunts and tests of his products to demonstrate their quality. He sent one car over a cliff and photographed the wreck to show how a collision affected it. Another automobile was burdened with a ten-ton weight in a show of strength. His most elaborate schemes were a series of long-distance scientific journeys over difficult terrain featuring specially adapted Citroën vehicles. In December of 1922, a group of Citroën-built caterpillar tractors began the first crossing of the 2,000 mile wide Sahara Desert by motorized vehicles, completing the trip in 20 days. Eight similar tractors undertook a journey across the African continent in 1924, beginning in Algeria and passing through Central Africa before finally reaching Cape Town, Mozambique, and Madagascar. During the nine-month trip, which covered 15,000 miles, scientists and technical crews took enormous amounts of film footage and photographs of the little-known Central African regions. Another massive trek left Beirut in 1931 for a trans-Asian drive that was to end in Beijing and included the crossing of the Himalayan mountain range.

Forced to Hand Over Business

Throughout his years of success, Citroën continued to push for innovations in his cars and production methods. His passion for new ideas led him to invest huge sums in buying out patents and developing new concepts. He also drained the company of funds with his excessive gambling habits. By the 1930s, his creditors had becoming increasingly uneasy about his financial status. Citroën hoped to quell their fears and boost the lagging sales of the Depression-era years with the introduction of his revolutionary passenger car, the Traction Avant, or TA 7. The Citroën TA 7 was the first successful car to feature front-wheel drive; it also incorporated such concepts as hydraulic brakes and an overhead valve engine. In March of 1934, Citroën arranged a demonstration of his new model to encourage financiers to support the company. During the event, the prototype's transmission fell apart, dashing all confidence in Citroën's ability to keep his company afloat.

His creditors called upon the French government to declare Citroën bankrupt and take control of the company. In 1935, the Michelin Tire Company—one of Citroën's creditors—assumed the task of running the auto company. Forced into retirement, Citroën grew despondent at the loss of his business. He became ill within a few months, and apparently having lost the will to live, he died in Paris on July 3, 1935. He never witnessed the astounding success of the TA 7, which became an incredibly popular vehicle that remained in production for more than 20 years. Through the years, the Citroën company has undergone a number of transformations, including a merger with the Peugot car company in 1974. But the spirit of its founder has accompanied the evolution of the company, which maintains a desire to produce innovative styles designed to serve the practical needs of the consumer.

Further Reading

See also Baldwin, Nick, The World Guide to Auto Manufacturers, Facts on File, 1987; Dumont, Pierre, Citroën, the Great Marque of France, translated by Tom Ellaway, Interante, 1976; LeFevre, Georges, An Eastern Odyssey, translated by E. D. Swinton, Little, Brown, 1935; and Owen, David, "The Legacy of André Citroën," Automobile Quarterly, second quarter, 1975. □