When Robert Chica moved to Southern California from France in 1972, he brought everything he owned, and everything he owned was the clothes on his back and a 1955 Citroën Traction Avant 11CV.
No need for your French-English dictionary, the model name roughly translates into English as front-wheel drive, and while this modern innovation made previously limited appearances in the late ‘20s and early ‘30s with high-priced automakers Alvis in the United Kingdom and Cord stateside, Citroën was the first to bring FWD to a mass produced vehicle. Not only that, but the Traction Avant was first to feature a solid steel unibody construction–which is how most passenger cars are built today–and independent four-wheel suspension. To say this was an innovative car is an understatement.
During World War II, while the Nazis occupied France, updates to the Traction Avant came to a screeching halt. It remained virtually unchanged from when it fist appeared in 1933 until the mid-century-modern DS replaced it in 1955. With its bulbous, sweeping front fenders reminiscent of a vintage Rolls Royce Phantom II and bug-eyed headlamps similar to a Ford Model A, the Traction Avant looks more like Bonnie and Clyde’s honeymoon mobile than something a bell-bottom wearing Frenchman would drive in 1973. Put it side-by-side with say a ’55 Chrysler Imperial and it’s like black-and-white silent pictures versus 3-D Cinemascope. There were about 760,000 Traction Avants made before production ended in 1957. Depending on the year and condition, they go for between $14,000 and $40,000 on average. That’s quite a spread.
Turn over the engine, which still has a hole for the hand-crank in front, just in case you might need one, and it gurgles to life. The four-cylinder makes a most satisfying, low-rumble, let’s call it the sound of smoking a Gauloises cigarette in a smoky cafe on the Left Bank. Open the louvered, gullwing doors of the engine cowl, behind the signature Citroën chevron grille, and the purring engine gently rocks and sways on its hidden mounts, like a perfumed chanteuse wafting across her stage.
Everything on Chica’s car is original, from the Bakelite steering wheel to the velvet headliner. Even the spare oilcan tucked next to the engine is the same one that came with the car. “These go for over $200 now on eBay. Can you believe it?” Chica holds up the oilcan, then carefully puts the collector’s item back in its place.
The interior of the car is minimalist, simple. A few nobs and switches grace the dashboard. “This is for lights, starter, choke and the..” Chica looks at me for the word, and swipes his hand back and forth across the windshield, “Wipers,” he says, before I can answer. A generator operates all of these amenities except the final one. “This nob here,” he manually twists the black lacquer nob beneath the rearview mirror, “This starts the air conditioning.” I watch the bottom of the windshield angle out an inch or two away from the car’s frame and he laughs as fresh air rushes in underneath it. “It can get a bit noisy though,” Chica says, still chuckling.
In the much less traffic-clogged and far smoggier LA of the 1970s, daily driving a 15-year-old French car that looked like a 40-year-old French car was an unusual experience, Chica tells me, his English still thick with the rolling romance language of his birth. “People loved seeing this car. Children loved it. It brought a smile to people’s face, then and now.” We were riding in the Citroen as Chico told its story, and as we passed a new Ferrari California, the driver gave a thumbs up. Driving the Traction Avant is still an unusual experience, and people still love seeing it.
“It’s very reliable. No problems at all.” Chica’s 11CV originally produced 85 horsepower and 90 pound feet of torque. Who knows what the output is these days, but it chortled along unintimidated by the SUVs and luxury sedans cruising alongside with four times the pony rating.
The shifter sprouts vertically out of the dashboard and because there are no synchros in the gearbox, it needs to be double-clutched to maneuver from gear to gear. Once you get it into gear, it drives with sure-footedness and confidence. It’s an old man, but he’s still got swagger. Less charmingly, the steering also has swagger. Anticipate and pay attention.
Chica daily drove the Citroen until 1976. Now he takes it out at least once a month and brings it to local auto shows. “I don’t like to work on cars, but I like to drive them, and I love to drive this one especially.” Tres bien.