Rarely has a brand remained as imbued with the spirit of its founder as Citroën, even though the brand has had many owners. Even today, a Citroën is defined as a car that is accessible, daring and different, which makes every car enthusiast pay special attention to the brand's models. A look back at the history of a visionary who embodies a certain idea of France.
André Citroën was born on 5 February 1878, 146 years ago. He was the last of five children in a Dutch family whose father, Lévi, was a diamond merchant. At the age of 6, he lost his father and chose two surrogate fathers: Jules Verne and Gustave Eiffel, whose tower under construction fascinated him.
Admitted to the École Polytechnique in 1898 after a remarkable spell at the Lycée Concordet, where he was a very good student, André Citroën proved to be a good friend, loved to make people laugh and soon became popular. In 1900, at the age of 22, André Citroën travelled to Poland, where he discovered a machine for making gears with chevron teeth. His particular genius was to combine open-mindedness with the ability to assimilate quickly in order to understand the merits of such an invention. He bought the rights and, on his return to Paris, set up a small workshop that quickly became a factory producing huge gears that he sold to car manufacturers, including Mors. It was with the latter that these talents allowed him to turn the company around, going from 120 cars a year to 1,200 in just ten years. In 1903, André Citroën visited the United States and met Henry Ford, with whom he shared the vision of making the automobile so accessible that even his workers could afford it. He also discovered mass production based on Taylorism, which he implemented when he won a contract with the French Army to produce tanks shells, which he managed to manufacture at a rate of 10,000 shells per day. In 1914, this quickly increased to 20,000 to 50,000 shells per day, for a total production of 24 million shells, which he sold at half the price of other manufacturers' shells.
The Citroën adventure
Citroën's entry into the automobile industry in 1917 was based on a maxim of his own devising: "The automobile will be popular or it will not be! As soon as the war ended, he set up his factory on the Quai de Javel to mass-produce a simple, robust and modern car, delivered complete with five tyres, lighting and electric starting, ready to roll. This first car would be produced at a rate of one hundred a day and sold at a third of the price of the competition. On arrival, only thirty cars a day would be produced and the price would have to be raised quickly, but it would remain competitive until 1924, when 250 cars a day would roll off the assembly lines. The competition, which had been laughing, was no longer laughing.
This was the start of a crazy fifteen-year epic, punctuated by the launch of ever more innovative models, during which Citroën would multiply its new products, from the all-steel body of the B14, to the floating engine of the C4 and C6, to the Rosalie, which would break numerous world records, including the famous 300,000 km non-stop.
These crazy years for Citroën were also the years of extraordinary adventures, with the Eiffel Tower being lit up for years with Citroën letters, the same letters that we find inscribed in the Paris sky by an aeroplane on the opening day of the Paris Show, the arrival of Charles Lindbergh at the Quai de Javel or the three journeys that sent Citroën half-tracks on the roads of Africa or Beijing to demonstrate the reliability of the cars and open up new roads.
This fierce will to innovate, to lead the way, brought Citroën great success and made it the leading car manufacturer in Europe. But also great difficulties, in particular heavy financial losses, which André Citroën could not overcome. To get out of this situation, he decided to launch a car so innovative that it would keep the public in suspense not for a year or three, but for five or even ten years. It was the Traction Avant that succeeded in the incredible mission of saving the brand that had been successful for 23 years, much more than André Citroën had expected. However, he did not live to see this success, for on 3 July 1935, after seeing his company taken over by Michelin, he died of stomach cancer, which he had only slowly begun to treat. The next day, in the hall of the Javel factory, the coffin of this man who knew how to grasp and master the innovative trends of his century and create a company with global reach, was mourned by countless people.
Innovation everywhere, all the time
Born in 1878, André Citroën came from a Dutch family that had arrived in France a few years earlier in 1873. In France, he received a high level of education, fought for the country like his brothers and helped to arm France by producing artillery shells.
Through the extraordinary success of his brand, André Citroën contributed to the industrialisation of France, ushered in the era of the modern automobile and changed the lifestyle of his contemporaries. André Citroën was totally devoted to his business, he owned nothing except his factories, his apartment was rented, as was his holiday villa in Deauville. All that mattered was his family, he took his children to play in the factories on Sundays and his only distractions were music and the cinema.
André Citroën was not only a visionary in the field of automobiles, he also revolutionised communication and marketing and brought many other innovations to France, such as consumer credit in 1920, a taxi company with 5,000 decorated taxis of the double chevron type in 1924, he was responsible for the organisation of the French Pavilion by the government in 1929 or even the illumination of the main monuments of Paris (Arc de Triomphe, Place de la Concorde, Madeleine and the Chamber of Deputies) in the same year, without forgetting the creation of the first automobile insurance company in 1932.
But André Citroën was also a feminist before his time. From 1915, when women made up the majority of his workforce, André Citroën set up a crèche, a nursery, an infirmary and showers, and developed an avant-garde social policy that included maternity, convalescence and breast-feeding allowances. After the war was won, women remained important to André Citroën, who did not hesitate to shock the conservatives of the 1930s with his advertisement entitled "The modern woman only drives a Citroën", in a society where women did not have the same rights as men. He repeated the operation with an ad for the Rosalie, which he presented as "The Parisian's favourite car", and many women were featured in his ads.
On this special day of his birth, I thought it would be useful to look back on the impressive career of André Citroën, which went far beyond the brand, he was also at the forefront of society and brought fame to France. Louis Renault said: "André Citroën is good for us, he keeps us from falling asleep", almost 90 years after his death, his spirit is still very much alive and even if Citroën is now part of the Stellantis group, it is enough to see a C4 or a C5 X to understand that audacity remains relevant in the range. The same audacity that will lead Citroën to offer the ë-C3 at an unbeatable price, making the electric car accessible to everyone? like a certain André in his time.
Many thanks to Henri-Jacques Citroën for the information on his grandfather André Citroën. You can find Henri-Jacques Citroën's shares, in particular on LinkedIn, by clicking on the following link : https://www.linkedin.com/in/henri-j-citro%C3%ABn-9b548b27/
Finally, Henri-Jacques Citroën is trying to get André Citroën admitted to the Pantheon, the first industrialist to enter this temple dedicated to the great men and women of the nation. To this end, there is a petition online that you can sign : https://www.change.org/p/andr%C3%A9-citro%C3%ABn-au-panth%C3%A9on