It’s easy to forget how revolutionary the Citroën Traction-Avant was when it was first launched. As impressive is that fact it was still ahead of the game when production ceased in 1957.
You sit behind an enormous steering wheel. The engine (1911cc at least) is pretty responsive for the era and motorway speeds are possible, if noisy. The gearbox is a touch agricultural, and controlled by a handle that sort of flops out of the dashboard. It’s easy enough to get used to and once in top, there’s little reason to change down again.
It’s the handling of this stylish machine that really surprises though. The steering is wonderfully direct and accurate, but is heavy, even on the ‘Light’ models. The brakes are ok for their age, but need some respect. You need to bear this in mind because it’s very easy to push on a bit. The soft ride just adds to the pleasure.
Sluggish, antiquated and skittish – none of these things characterise the Traction Avant. Despite its ‘30s design, the road behaviour of the front-wheel drive Citroëns belies their years. With a wheel at each corner, a relatively low centre of gravity, and with the front wheels doing the pulling, these cars feel sure-footed enough to be thrown into corners with drama.
Despite the curved dashboard-mounted gearlever, navigating the three-speed gearbox is an easy affair. Positive rack-and-pinion steering ensure that much of the vagueness associated with older steering boxes just isn’t there. Four-cylinder versions rely upon torque, rather than mind-blowing power, and low gearing is set up for a different age. However, this makes them all the easier to drive, and – especially with the biggest 1911cc powerplant – more than capable of clambering up any hill.
The six-cylinder models improved upon the performance of the four-cylinder cars, and it is these which make the lightest work of modern-day traffic. All models are strong performers, however, and although classic they are capable of everyday use.
Power (bhp@rpm) 56bhp@4250rpm
Torque (lb ft@rpm) 140lb ft@ 3900rpm
Top speed 107mph
Gearbox 3-speed manual
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
BODYWORK & CHASSIS
Rust is the main enemy of the monocoque. The first place to check is the sills, which are open-ended, encouraging corrosion. The rear suspension legs mount onto the rear of the inner sills – any rot here can cause dangerous rear axle movement. Beware of patch repairs. The ‘Jambonneaux,’ or front sill extensions forward of the bulkhead, should be inspected for bubbling or holes. Stress cracks on the floor at the back of the engine bay are simply a fact of life for Traction owners. However, ripples in the bulkhead above the side arms point to front-end accident damage.
Floor-pans are susceptible to rotting, which can be exacerbated by blocked sunroof drainage holes on Slough-built cars. The scuttle vents rot, allowing water in. Long-wheelbase cars flex much more than the short-wheelbase cars – dimples in the panels between the rear door and rear wheel are a sure sign of this.
Door gaps need to be even on all four doors – if this is not the case, it could be that the doors have dropped, or due to accident damage. Rusting roof gutters can force doors downwards. Bottom edges of doors and boot-lids can rot, as can the boot floor if drain holes become blocked.
The tail end of those elaborate, swooping front wings are mud traps, thanks to aluminium trim hiding rot. The rear wing stone-guards can also hide rust. Corrosion often takes hold in the seams between the bodywork and wings – watch out for bubbling paint and rust streaks.
Four-cylinder engines are sturdy, utilising wet-liner construction, although the oil must have been changed every 1000 miles to ensure longevity. Timing chain rattle is nothing to worry about, as no tensioner was fitted from new. Piston rings can fail on engines that have been laid up for a long time, so watch for smoke. The six-cylinder cars are also tough, but rattling while starting could be due to the starter ring gear working itself loose. Rattling while at idle is likely to be due to a loose crankshaft damper – this needs to be fixed before any damage is done. Cylinder heads are more prone to warping than those on the smaller engines.
Water pumps are mounted directly above the transmission. Any leaks can lead to water running into the bellhousing and seizing the clutch. Six-cylinder engines run hot, making an electric cooling fan a wise upgrade. A perceived juddering clutch could simply be due to a perished rear engine mount – rock the engine to check for play. Jumping out of gear or non-functioning synchromesh indicates internal gearbox wear. If the unit is noisy, particularly changing pitch on the overrun, then it could be a tooth having detached from the crownwheel – this can potentially do plenty of damage.
Clicking from the drive-shafts on full lock at lower speeds is an indication that they’re worn. Gripping the shafts and trying to twist them will test for wear.
Sumptous interior boasted soft fabric and acres of space
Today, the Traction Avant looks old-fashioned to the point of quaintness. However, when launched in 1934, it was a very different story. Lower, sleeker, and more aerodynamic than contemporary saloons, the new Citroën’s looks were groundbreaking, while the technology employed was out of this world.
The concept of front-wheel-drive had been explored by others, but never perfected. Likewise, the chassis-less monocoque had been seen before. However, this combination of cutting-edge ideas, and their execution, was incredible. André Citroën had good reason to be proud of his creation.
Typically for Citroën, there was a different model for every buyer. With as engines ranging from a 1.3-litre four-cylinder to a 2.8-litre six, you could also select the four-door Light 15 (the Légère), the wider and longer Big 15 (Normale), five or six-seater limousine, eight or nine-seater Familiale, Commerciale hatchback, roadster or fixed head coupé. If you’re looking for an intriguing, useable and thoroughly charming classic, the Traction Avants should be at the top of your list.
Over a 23-year production run, 759,123 Traction Avants were snapped up by eager buyers across Europe.
There was a good reason for this exceptional popularity – these front-wheel drive Citroëns are cracking machines. Proving that cutting-edge design really can work in the real world, any example from its sprawling range can still make an enjoyable and interesting classic choice.
Granted, this design does mean that there is added complexity over many of its contemporaries, but with a thriving club scene and many examples still on the road, you’ll be in good company if you buy carefully and wisely.
If you desire a classic with ‘30s style, but don’t want to sacrifice modern-day usability, the Traction Avant is the car for you.