The Saga of Citroën

This is another piece in series about the war profiteers in the automobile industry.

The Limoenman family, André-Gustave Citroën and Pierre Michellin story

The story of Citroën car brand is a thrilling one to be told and it begins with André-Gustave Citroën at Fin de siècle, in early 1900’s.

André-Gustave Citroën

André-Gustave Citroën was born as a 5th child on 5th February 1878 into a Jewish family. His father was Levie Barend Citroën and mother Masza Amalia Citroën, Levie (a.k.a. Louis) was a diamond dealer and was sent to Warzaw by his wealthy family to take care of business expansion plans where he met Masza, his future wife. He married her and they were living in Warzaw, brining up a large family. In 1873 the Citroën family moved to Paris, where their last name got its final and globally recognizable form, Citroen was changed to Citroën. André’s father, Levie committed a suicide in 1884, so André and his elders were then brought up by their mother, who resumes trading in diamonds and fine pearls[i]. After this tragedy, the Citroën family moved to 62 La Fayette Street, Paris, where children received a totally French education, so that »they felt French citizens in their own right«[ii].

| At Wickedpedia they want you to believe that André’s grandfather was a greengrocer, which would explain the change from Limoenman to Citroën (Citroën), but I suggest both of André’s grandfathers were not resellers of fruits or lemons, but rather resellers of diamonds. If you look at this link at Geni, you can see that one of his grandfathers was Barend Baruch Limoenman – at the source is stated he was a goldsmith and retail jeweller, while the other was namely Joseph Meijer Rooseboom-Levie and was a watch-maker. Which directly refutes Wickedpedia’s story of Andre’s ancestry and name origin. |

André enrolled into imposing and prestigious Ecole Polytechnique to study for an Engineering degree. However, by the time he was finished with his education, the early academic excellence seemed to have been waning, not helped by his mother having died when he was only 20 and before he had completed his studies. He did obtain his Diploma in 1900 at the age of 22 but was well down the pass list.

André-Gustave Citroën in French Army 1900-1904

 Because of these results he decided to take the easy and secure step into the future by joining the French Army as an engineer officer, and blended into the military way of life for four years.

In view of his part-Polish origin Citroën had been visiting his relatives in Poland as a child, but it was during this army period that Citroën visited Poland again, now a technically mature engineer. Precisely when, where and how he first came into contact with wooden helical gears seems to differ in most Citroën biographies.

Some say he was introduced to them in Poland as a child, others that he had spent some time in Poland before his army career working with relatives conversant with helical gears, and yet others that he first saw the gears on one of his visits to Poland when on leave from the army.

It is however apparent that at some time during his first army period he became technically aware of wooden double helical gears being used in Poland for driving water-driven machinery.

The gears with double chevrons that reputedly were the basis of the Citroën logo.

He also became aware that double-helical gears ran quietly and were capable of transmitting considerable loads without damaging the wood they were made from. He was aware that the same wooden double helicals were successfully operating Lodz textile mills and could see the technical advantages if such gears could be made out of steel.

Precise accounts as to how he eventually got to designing steel gears also differ. Some biographies say that steel double helicals had already been made by his relatives in Glowno, some say that his brother-in-law had the patent which he sold to Citroën, and yet others say that Citroën purchased the rights to manufacture steel gears from a Russian company which was already making helical gears in Russia. The official Citroën Car Company version is that he purchased the patent rights from a man in Poland. In any event, by 1904 Citroën had left the army and had filed a patent for the double helical chevron gear to be made in steel[iii].

His first industrial adventure was a small gear cutting business called ‘Engrenages Citroën’ in Fauburg St Denis when he introduced the ‘logo’ for his company as two double helical ‘chevrons’. This emblem survived all his other subsequent activities and is still the internationally recognisable double chevron logo of Citroën cars.

Logo evolution

‘Engrenages Citroën’ became quite successful and Citroën was later joined in his venture by André Boas and Jacques Hinstin. A new company was formed in 1905 renamed ‘Hinstin Freres Citroën & Cie’ and moved to Essonnes (Orly). As the French automobile industry was very well advanced, the requirement for gears was high. In early 1900’s, the nascent automobile industry was booming: factories were created and disappeared, research was bubbling, and France was at the top of world car producers (4,800 vehicles per year, compared with 4,000 for the United States, 800 for Germany and 175 for England). Citroën began very quickly to comprehend the need to mass produce components in order to achieve low prices and fast deliveries. He therefore invested in latest up-to-date machinery and introduced flow control management processes. His gears found their way into most French cars and to such diverse avenues as the steering system for the ‘Titanic’ and to being evaluated for use by Rolls-Royce.

engrenages-citroenBy the time he was 27, which was about five years after he started ‘Engrenages Citroën, Andre Citroën was well know as a successful industrialist in the French automobile industry. The company was having a one million Franc turnover by 1910 and he had built up important connections with many of the French automobile manufacturers – with one, more so than the others. Although Citroën was known to the Societe Nouvelle des Automobiles Mors as a gear manufacturer, he was also known to them through the marriage of his brother to daughter of the President of the Mors board, a Monsieur Harbleisher. These contacts had earlier resulted in Citroën being awarded a contract to manufacture 500 engines for Sizaire Nurdin in a new factory on the Quai Grenelle.

Emile and Louis Mors had commenced manufacture of quality cars in 1895 and quickly established an enviable racing reputation having vanquished the reigning Panhards by 1899. Mors was a very innovative company and sales grew quickly fuelled by their continuing racing successes including wins in the Gordon Bennetts of 1904 and 1905. However by 1908, Mors brothers were in trouble, the Depression had set in in France and sales of Mors cars, which were generally large and expensive, dropped dramatically. Mors withdrew from racing and even though the demand for Mors cars was still there, production dropped to a low of 10 cars a month.

In view of Andre Citroën’s reputation for technical expertise in mass production, Mors President Harbleisher invited Citroën to join Mors and try to turn the company around. Citroën took leave of absence from his gear business and brought with him Georges Haardt from the gear factory. The Citroën style of management and production quickly began to improve Mors’ performance and he succeeded in reaching production of 2000 cars by the end of 1909. By 1913 the production was up to a level of 100 cars per month and the Mors future seemed assured.

In the meantime Citroën’s gear business was doing well in his absence and, as his work at Mors was done, he returned to running his own company. During the previous year, while still at Mors, he had been to the USA and had inspected the Ford River Rouge plant in Detroit. Unlike Mors where various departments were on different floors, the Ford plant was all on one level with plenty of space and light. This convinced him even more on the benefits of fluid mass production and he decided to expand production at his gear factory even more. To finance the expansion he went public in floating ‘Societe des Engrenages A. Citroën’.

In the following year, 1914, the war began and Andre Citroën, who was a captain in the Army Reserves, returned to the Army as a member of an artillery regiment with 75 mm field guns. Early on, the regiment got a pounding to which they could not respond due to a shortage of ammunition. Citroën immediately spotted that here was a requirement and an opportunity to mass produce shells in the same way as he had done with gears. He quickly prepared a business plan which he submitted via an old school friend Louis Loucheur, to the Minister for Armaments Albert Thomas, who rapidly passed it on to the Army’s Chief of Artillery, General Baquet. The plan was accepted immediately.

Quai de Javel construction site in 1915

The Ministry of Armaments swiftly supplied Citroën with funds to purchase thirty acres of ground on the Quai de Javel in Paris on which in 1915 was rapidly constructed a massive lightweight factory complex. The Ministry funds also covered the purchase all the requisite new machinery from North America needed to produce 20,000 shells per day. The Quai de Javel complex was massive, impressive, containing everything from production lines to shops, ‘cantine electrique’, medical and dental clinics, toilets, cloakrooms and all other facilities for employing more than 12,000 workers.

Inside Quai de Javel factory in 1919

Citroën was keen on worker benefits which not only made him popular but also ensured stable production. As the war was well under way and men were in trenches, the works were staffed mainly by women, ‘munitionettes’, and Citroën paid special attention to a support system for women covering pregnancy, birth, and paid leave while nursing. By the height of the war, the Quay de Javel factory was turning out more than 35,000 shells every day, and, in order to integrate national ammunition production, other ammunition factories producing a further 20,000 shells per day were placed under Citroën’s control; producing 55,000 shells per day. It was during this period that Citroën’s welfare interests were further nationally recognised in the introduction of the concept of food rationing cards.[iv]

What was Mors producing during the war beside ammunition?

Mors 4×2 model of 1914
Citroën, Renault and Peugeot armored vehicles of Belgian army in 1914

Sure, why leave the profitable business of war to others.

Mors-Minerva armored vehicle in 1914

As the war drew to a close and the requirement for munitions started to decline, Citroën began to look at other ways of utilizing a fully equipped precision manufacturing plant with enormous production capacity. While it was probably inevitable that Andre Citroën would remain within the automobile industry, he was not looking at the automobile as a piece of artistic design nor a suitable means of transport, but as a product with a mass market potential. Had there been some other item which had more marketing potential and which could have been built at his factory, then the Citroën Car might never have existed.

Henry Ford and Andre Citroën in 1912

As it was, the diminishing time frame, his previous experience at Mors and meeting with Henry Ford in 1912 led him in the direction of investigating manufacture of automobiles. Citroën was not a designer nor knew much about the workings of a car. For this he would need others. His was to provide the concept, the production and the marketing.

It was as early as 1917 that Andre Citroën put out feelers as to who could provide the designs for his car. The first to offer their services were Artauld and Dufresne, who were working for Panhard and who provided a design for a four-cylinder 3-litre 16hp car. Citroën built three prototypes which underwent extensive testing. It seems however that he was not convinced by the size of the car, anticipating that mass production would be better suited to a smaller more economical vehicle which would appeal to the increasingly wealthy middle class. The prototypes were sold to Gabriel Voisin[v] who developed them further as his own.

One car which seemed to fulfill Citroën’s requirements had been the pre-war small four-cylinder Le Zèbre which had been designed by an army officer Citroën had got to know in the Army Technical Service, Jules Salomon. Salomon’s long-term friendship with financier Jacques Bizet (son of the composer of “Carmen”, namely Georges Bizet, registered at birth as Alexandre César Léopold Bizet) built up during their cooperation at George Richard, later Unic, was becoming strained. Citroën persuaded Salomon to leave Le Zèbre and instructed his works manager Georges Haardt to commence reorganizing the works for the production of automobiles.

Jules Salomon produced a design based round a simple four-seater 1327cc side-valve four-cylinder car which Citroën liked. Initially 30 prototypes were built. The car weighed only 990 pounds, was very economical to run at 35 miles per gallon, and had a top speed of 40 mph. The car was to be called the Type A and was to be provided as standard with an electric starter, electric lighting, a spare wheel and a soft top. As these items were normally optional extras, the price at 7,950 FF made the car far cheaper than any of the competition. Profitability of the venture was to depend on economies of scale, but for a while the price went up rather than down.

Within four months following the end of the war the Quay de Javel factory had been converted to automobile manufacture and a new name came into existence, ‘S.A. Andre Citroën’. The Type A was put into production on the 28th of May 1919 and was launched in April.

Citroen Type-A, 1919-1924

A massive advertising campaign had preceded it with full page advertisements in newspapers and magazines announcing the launch of ‘Europe’s first mass production’ car. Orders for 16,000 cars were reported as having been received within a fortnight and the break-even target of 30,000 was reported as having been reached before any car left the plant, a powerful use of publicity.

Citroen Eiffel tower ad.jpgcitroen-eiffel-tower-adThe sales drive was backed with the introduction of over 1,000 Citroën dealers throughout France fully conversant with the model being launched and backed with published repair costs and stocks of spare parts. Owners had access to maintenance manuals and detailed spare parts catalogues. Buyers were barraged with posters and advertisements including eventually the lighting up of the Eiffel Tower with an enormous  sign spelling out the name Citroën. citroen-ad

All these publications resulted in Citroën forming his own publishing company named ‘André Citroën Editions’. Other specialist offshoots followed including the first finance company in France specifically to finance purchase of automobiles, and a company specifically set up to provide motor insurance. In addition Citroën commenced manufacture of model cars mainly for publicity but this too turned into an industry manufacturing over 3 million toy cars.

Initially the only body available for the Model A was the open tourer torpedo, but five body styles followed. Production originally planned as 100 cars per day, grew from an initial 30 cars per day in 1919 and reached the target of to 100 by the beginning of 1920. By 1921 the production was up to 20,000, which was more than Peugeot and Renault put together. A start had also been made in production of flatbed commercial vehicles. With this many cars behind him, Citroën felt that the basic Model A was ready for an upgrade and put the Model B into development.

Model B appeared in June 1921 being very similar in concept to the Model A which had by then reached the production figure of 25,000. Called the Model B2, it was provided with a 10CV 1450cc engine which made it marginally faster and like its predecessor it was fully equipped. The Model A continued in production in small numbers as the ‘Sport’ until December 1921. By 1922 the factory was producing over 300 Model B’s a day and reached some 500 cars a day before the production run ended in 1927.

Citroen Model B, 1921

In the meantime an interesting sideways development was taking place involving Adolphe Kégresse who had earlier instigated and operated the Imperial Garage for Czar Nicholas II of Russia between 1909 and 1917. Kegresse had developed a system of half-tracks which could be fitted to normal cars to make them suitable for off road and military use. He teamed up with Citroën and together with Jacques Hinstin (of ‘Hinstin Freres Citroën & Cie’) developed a system that was fitted to Model A and Model B cars.

To publicise the venture some very dramatic trans-continental half-track expeditions followed. Perhaps the best known was the 1922 Trans-Sahara Expedition to Timbuktu but other ventures included the 1924 ‘La Croisiere Noire’ crossing of Africa from north to south, and 1931 ‘La Croisiere Jaune’ commencing at Beirut in Lebanon and following Marco Polo’s route along the Silk Road to Beijing in China. A further less well known expedition involved the Subarctic crossing of British Columbia by Bedaux in 1934.

Costs for developing the model Traction Avant, which would ironically go on to improve the sales for the company, led to bankruptcy in 1934 when one of its creditors, a steering wheel supplier, applied to the court to enforce payment of a debt (Andre Citroën died in Paris, France, of stomach cancer in 1935 and was interred in the Cimetière du Montparnasse, the funeral being led by the Chief Rabbi of Paris). Citroën Car Company was taken over by the main creditor Michelin, who had provided tires for the cars. Pierre Michelin was the younger of his father’s two recorded sons.

He only became a director of the family »Michelin« company after 1932 following the death in a flying accident of his elder brother, Étienne Michelin, and was sent to Citroën car company in 1935. André Citroën was more an expansionist than an accountant. In reality, Citroën has been experiencing financial problems since company’s inception. The profits acquired during the production of ammunition were not sufficient to cover the investments, 90% of the gains having been spent in taxes. The sale of the first cars has helped alleviate the financial situation of Citroën for a while, but the company’s incessant and rapid growth generates numerous expenditures that are depleting its financial resources.[vi]

In May 1934, a report published by the Banque de France indicated that Citroën had lost 200 million francs [38]. The banks lose confidence, stop following him in his chronic overindebtedness and entrust Michelin Michelin Group [N 8], the management of Citroen with the very difficult mission to avoid bankruptcy.

As Citroën’s supplier of tyres it was Michelin that was that company’s largest creditor. In January 1935 André Citroën, already suffering from the cancer that would kill him a few months later, offered (?)[vii] Michelin options to acquire a large block of voting shares in the business as additional security for the monies owed for tyres. With his father otherwise preoccupied, Pierre Michelin jumped at the opportunity, and by the end of January 1935 Michelin controlled more than 50% of the voting capital in Citroën. Pierre Michelin became president of Citroën in July 1935 when André Citroën died, but by that time he was already running the company, cutting back on wasteful management practices and applying the type of detailed control already in place at the main Michelin plant in Clermont-Ferrand.[viii]

By the 1941 and eruption of WWII, Citroen factory was producing vehicles for the Nazi Germany, with assistance of provisional government. According to one source, Citroen has produced many booty cars, trucks and half-trucks (Citroën Kégresse P14, P17, P19) and many were captured and used by the Germans. The Citroën-Kégresse P19 = Ci380(f) can for example be found in the Schnelle Brigade West. Many other vehicles were produced for the Germans between 1941 and 1944 like for example:

– 3,700 type-23 trucks[ix]

Citroen type 23 in German Army’s colors

– 6,000 type-32U trucks

How absurd is to manufacture trucks as a citizen of France, that are used on both sides of WWII?

– 15,300 type 45 trucks (the majority of the trucks of Schnelle Brigade West)

Citroen 45U-1

But Pierre Michelin didn’t have the chance to enjoy his success as a general manager of Citroën, as quoted from Wickedpedia:

»On 29th December 1937, while driving his Citroën Traction near Montargis on the main road to the south, Pierre was involved in a fatal collision. The other car involved was a Peugeot, driven by Louis Lagorgette, the principal private secretary of the politician Paul Faure. Lagorgette, his wife and his son all died at the scene of the accident. Pierre Michelin died at the hospital in Montargis the next day, soon after undergoing an operation for the amputation of his right leg.«

Bad karma is sometimes a hard burden to bear, I guess.

As is further written at the same source:

»Pierre-Jules Boulanger was left to run Citroën without his friend, something he accomplished with flair and success for the next thirteen years. A sad parallel came in 1950 when Boulanger himself died at Broût-Vernet, Allier, also in a car crash in a Citroën Traction Avant, on Sunday, 12th November 1950, while on the main road between Clermont-Ferrand (the home of Michelin) and Paris.«

My goodness, it is actually quite deadly to be the general manager of Citroën.

To bring my long and curved Citroën saga to an end, as we are told, in 1976, to avoid a second bankruptcy, at the government’s request, Peugeot acquired 90% of the Citroën capital from Michelin and to date became the PSA Peugeot Citroën group, a company with a board of directors and a supervisory board, owned and controlled by Peugeot family.

I will look into Peugeots in the next post on war profiteers, can hardly wait to find some time for it.

[i] Source is here




[v] Gabriel V. Voisin was an early aviation pioneer, turned into a automobile producer, citing the trauma of the military use of his more advanced airplanes (the Voisin III) during the war in addition to the then embryonic demand for civilian aircraft. The Voisin III was built in large numbers (about 1,000[16]) between 1914 and 1916 and sold not only to the French air services but also to other allies, including Russia. The Type VIII (about 1,100 built) and Type X (about 900 built) were delivered in 1917 and 1918. Those last to appear Voisin military aircraft were almost identical in appearance to the Voisin III, although they were heavier and featured twice as powerful Peugeot and Renault engines. Found here.

[vi] Source here.

[vii] Cited from here: “Due to the crisis in Europe at the time, conflicts between management and workers arise as elsewhere. André Citroën, as he has done before, intervenes personally, explains and negotiates. In 1933, he was the first to face tripartite discussions between employers, workers and trade unions. The six-week conflict in 1933 and the complete reconstruction of the Quai de Javel factory are compounded by financial difficulties. André Citroën then invested a lot of energy, physical and moral, to push back the dates of his claims, which enormously exhausted him.

Despite the proposals made by Citroën and the Banque de France, the banks refused to compromise. Citroën then solicits Pierre-Étienne Flandin, president of the Council, but the latter refuses any intervention of the State. On December 21, 1934, Citroën went into judicial liquidation. The government proposes to the main creditor Michelin to take back the brand and save the 250,000 jobs, to calm 1,500 creditors and thousands of small carriers. “


[ix] According to Wickedpedia entry found here: “One major customer was the French military, who ordered large quantities of Type 23s after the declaration of World War II. At the time of the German invasion, more than 12,000 Type 23 had been delivered in less than ten months.[1] About 6000 Citroën U23 were pressed into German service after the French defeat of June 1940.[2]

Citroen Eiffel tower ad.jpg


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