Nestled between the appropriately named Boulevard Andre Citroen and the sprawling 170-acre Aulnay-sous-Bois site, where 8.5 million vehicles rolled off a busy production line, stands a rather anonymous looking building. Within the grey walls sit more than 400 old Citroens, preserved for future generations and maintained by a man in blue overalls.
His name is Yannick Billy and the cars form part of the Conservatoire Citroen: the largest collection of Citroens in the world. For a company with such a proud history, Citroen is reluctant to throw open its doors to the general public. Which only served to make our visit to the house of Citroen all the more special.
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Conservatoire Citroen isn’t open to the public, so it cannot be classed as a museum. Instead, entry is via invitation only: not even a sheik armed with two million bucks could rock up and demand entry, said the Citroen UK press man, perhaps flippantly. Indeed, when we turned up at the agreed time, the reception area was cloaked in darkness and nobody was answering the door.
We wandered around to the back door, where we were greeted by Yannick Billy, a long-standing member of the Citroen Heritage team. Our lack of French was matched by Yannick’s lack of English, but eventually we were guided through the workshop – enriched by an intoxicating and evocative blend of oil and petrol – and to the doors to the collection.
A feast for the eyes
As a Citroen fan it’s almost impossible not to be initially overwhelmed by the spectacle of 400 Citroens in one very large room. But even a non-car person would be amazed by the sheer scale of the place. Citroen’s complete history is here, from the Type A to the latest production models and concept cars.
We were given until noon before we’d be shown the door and told to leave. A little over three hours to immerse ourselves in the history of the world’s most innovative and eccentric car brand. So where do you start?
Top gear wheels
You start, much like Andre Citroen, with the Type A. Citroen’s first vehicle was launched in 1919, but the company’s roots date back to 1905, with the creation of Citroen et Cie. Back then, the company manufactured double-helical gear wheels with V-shaped teeth, the design of which inspired the famous Citroen logo.
Andre Citroen had first seen gear wheels such as these during a visit to Poland in 1900, and he returned to Paris where he took out a patent for their design. A factory was built to house the production facilities and soon his gear wheels were being used across the world. Famously, his wheels formed part of the steering system in the Titanic.
In 1912, Andre Citroen went to America where he met Henry Ford and marveled at the production facilities used to build the Model T. He returned to Paris with the aim of building a car of his own, but his plans were put on hold by the outbreak of the First World War.
But from adversity came an opportunity. As an officer, Andre Citroen witnessed his army running out of shells, and he approached the government with plans to mass produce them. He won the contract and by the end of the war he had built 23 million shells from a factory in Paris.
Citroen Type A
With the experience gained through the production of gear wheels and shells, not to mention the capital and production facilities, Andre Citroen was well-equipped to build his first motor car. The Type A arrived in 1919 and was, quite simply, a revelation.
Not only was it Citroen’s first car, but it was also the first mass-produced European vehicle. For the first time, motorists could buy a car ‘ready for the road’. Little wonder, then, that Citroen managed to shift 12,000 Type As within the first two years.
Andre Citroen: industrialist and marketeer
But Andre Citroen was more than simply an ace industrialist. He knew the power of promotion, which is why his name was displayed on the Eiffel Tower at night. Once a month he took out a full page advertisement on the back of France’s biggest newspaper, while aircraft were sent into the skies to write the Citroen name in smoke.
In 1926, Citroen opened a new showroom in London’s Piccadilly, reported to be the grandest and most expensive ever built. The interior was clad in marble and the place felt more like a cathedral than a car showroom.
The icons: Citroen Traction Avant
In 1934, Citroen launched the Traction Avant, widely considered to be the godfather of the modern motor car. Three years earlier, Andre Citroen had travelled to the US to visit the Budd Corporation in Philadelphia, where he was shown a front-wheel-drive car featuring a monocoque bodyshell.
He knew that it would be possible to build a shell capable of holding the engine, transmission and suspension together, freeing up space and reducing weight. The Traction Avant was the first mass-produced front-wheel-drive car and it changed automotive production forever. But the cost of development crippled the organisation and Citroen was declared bankrupt in 1934. Seven months later, Andre Citroen died, having lost his health, company and the rights to his name. Michelin Tyres took the reins, with the Traction Avant helping to return the company to profitability.
The icons: Citroen 2CV
In 1935, Citroen started working on the idea of a ‘people’s car’, the so-called TPV, as it was then known. The idea was simple: to create a basic French car for the masses, with Citroen’s chairman, Pierre-Jules Boulanger, describing the design as “a deck-chair under an umbrella”.
Prototypes were built in 1939 and then hidden away during the Second World War, with the French keen for the Nazis not to discover their revolutionary little car. It would arrive at the 1948 Paris Motor Show, with production continuing until 1990, by which time more than 30 different versions had been built.
The icons: Citroen DS
The one other Citroen worthy of the icon tag is the DS. The ‘Goddess’ was unveiled at the 1955 Paris Motor Show and such was the response, 12,000 orders were taken on the first day of the show.
It was the first production car to be equipped with front disc brakes and featured revolutionary hydropneumatic suspension. The car pictured is a DS 21 Pallas, showcasing the restyled front end complete with innovative directional headlights.
The legends: Citroen SM
Take the technology found in the Citroen DS, add a Maserati V6 engine and house them in a streamlined body and this is the result: the delightful Citroen SM.
On the right is an original press car from 1970, built at the start of production. On the left is a later, fuel-injected model. Production was short-lived, partly because of the fuel crisis, partly because of reliability issues, and most certainly as a result of Peugeot’s takeover of Citroen in 1974.
The legends: Citroen GS
Imagine being at the Paris Motor Show in 1970. Not only was the achingly beautiful SM first shown to the public, but Citroen also unveiled the brilliant GS. A year later, the GS scooped the European Car of the Year award, leaving the Volkswagen K70 and Citroen SM to finish second and third, respectively. Oh, what a time to be alive.
The GS was designed to slot between the Ami 8 and the DS in the Citroen range, delivering hydropneumatic technology to the everyman. The air-cooled flat-four engine gave it an evocative soundtrack, but a hatchback wouldn’t arrive until 1979, with the launch of the GSA.
The legends: Citroen CX
The CX had the unenviable task of following the iconic DS, but while it wasn’t a game-changer like its predecessor, it certainly captured the true spirit of Citroen. Unveiled at the 1974 Paris Motor Show, the CX featured a futuristic and achingly cool dashboard, hydropneumatic suspension and a concave rear window.
A facelift was introduced in 1985, as showcased by this stunning GTI of 1989. Earlier, in 1975, the last Citroen DS had rolled off the production line: vehicle number 1,330,755.
The presidential cars: Citroen DS 21
Nothing can prepare you for the sheer scale of this thing. Designed by the Citroen style department, the DS 21 Presidentielle was built by Henri Chapron and was used by Charles de Gaulle and Georges Pompidou.
Its dimensions are: 6.53m length, 2.13m width and 1.60m height. Oh, and it weighs 2,660kg. The gearbox is designed to maintain a speed of 6 to 7km/h for several hours.
The presidential cars: Citroen SM
Unsurprisingly, the Citroen SM Presidentielle of 1972 is far more elegant and less imposing than the car it replaced. Once again, Henri Chapron was tasked with handling the build of two majestic presidential cars.
They were delivered in May 1972, just before Queen Elizabeth’s visit to Paris. Her Majesty was pictured in the back, travelling with Georges Pompidou.
The presidential cars: Citroen DS5
A classic case of ‘they don’t make ‘em like they used to’, this is the Citroen DS5 used by Francois Hollande in 2012.
Today, DS Automobiles has separated from the mother brand.
The concepts: Citroen Project L
The Project L was the final Citroen designed by Robert Opron and was intended to be a replacement for the DS. It features what’s essentially an SM dashboard with a GS steering wheel, and Citroen called for enough space under the bonnet to house Maserati’s V6 engine.
The concepts: Citroen Activa
The Citroen Activa of 1988 featured four-wheel drive, four-wheel steer and active suspension, the latter of which would appear as the Hydractive system in the XM. The original Activa concept could also boast ABS brakes and traction control, both of which were considered to be high-tech at the time.
The concepts: Citroen Eole
This is the Citroen CX-based Eole of 1986, which claimed a drag coefficient of just 0.19Cd, around half that of the CX. Note the covers over the wheels, which are linked to the car’s hydraulics to lift them clear when steering. The design was intended to showcase the estate car of the future.
The concepts: Citroen Karin
The Karin of 1980 presented the idea of a three-seater, with the driver positioned centrally and ahead of the passengers, some 12 years ahead of the McLaren F1. It was designed by Trevor Fiore but never made it beyond the concept stage. Shame.
The crazy stuff: Citroen RE-2
Yes, Citroen really did build a helicopter. It was designed by Charles Marchetti and first took to the skies in 1971. It used an evolution of the rotary engine found in the Citroen GS Birotor, but flew a mere 38 hours before Peugeot pulled the plug on the project. The RE-2 was grounded.
The crazy stuff: Citroen U23
The Citroen U23 was produced between 1935 and 1969. This particular bus was built in 1947 by the Besset facility in Annonay, France. The 18/20-seater was found in Corsica in 2006 and subsequently restored to former glory.
The crazy stuff: Citroen 2CV 007
Remember the Citroen 2CV from the James Bond film For Your Eyes Only? It was powered by an engine from a GS and reinforced with a host of safety features, including a roll cage, reinforced plating and raised suspension. Legendary stunt driver Remy Julienne was the man behind the wheel.
The crazy stuff: Citroen Evo Mobil
Looks a little out of place in these surroundings, doesn’t it? Look again and you’ll see that it was inspired by the design and build of the Traction Avant. Clever, eh? French designer Ora-Ito used an icon of the past to present a vision of the future. Or something.
The racers: Citroen MEP X27
The X27 was the final development of the Citroen-Panhard racecar produced from 1964 to 1975. It competed in the final years of Formule Bleue, which ended in 1975.
The racers: Citroen BX 4TC
The Citroen BX 4TC is one of the least successful rally cars of all-time, managing just three races before Group B was banned in 1986. The project was so disastrous, Citroen attempted to buy back all road-going versions in order to have them destroyed.
The racers: Citroen ZX Rallye Raid
You’re unlikely to see more Citroen ZX Rallye Raid cars in one place. In the 1990s, these were formidable machines, taking no fewer than four Paris-Dakar victories and winning the World Cup for Cross Country Rallies for five consecutive years.
The hot hatches: Citroen ZX 16v
The Citroen ZX 16v is an increasingly rare sight in Britain, with a mere seven registered as being on the road. Thanks to passive rear steering, it’s a genuine delight to drive on a B-road.
The hot hatches: Citroen AX Sport
The Citroen AX was a hugely successful car, with around 2.4 million cars produced over a 10-year period. The AX Sport was introduced in 1987 and was a prelude to the more familiar GT and GTI models.
The hot hatches: Citroen Visa GTI
According to the DVLA, there are just five Citroen Visa GTIs on the roads of Britain. Which is a shame, because the Visa GTI is a genuinely good hot hatch, with powered sourced from the same 1.6-litre engine you’d find in the Peugeot 205 GTI. And quad headlights are cool, right?