Centennial for Citroën
Citroën is 100 this year, and fans of the innovative French marque are celebrating.
In April, members of ACE, Arizona Citroën Enthusiasts, founded by Scottsdale’s Dominique Legeai in 2015, celebrated the event at the first Camelback Car Show in Phoenix, with about a dozen representatives of the marque showcased. The 32 members of ACE casually meet to enjoy and maintain the Citroën name.
In 1919, inventor André-Gustave Citroën (1878–1935) produced the Type A from his Paris factory. Approximately 30,000 of these were built, and the new marque was publicized by their successful use as taxis.
Following the Trèfle (Cloverleaf) cars of the 1920s, the beautiful 11 CV Traction Avant appeared in 1934, the first mass-produced car with front wheel drive; more than 700,000 sold in various 4- and 6-cylinder-engine configurations.
This was replaced in 1955 by the sinuously styled and innovative Citroën DS.
The famous 2 CV, the French Volkswagen, conceived prior to World War II, appeared in 1948. The small car, “four wheels under an umbrella,” was built for the masses, many driving from farms along rural roads.
A retired restaurant owner from Chicago, Legeai notes that the major centennial festivities in France are July 19–21 in the small northern French town of La Ferté-Vidame, a few kilometers from where he was raised. “This is where the three prototypes of the 2CV were concealed from the Germans during World War II; they were ‘discovered’ much later in 1994 in the attic part of a barn, under bails of straw,” he explains.
When Citroën had controlling interest in Maserati, the company produced the extraordinary SM from 1970–75 with V-6 power and capable of 135 mph. And, to follow the DS, the company produced the CX beginning in 1974, featuring a GTi Turbo 4-cylinder version in the 1980s, capable of 125 mph. The marque’s successful motorsport history includes winning the World Rally Championship eight times. PSA Peugeot Citroën has been the controlling group since 1976.
Here are some of those Valley centennial celebrants:
•1925 Citroën 5-Horsepower Trèfle – “Ceci n’est pas une voiture . . . c’est un art de vivre,” (“It’s not a car, it is a lifestyle.”): That’s owner Dr. Mark Saperstein’s motto for the car-lover’s life.
Dr. Saperstein owns this and four other Citroëns: a 1956 Traction Avant BL; 1970 DS 21; a very rare 1970/2015 2CV-Burton roadster; and a 1970/2013 2CV / Moto Guzzi Pembleton reverse trike.
From the early days of the carmaker, his Trèfle was one of the first built and sold in London at Citroën’s new facility for the British market in Brooke Green, Hammersmith. Given the British taxable horsepower rating of 7.5 horsepower, the car is called “Cloverleaf” for three seats in that configuration: two front and one centered in the rear.
He found this classic on eBay. “It was being offered by a dealership as agent for the owner who had inherited it and had no knowledge of its history. It seemed odd for a French car that the steering wheel was on the right side,” says Saperstein, a dentist who has practiced in the Valley for 40-plus years. He grew up in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
An acquaintance remembered seeing a similar car in Harrah’s Museum in Reno, Nevada. “My inquiries revealed this was that car, and the museum’s successor was able to supply full documentation regarding its acquisition in England as well as photos,” he says.
For this “Cinq Cheveaux” (five taxable horsepower), André Citroën commissioned the great glass master, René Lalique, to make the first of his famous glass mascots, this one depicting five superimposed horses. Saperstein carved the mascot for his car in Lucite acrylic.
“This car has a quality not found in many others,” he says. “It is irresistibly charming.”
•Citroën 1953 11CVBN Traction Avant – Phoenix resident Mischa Dick bought the car from a French collector in Sonoma, California.
He grew up with Citroëns; in fact, the first car he ever rode in was an early suicide-door 2CV his father owned and used to pick up his mother and him from the hospital after he was born. A variety of Citroën 2CVs followed in the family. His uncle also drove an HY van for decades.
His first Citroën is a 1981 Acadiane which he still owns. He also has a 1987 2CV, the same color as the one he had in high school, and his dad has two 1990 2CVs.
“The 11CV is just a nice-driving, good-looking car,” he says. After emigrating from Germany 25 years ago, he worked as an aeronautical engineer and now has a career in healthcare finance.
His other joy is airplanes. “I fly just about as often as I can,” he says. “So, if it has an engine and moves, I am interested.
“The Traction Avant was truly revolutionary at the time and very much on purpose to compete in the market,” he notes. “It was well ahead in technology and ended up needing a ‘capital infusion’ from the new company owner at the time, Michelin, to get going.”
Among the innovations were front-wheel drive, hydraulic brakes, unibody and rack-and-pinion steering.
“The most remarkable thing is, I think, it is the sexiest car ever designed, and there are other crazies that agree with me. Mine isn’t a concours show car, but it presents ok, and it drives very well,” he says.
“I believe we can never own an old car or airplane,” he adds. “We are merely the custodians for a while, so I see myself as the current custodian.”
•1972 Citroën DS – Barry Singer had owned a new DS in New York City from 1972–84 and says he had never quite gotten over it. He moved to Phoenix in 1992, when he opened a payroll service and established his family.
Around 2003, Singer found some Citroën material in California through the internet. Interested, he attended some club events, met a few marque fans and got a call one day two years later from a friend who said he found him his car.
He responded, “I didn’t know I was looking for one.” His friend replied: “You just didn’t know you were.”
Known as the “Goddess” for French déesse, a sound cognate for “DS,” the innovative car features disc brakes, hydro-pneumatic self-leveling suspension, power steering and front wheel drive. During the years, brake horsepower about doubled from 66 to 130.
The DS was available in a four-door version and as a seven-seater, and master coachbuilder Henri Chapron produced a sexy cabriolet version. The model continued until 1975, with about 1.4 million sold.
“What is special to me about this car is that it’s a one-owner car and has always been an Arizona car,” Singer explains, noting he bought it from an elderly couple from the west side. “It’s unusual not to have had a string of owners during the 40-plus years this one has been around.”
•1973 Citroën DS 23 Pallas IE – After years of owning Citroën DS models, Harlan Cone wanted a top-of-the-line DS 23 Injected model. In 2014, the Phoenix resident found this rust-free 5-speed in La Habra, California.
The DS appeared with the larger 2347-cc engine until 1975; the 5-speed was available only in 1973 and 1974. Cone’s car also has the Pallas Trim package.
He grew up knowing Citroëns. His parents, Suzanne and Lorin, had many. In the 1980s, his father owned Hilary Motor Cars, which imported limited numbers of the DS successor, the CX, after Citroën discontinued exporting cars into the United States in the early 1970s.
Cone has four other Citroëns: a 1967 DS 21 Pallas; 1973 Citroën SM; an ’86 CX Prestige that his father imported in the ’80s; and a 1984 2CV Club for his wife, Arettea.
He explains that the DS was probably the most advanced car in its debut year of 1955. Safety innovations alone include an engine that slides under the car if a head-on collision occurs and a steering wheel designed to throw the driver to the side in a collision instead of impacting him or her in the stomach.
At the same time, the DS 23 was fast in the day and could make 120 mph. “This car is priceless to me; I love it,” he says.
He, his wife and friend Tom Petz stripped the DS 23 to bare metal, took off the doors, fenders, trim and other parts and had them painted. He also replaced the carpet with an imported one made to specification in England as well as sorted out the mechanical parts. “Now the car is a reliable and great driving,” he says.
“These cars are art on wheels to me,” he says. “I love how they look and I love how they drive and I love the design and intelligence that went into making them.”
•1981 Citroën 2CV Charleston – Jim Fahey’s grey/grey car was imported from the Ariège area in Midi-Pyrénées region of southwestern France in November 2006.
He purchased it shortly after and kept it in the Chicago area until 2011 when he brought the 2CV to Arizona. “When I acquired the car, it was in need of some general TLC and also had a fairly tired engine,” says Fahey, who winters in the Peoria community of Vistancia and summers in Minneapolis.
Fahey quickly bought a factory-remanufactured 602-cc engine from French Parts Service in Washington State. Compact and light weight, it was delivered to his home by UPS. “It was a matter of a day’s work with a couple of fellow French car enthusiasts to lift out the old engine and install the new one,” he recalls. “No engine lift or hoist required!”
During 42 years in production, the 2CV was available from 1948 to 1988 in France and through 1990 in Portugal. Approximately 3.8 million 2CVs were built including several 2CV derivative models such as the Ami, the Dyane, the Acadiane and the Mehari.
The “Charleston” was a special edition of the 2CV Club model, introduced in late 1980 and offered through to the last 2CV built in Portugal on July 27, 1990, he explains.
Since 2006, he has maintained the car and replaced worn components as needed: a carburetor, fabric top, shock absorbers, etc. “My 2CV now functions as our second car, and it is driven almost daily. It can easily keep up with traffic on our local expressways and delivers approximately 34 to 36 mpg depending on driving conditions,” he says.
The car travels well, too: “A few years ago, we completed a round trip to the Grand Canyon, gaining over 7,000 feet in elevation along the way in a car with a 29-horsepower engine carrying two adults and their luggage.”
•1984 Citroën 2CV – “The 2CV, starting in 1948, was to France what the Beetle was to Germany after WW II: giving modest people a tool to haul people and things at a moderate cost,” says Legeai, who was schooled at the Paris Culinary Academy. He is retired now in Arizona.
“The 2CV was my mother’s first car, and it took us everywhere for years. As I grew up, I needed to have a 2CV. Call it nostalgia? But beyond that, this car has the ability to put you in a poetic mood.”
He came to the U.S. when he was 21 and spent his working life in the restaurant industry. In 1987, he and wife Jacqueline, who is also French, opened their restaurant in the Chicago area. “We acquired our first 2CV that same year,” says Legeai, “and it quickly became a great asset for our bistro.”
•1986 Citroën CX – Harlan Cone says some fellow Citroën owners believe this was the company’s last true model, released just prior to the Peugeot buy-out, which created much shared styling. A replacement for the DS, this was also the last car designed for the car-maker by Robert Opran.
The CX had many versions, from base models, a wagon and the longer and expensive Prestige, he explains. The Prestige had the comfort of the DS and the steering from the SM with a choice of manual or automatic such as the one in his car. The CX was discontinued in 1990 and was replaced by the XM.
He found this one in 2016 when owner Dave Burnham in New York had it in his shop and posted a photo of the import plate online with Cone’s late father’s name on it. So Burnham connected him with the owner, Fran Voigt, who had to sell his cars because of poor health. Cone worked out a deal to sell his 1972 D Special in exchange for a special price on the CX.
“The funny thing is when my ’86 CX Prestige was new, I remember it when I was a kid because this one was sold new to a kind gentleman in California whom my parents were friends with,” Cone recalls. “When the car came in, they were in their other home out of the country. So, they told my parents to drive it around as if it was their car for a while. ‘Then when we get back home you can deliver it to us’ they said.’”
He remembers being in the backseat of this car as a child going to Disneyland. “I bet my dad must be proud that I have a car he brought into the country back in the ’80s.”
•1973 Citroën SM – The Citroën SM appeared in three series, SB, SC and SD. SBs had a 2.7-liter engine and triple-Weber 2-barrel DCNF 40 carburetors. Series SC cars were equipped with a 2.7-liter engine and a then-advanced Bosch D-Jetronic electronic fuel injection system, explains owner John Titus, who owns three other Citroens.
The most-powerful SDs had a 3.0-liter engine equipped with triple DCNF 42 Weber carburetors. The engine produced 180 horsepower SAE net, which, in conjunction with the highly aerodynamic shape, gave it an impressive top speed of 145 mph, he says.
In 1968 Citroën purchased a controlling interest in Maserati, benefiting both companies. The one gained access to the Italian carmaker’s engine technology for its new GT car, which would become the SM, and Maserati used the French company’s hydraulic knowhow in the Bora, Merak and Khamsin.
“Unfortunately, the 1974 oil embargo could not have come at a worse time,” Titus explains. “Citroën was strapped for cash, and demand for luxury GT cars in Europe and North America crashed.” By 1975 Citroën was bankrupt; its shares in Maserati were sold to Fiat and it was absorbed into the French national car company PSA.
Citroën produced just 12,920 SMs, 1,600 of which were the 3.0L model; however, of the 3.0L model, only 600 were equipped with a 5-speed transmission, including his. The rest had a 3-speed Borg Warner Type 35 automatic transmission.
Titus knew the previous owner in Point Pleasant, New Jersey. He settled there after serving during WWII in the 8th United States Army Air Force as a waist gunner in a B-17 Flying Fortress, “Lady Lorraine.” His performance earned him membership in the “Lucky Bastards Club” by surviving 30 bombing missions over Nazi Germany, Titus says. “He became sort of a personal hero of mine.”
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