Courtesy of Bonhams Cars

Nearly every list of the most important automotive designs must surely include André Citroën’s beloved Model 11 Traction Avant, which loosely translates to “front-wheel drive.” Citroën is said to be the individual who put France on wheels, and his compact and bullet-proof 2CVs were both affordable and functional, especially when it came to helping farmers bring their goods to market. The Traction Avant was introduced in 1934, just one year before Citroën’s passing.

The Model 11 BL was a much larger 4-door sedan, with its front doors rear-hinged, so they would open “suicide-style”; the rear doors opened conventionally. The Traction Avant was notable in that it placed its wheels at the extreme corners of the monocoque chassis, providing good stability and a comfortable ride. Its 1.9-liter overhead-valve 4-cylinder engine, 3-speed gearbox (mounted ahead of the engine), and torsion-bar front suspension were affixed to a separate steel subframe. Of course, as its name indicated, the Model 11 boasted a quite sophisticated front-wheel-drive system.

This automobile became ubiquitous in Europe and was the favored getaway car for countless French gangster movies of the period. Later, a 6-cylinder model was developed. The Model 11 BL remained in production for 23 years, and by the time it was supplanted by the much more modern DS, more than 759,000 had been manufactured.

This very attractive Model 11 BL has been nicely restored to driver condition. It is presented in an eye-pleasing two-tone paint scheme of tan with black fenders, black spare-wheel cover and trunk lid, and yellow wheels with chromed center caps. The coachwork includes a bit of Art Moderne styling, such as the opening hood vents and chromed trim.

The interior has been nicely reupholstered in tan cloth and gray leatherette with yellow piping on the seat covers. The Jaeger center instrument cluster contains a speedometer reading to 134 km/h, a fuel gauge, an ammeter and other readouts. The top-hinged flat glass windshield can be opened for additional ventilation.

The paint, interior and brightwork all appear to be in very good condition. The radiator shell and grille, with its pair of inverted vees, are also in good condition. The odometer indicates that it has been driven 35,980 kilometers, although the total distance driven is unknown.

This very pretty Citroën 11 BL would make a nice addition to any collection of French automobiles or star at a weekend Cars & Coffee.

SCM Analysis

Detailing

Vehicle:1937 Citroën 11 BL Traction Avant Sedan
Years Produced:1934–57
Number Produced:759,111
Tune Up Cost:$150
Chassis Number Location:Plate on right frame member
Engine Number Location:Plate on right-hand side of engine block
Club Info:Citroënvie
Website:http://www.citroenvie.com
Alternatives:1948–1990 Citroën 2CV, 1948–54 Ford Vedette, 1951–60 Renault Frégate

This car, Lot 125, sold for $20,160, including buyer’s premium, at Bonhams Cars’ Greenwich, CT, auction, on June 4, 2023.

Andre Citroën started his car company in 1919 and became extremely successful building conventional models throughout the 1920s, all while pouring his fortune into the next big thing — the Traction Avant. Citroën risked so much, in fact, that when the project went far beyond budget, including a massive expansion in production facilities, he lost control of the company to Michelin. Citroën had also been known to live a lavish lifestyle, spending significant time in Monte Carlo. He passed away in 1935, just after the Traction Avant was launched, never to see its success.

Gangster’s paradise

Most SCMers are no doubt familiar with the company’s famous and ubiquitous 2CV and mind-blowing DS. Even its 1970s-era SM pops up at auction from time to time. But it’s not so often that we see Traction Avants, the company’s first masterpiece.

“Masterpiece” may seem somewhat hyperbolic, but this was a radical leap forward in design and engineering. The Traction Avant’s front-wheel-drive system, with the transmission mounted in front of the engine, was ahead of its time. A few other companies such as Cord, Ruxton and Adler had built front-drivers before 1934, but Citroën was the first to put the technology into series production in an affordable car.

Even more important, unibody construction allowed the Traction Avant to be significantly lower and lighter. Flaminio Bertoni, an Italian sculptor who came to work at Citroën in 1932, was responsible for the styling (as well as that of the 2CV and the DS). The low-slung body meant dispensing with running boards — which quickly became a thing of the past throughout the industry. With rack-and-pinion steering and four-wheel independent suspension, the Traction Avant could out-handle contemporaries and became the car of not only gangster lore but also French Resistance fame.

Rumors and innuendo

When the new Traction series was first shown in April 1934, Citroën had a full line of sedans, coupes and convertibles. Plans were to offer two powerplants: a 4-cylinder and a brand-new V8. However, shortly afterward, the V8-engined prototypes (“22CV,” for its French fiscal horsepower rating) were supposedly crushed and the V8 never went into production. (A 6-cylinder model did arrive in 1938.) For years, rumors have swirled around that a V8 convertible was sneakily shipped overseas.

Citroën Paris did not enter the U.S. market until the DS19 was exported in 1956. However, some Traction Avants were, in fact, sold new here before that. A few entrepreneurs brought cars into Oregon and California as early as the 1930s, with numerous Traction sedans and convertibles rebadged and sold in Los Angeles as Challengers. They were also raced, where their superior roadholding earned them some success. (For more on these escapades, see www.seattlecitroen.net.)

The Traction Avant was manufactured all the way up until 1957, a year after the DS was launched. While the earliest cars had smaller displacements, the vast majority of the cars were fitted with a 1.9-liter 4. Six-cylinder models are scarcer. Citroën actually built a special version of the 15/6 6-cylinder as a test bed for its hydro-pneumatic suspension, which would appear in the DS. This 15/6 H had the hydro-pneumatic suspension on the rear only; this rare version is especially sought-after today.

Flaps and louvers

Typically, we talk about pre-war and post-war Tractions. A quick way to discern a car’s era is to look at the hood. If it has flaps you can open and close, it’s a “pre.” Permanent vertical louvers mean it’s a “post.” Similar to other cars that had a long run, the early ones are rarer and cooler, but post-war models make more-usable drivers.

As can be seen, our subject car is a pre-war. Done up in non-factory colors, it still looks great. To me, this is a welcome change to the typical all-black Traction. Overall, the car looks to be a well-sorted driver.

As with most cars from this era, rust is the major issue. However, the true Achilles’ heel is the 3-speed transmission, which has a habit of self-destructing and breaking its case. Over the years, many cars have had a 4-speed swap from the DS series, which makes a Traction more reliable and nicer to cruise with. The DS used the same 4-cylinder engine, so this is a fairly easy swap. Harder will be finding a good 4-speed now, although parts availability for these cars is generally good.

Finding a nice Traction Avant is not that difficult anymore, due to the advent of online auctions. While this has led to significant recent value appreciation for other models, including the DS, Tractions have been left out. Despite their scarcity in the U.S., they can sell for credit-card money on the low end, with the better cars in the $20k range.

While our subject car sold perhaps a tad high, the price was certainly in the ballpark for a nice driver. Both buyer and seller can be happy here. ©

(Introductory description courtesy of Bonhams Cars.)

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