Auto Maker Series – France (6C) Stellantis

Today we return to exploring the car makers of France, one of the other large automakers in Europe. In fact this post will cover three of France’s most storied, most successful companies that ultimately became the core of Stellantis one of the most dominate vehicle manufacturing conglomerates in the world. Check it out.

Here is a link to Stellantis Italy and here Stellantis America Part 1 and Part 2.

Citroën

Founded in 1919 by French industrialist André Citroën, who was from a Jewish Diamond family. Andre’s influences were the death by suicide of his father when he was six, and watching the construction of the Eiffel Tower for the World Exhibition, and the writings of Jewels Verne.

The company name is eponymous, but the name itself came about from Andre’s grandfather in the Netherlands who sold citrus and took a name meaning “lime-man” which Andre’s father changed to Citroen. Upon moving to France, one of Andre’s grade school teacher made it French by adding the diaeresis over the e. All of this is only interesting to Americans who might wonder at a car maker names “Lemon.”

Although virtually unheard of by Americans (aside from those who visited Europe) Citroen is one of the best selling French brands in Europe.

Their popularity could be attributed to savvy pricing and it’s wide range of “style-forward” vehicles. At one point Citroen gained a reputation for their sports cars, and while that reputation faded for several decades it has returned with their C4 Cactus and DS5 models (recognized for engineering excellence).

What Andre Citroen is best known for his application of double helical gears. A helical gear is one that has angled ridges in place of teeth. Essentially a double helical has two of these gears fastened together with one reversed of the other. As the story goes Andre saw a carpenter working on a set of gears with a fish bone structure while on vacation. These gears were less noisy, and more efficient. Citroën bought the patent for very little money and created the first of several innovations in automotive history.

Side Note: The Double helical gear looks from the top like a row of V’s which is why Citroen’s Logo is two Chevrons.

Among these innovations was the world’s first car to be mass-produced with front-wheel drive, four-wheel independent suspension, as well as unibody construction, the 1934 Traction Avant. Citroen went on to cell roughly three quarters of a million units of this car line.

Another innovation came in 1954 with the world’s first hydropneumatic self-levelling suspension system. Their 1955 DS, became the first mass-produced car with modern disc brakes, and in 1967 the built some of these models with swiveling headlights that allowed for greater visibility on winding roads.

History of Citroen

In 1908 Andre became chairman for the automotive company Mors, where he did well. During WWI he built ammunition for the French army. As the war drew to a close, Andre realized he would soon have a factory making a product for which there was little demand, so he went back to what he knew–cars.

Citroën asked the engineer Louis Dufresne, previously with Panhard, to design a technically-sophisticated 18HP automobile even before the war ended, however Andre realized, like Ford, that the best way forward would be lighter, quality cars, made less expensive through modern production efficiency. So in February 1917 Citroën contacted another engineer, Jules Salomon, who earned a reputation for designing  Le Zèbre.

March 1919, just four months after the guns fell silent, Citroen announced his new Type A, a 10 HP car that would be more robust and less costly to produce than any rival. Two months later the first Type A was made and it sold by the end of June.

Citroen nearly sold out at that point to GM, but instead remained independent until 1935. Andre seems to have been handy at marketing as he convinced Alda business owner, Fernand Charron, to lend him the show-room (Number 42) on the Champs-Élysées in Paris which normally sold Alda cars. The relationishp with Charron continued and Charron later became an investor in Citroen, who still uses this location to display its concept cars.

Side Note: Citroën used the Eiffel Tower as the world’s largest advertising sign, as recorded in Guinness World Records.

Here’s what you really need to know about Citroen:

Nearly every car built at the time, the 1920s and early 1930s, followed the Ford Model T pattern. Bolt everything onto a steel ladder-like base, use a stiff rear axel the connects the engine via driveshaft. It produced cars cheaply, but with other problems, they were heavy for one.

Andre saw an opportunity to build a whole new kind of car. One where the body itself produced the strength to hold hold everything–even the engine. The quest to develop this and the resulting other innovations required more and more capital without seeing a return. In 1927, the bank Lazard brought much-needed investment, and renegotiated Citroën’s debt (Getting a seat on the board).

In December 1934 Citroen went bankrupt, Michelin, already the car manufacturer’s largest creditor, became its principal shareholder and Pierre Michelin became the chairman of Citroën early in 1935. Later that year Andre Citroen died of stomach cancer.

The gamble on innovation worked out. The Traction Avant became the car that pioneered the mass production of three revolutionary features–Unibody Frame, four wheel independent suspension and front-wheel drive. Basically it was the first modern car and it met with market acceptance.

What’s significant about the Michelin era is that the VP of Michelin, a man named Pierre-Jules Boulanger soon became the head of Citroen. JP was a WWI air reconnaissance photography specialist where he won both of the highest medals available in the French military. He was bold and not a fan of Germany. During Nazi occupation of France in WWII, Citroen made Wehrmacht trucks as slowly as possible, many of which had dipsticks that tricked operators into underfilling the oil, which led to engine failure. In fact JP Boulanger was on the Nazi hitlist be the time Allied troops landed on the shores of France.

More importantly for Citroen, JP was able to keep top researchers working in secret on three revolutionary designs, one of which (the DS) would later place third in the 1999 Car of the Century competition for it’s  hydropneumatic self-levelling suspension system, modern disc brakes, power steering, semi-automatic transmission. All in 1955!

JP would die in 1950 before the DS came to market, but his contribution to automotive design is about as big as you can ask for.

What could go wrong?

It’s hard to explain why Citroen would go bankrupt yet again, this time in 1974. They followed their same strategy of leading with innovation, which had earned them a loyal following. Without taking their foot off the gas of innovation they needed to create a car that would fill a gap in their line up, and they needed to get a more powerful car to compete as an exporter. They literally didn’t have a car to compete in the midsized car category, which was the biggest market. (Post WWII France taxed cars with big engine which prevented car makers from creating an affordable car that would carry a family.)

This lead them to spend 15 years buying companies like Panhard, Berliet, and Maserati. They also joint ventured on the  Wankel engine through a subsidiary known as Comotor. They actually succeeded in creating the mid-size Citroën GS, that would sell about 2.5 million units in the early 70’s. But it was too little too late this time.

In the late 1960’s Michelin decided to return to their roots making tires and as part of that effort they sold a 49% share of Citroen to FIAT. In 1973, Fiat sold back to Michelin its 49% stake.  The 1973 energy crisis basically made all their energies working with Comotor and Maserati to make a bigger engine pointless. In 1974, the carmaker withdrew from North America due to U.S. design regulations that outlawed core features of Citroën.

Ironically, Citroen would spend a ton of money to develop a number of innovative new models that it could no longer capitalize on. The GSGS BirotorCXSMMaserati BoraMaserati MerakMaserati Quattroporte II, and Maserati Khamsin were very advanced cars for their time. When Maserati sold in 1974, new owner (De Tomaso) was grateful for the injection of technology and made money on his  Bi-Turbo models.  Berliet was sold to Renault.

Fearing massive unemployment the French government stepped in and negotiated a takeover/merger with Peugeot and PSA Group was born. Peugeots’ influence can be summed up by saying they expanded into new markets and countries by erasing everything unique about Citroen’s design and appearance.

Citroen would go on to perform well in China and has recently entered the market in India. The new CEO, as of PSA, and former CEO of Citroen, launched an ironic initiative in 2020, to explore success through brand differentiation.

DS Automobiles

Founded in 2009 makes DS Auto one of the new kids on the block. Headquartered in Paris and created by Citroën to make Luxury cars. DS has been a standalone brand since 2015. The name is a bit confusing as in French it’s pronounced like the word déesse, meaning “goddess,” it’s now rumored to stand for Different Spirit or Distinctive Series.

If the name DS sounds familiar it’s because Citroen’s model DS was their best seller for decades. The French love this goddess play on words, which is lost on buyers in the US.

The story of DS is pretty straight forward. Neither Peugot nor Citroen have ever been successful at creating a luxury model. In an effort to do what similar to Chevrolet/Buick or Honda/Acura did, PSA created DS.

2020 DS Aero Sport Lounge

It makes a lot of sense that PSA would go to Citroen for a brand that requires differentiation, but then they hired Korean designer Jin Joo to design a logo that looks nothing like the double chevron and they release what is basically rebadged versions of the DS3, DS4, and DS5. According to PSA CEO Carlos Tavares, DS would would distinguish itself from Citroën cars by using “separate manufacturing and engineering standards.” Which sounds to us a lot like saying, “we can make better cars if you pay more.”

There’s not a lot to say here as the experiment will need more time to succeed or fade. There are some troubling signs.

Peugeot

Founded in 1882 Headquartered in Currently in Poissy, the company was born in Sochaux where they maintain a factory and museum. The Peugeot family made hand tools and kitchen equipment as a company starting around 1810 and graduated to steam tricycle (in collaboration with Léon Serpollet) in 1889. They made their first combustion engine car a year later, by using a  PanhardDaimler engine.

The family owned a foundry and began making everything they could that was comprised of steel. If it seems like a stretch from kitchenware to cars this is the chain of products–metal ribs for  crinoline dresses, then umbrellas, then bicycle wheel spokes, then bicycles and then cars.

Peugeot was an early pioneer in motor racing, with Albert Lemaître winning the world’s first motor race, the Paris–Rouen, in a 3 hp Peugeot which steered via tiller and had solid rubber tires, although they technically came in 2nd to a steam powered car which was a violation of the rules. By their third race Michelin soon put pneumatic tires on the car which weren’t very durable.

1899 Peugeot made a third of all the cars sold in France (300/1,200), and by 1903, they made half of the cars built in France, despite quitting racing in 1901. By 1912 Peugeot was back in racing. They wracked up a string of wins including a 1915 win at the French GP and Vanderbilt Cup.

During the First World War, Peugeot turned largely to arms production, becoming a major manufacturer of arms and military vehicles, from armored cars and bicycles to shells. After the war, car production resumed and racing resumed. Georges Boillot, one of the three original engineer/drivers known as Les Charlatans of Peugeot, entered a car with 120,000 miles on it in the 1919 Targa Florio, and won through superior driving.

1929 brought the Peugeot 201, the cheapest car on the French market. It was also the first car to use the naming convention or three numbers with a 0 for the middle digit. (The first digit indicates the size and the third indicates the generation. This has since become a registered Peugeot trademark.

Note: 1934, Peugeot introduced the 402 BL Éclipse Décapotable, the first convertible with a retractable hardtop.

Peugeot as with most car makers faced several periods of struggle as a company. Clearly WWI & WWII impacted every car company that existed through those times as did the fuel crisis during the 1970’s. As many but not most makers, they survived in large part by moving their manufacturing to other countries where it could be done cheaper.

Peugeot somehow continued to make cars through German occupation though mainly by using up supplies they’d already stockpiled.

Peugeot range of models is wide and their prices competitive. The company has traditionally not been on the cutting edge of design, innovation or luxury although they’ve recently turned a corner with their 3008 crossover and RCZ coupe which get high marks for performance. Peugeot has received many international awards for its vehicles, including six European Car of the Year awards.

With the 1975 takeover of Citroen, the goal was to maintain separate brands while sharing technology and resources. The group then took over the European division of Chrysler, which were formerly Rootes and Simca. (In 1978 Chrysler America struggled to exist.)  

At one point PSA group had three partners, one of which was Talbot. The whole Chrysler/Simca range was sold under the revived Talbot badge until 1987.

In March 2012, General Motors purchased a 7% share in Peugeot for 320 million euros as part of a cooperation aimed at finding savings through joint purchasing and product development. In December 2013, GM sold its entire Peugeot stake, taking a loss of about 70 million euros.

Peugeot 208, 2020 Car of the year in Europe

February 2014, the shareholders agreed to a recapitalisation plan for the PSA Group, giving Dongfeng Motors and the French government each 14% stake in the company. So far the biggest expansion of sale is in Asia, although PSA continues to pursue markets where they don’t yet have a toe hold.

Peugeot, like Citroen was part of the PSA group prior to the creation of Stellantis. If we haven’t spent much time talking about their car designs it’s because they just don’t stick out very much as you can see from the pictures.

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