Peter Mullin admitted that for 35 years, he collected the finest of French cars, starting with Delahayes and then Talbot Lagos, Delages, Hispano-Suizas, Voisins and, at last, the “king of French marques,” Bugattis.
“I walked by Citroens for 35 years without stopping to learn about the history of one of the great marques of France,” Mullin said at the press preview of the newest exhibition at the Mullin Automotive Museum — “Citroen: The Man, the Marque, The Mystique.”
From his initial intrigue with Citroen, Mullin started studying, learning about the automaker’s dramatic avant-garde design and unprecedented engineering breakthroughs, and about Andre Citroen’s flair for marketing.
But Mullin being Mullin, he didn’t just study Citroen. During the past 36 months, he scoured Europe, purchasing 46 of the finest Citroens he could find, and through at least the end of this year, he will share them on the floor and the balcony of the Mullin museum in Oxnard, California.
While Citroens may not be considered to be as exotic as some other French brands, Mullin suggested that everyone “suspend judgment long enough to realize that every modern car owes something to Citroen.”
“It’s one of the greatest untold stories for the U.S.,” Mullin said of Citroen’s 100-year history of continuous automotive production, the centennial anniversary taking place in 2018.
“Citroen hasn’t sold a car in America since 1973,” he added. “Even for people who remember the DS from the ’60s, the story has been lost in time. It seemed appropriate to pay respect to the history of the genius who was Andre Citroen and the people he assembled around him.”
Mullin contends that Andre Citroen was to the European auto industry what Henry Ford was to America, and not only as the first to do mass manufacturing of the automobile but as a genius in marketing those vehicles.
In 1925, Paris hosted a world’s fair, the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts, which launched the style moderne (art deco) movement. Citroen met with Paris city fathers and suggested that the Eiffel Tower should be used for a colorful light show each evening. The fathers liked the idea but said they didn’t have the budget. Citroen offered to pay for the show.
Ah, but what is the catch, the father’s asked? Just a small one, Citroen responded, saying that during the 90-minute show each evening, tall letters spelling out C-I-T-R-O-E-N would be illuminated for perhaps 15 or 20 minutes.
“Imagine,” Mullin said, “Coca-Cola going to Congress, saying the Statue of Liberty needed repainting and offering to do it with just one catch — replacing the torch with a Coke bottle!”
Not only did Citroen get his light show, but it ran for nine years.
Mullin shared a long list of automotive innovations pioneered by Citroen, but that one of them, the development of the Traction Avant (front-wheel drive car) led to bankruptcy and Citroen losing his company, which was kept in business by his largest supplier, Michelin. Citroen died a year later, in 1935, of stomach cancer.
But while Andre Citroen was gone, his spirit lived on in the people he’d hired.
During World War II, designer Flamino Bertoni and Citroen engineer Andre Lefebvre honed their ideas for what an automobile could be. The car was to debut at the 1955 Paris Motor Show, but when people arrived, the Citroen stand was empty. People scoffed, Mullin noted. But then, at 11 in the morning, exterior doors opened and eight stunning Citroen DS cars drove into the show.
“Everybody’s jaw dropped to the floor,” Mullin said of the car that French philosopher Roland Barth described as a goddess (DS is a homonym for the French word for goddess) that had come to earth from the heavens.
“Citroen took 12,000 orders that first day of the show,” Mullin said, “and 80,000 by the end of the week. It took four years to deliver the cars ordered in just that first week!”
The DS and nearly four dozen other Citroens are on display at the Mullin. One Citroen product that is not is an example of the trucks the company produced during World War II. Those trucks, Mullin said, were produced after Germany invaded France and demanded that Citroen switch its production to trucks for use by the German army.
Pierre-Jules Boulanger, who had won the Military Cross and Legion of Honour during World War I, was the head of Citroen at the time, and joint managing director of Michelin. Boulanger told Citroen workers they had to produce the German trucks, but with one change: Boulanger instructed those workers to misplace the oil-level mark on the dipsticks installed in those trucks.
The result: Very quickly, the truck’s powerplants starved of oil.
“The engines all seized,” Mullin said.
Photos by Larry Edsall