One of the greatest developments of the last 200 years was the rise of the assembly line. Without this innovation, the lifestyle you and I enjoy today would not be possible. The process of making goods from standardized parts drove down the costs of production for all kinds of consumer goods, including the automobile.
Of course, it’s natural to admire the quality and uniqueness of hand-crafted goods. But, if cars were made that way, then they would cost $1,000,000 each, and you and I would be walking or riding horses.
In the United States, Henry Ford is synonymous with the rise of mass production in the early 20th century. But in France the name of Andre Citroen is just as famous. This European inventor and entrepreneur was born in 1878. He studied engineering and ran a gear manufacturing plant in the early years of the 20th century.
During WW1 he managed a French munitions factory. The conflict with Germany was straining the nation’s infrastructure, causing critical shortages of bullets and shells. Citroen tackled the problem by converting his plant to an assembly line format. France went on to beat Germany, though a few years later the Germans would return the favor.
After the war, Citroen became fascinated by American carmaker Henry Ford and his goal of building cheap, reliable motor vehicles the average person could own. Up to that point, European automobiles had been expensive luxuries for the wealthy. Citroen turned his weapons plant into a car building facility, closely modeling his manufacturing methods on those used by Ford.
The result was the Type A (pictured below), roughly equivalent to the American-made Model T and released in 1919. It had a water-cooled 1327 cc (about 80 ci) four-cylinder engine that turned out 18 hp and had a top speed of 65km/h (40 mph). That first model had its limitations; brakes were operated by hand and were limited to the rear wheels. Still, it was a car, with tires, an internal combustion engine, and all the freedom and mobility that automobiles entail. A Frenchman of the time would buy one for 7950 francs, or about $1,600 in 1920.
Citroen also emulated Ford when it came to marketing his vehicle. His let potential buyers take one for a test drive (a radical idea at the time) and also arranged for financing. He hired pilots to write his company’s name in the sky and took his vehicles on safari with him to Africa.
In 1934, Citroen’s vehicles took a giant leap forward with the introduction of the Traction Avant (pictured below), the first mass-produced, steel-bodied passenger car with front-wheel drive. The new model was hugely successful; more than 750,000 were built during its 23-year run. It came in a variety of layouts, including coupe, hatchback, and convertible. Buyers had a choice of both I4 and I6 engines in sizes up to 2.9-liters (about 177 ci).
Despite his genius, Citroen’s money management skills were sub-par. This fact, along with a reported penchant for gambling, put him in serious debt. His firm was taken over by Michelin Tire Company in 1935. Citroen himself died in July of that same year. The company he founded survived, however, and merged with Peugeot in the ‘70s. Today the combined business, Peugeot-Citroen, is one of Europe’s leading carmakers. Citroen – and Henry Ford, for that matter – would be proud.