Car enthusiasts love to talk about “purity.” Stability control? For wimps. Massaging seats? Perverse! By that logic driving a 1949 Citroën Traction Avant 15, so manual that you set the engine timing while rolling, was the closest thing to real driving I’d ever done. It was stressful, painful and wonderful.
(Full Disclosure: I was allowed to drive this Citroën courtesy of the Mullin Automotive Museum in Oxnard, California. Shout out to Peter Mullin for trusting me with this work of art.)
When I got an invitation to “drive some old French cars” at the Mullin Museum, I graciously accepted, but assumed we’d be putting around a parking lot. I rolled up to find six gleaming Citroëns, several docents from the museum and one other journalist I didn’t bother introducing myself to. There was no time to waste discussing shrimp and flight delays with a parking lot full of French delicacies laid out before us!
I did meet the museum’s chief mechanic, Nathan, who eyed me suspiciously while one of the PR people explained the day’s activities. “We’re going to take a little loop out to the college (Cal State, Channel Islands) down the 1 to Point Mugu for photos, and back.”
Nathan interjected: “So, I found out at 6:30 this morning that these cars would be going that far. Should be fine, but, keep your eyes open.” Of course I understood his concern completely. I don’t even like people driving my car, and it’s a humble old Honda.
“That’s further than all of us have driven any of these cars, combined, in the four years I’ve been here,” Bill, a museum docent, added.
No pressure at all.
As a casual appreciator of Citroëns as opposed to a deeply knowledgeable fanatic, my first challenge was picking which one to drive. I just went straight for what looked the least like anything I’d ever been in before: this voluptuously–fendered Disney villain-looking Traction Avant 15.
The 15 was (is) a front-wheel drive four-door sedan with a long 2.9-liter inline six-cylinder engine and a three-speed manual protruding from the dashboard. This was meant to be a people’s car, not an ultralux statesman transporter even though it looks quite regal parked next to Accords and Camrys today.
According to the Mullin Museum’s experts, the design was unveiled in 1939 and sold exclusively in black until 1953.
The 15 could allegedly hit 81 mph and squeeze out 22 mpg. I got about 40 mph out of it and felt pretty impressed with myself, but it felt smooth enough to do double. Stopping might be another matter, but we’ll get back to that later.
This particular car was purchased by Peter Mullin in Europe in 2016, and will be on display with a stable of other amazing French cars at the Mullin Museum from March 11th, 2017 all the way through Spring of 2018.
The Traction Avant is actually a pretty huge deal, as far as automotive innovation goes. It was an early adopter of three major staples of modern car technology: unibody construction, four-wheel independent suspension and front-wheel drive (hence the name.)
Over a 23-year production run, more than 750,000 of these things were built. But apparently, less than 50,000 of them were 15s like the one you see in action here.
This car was the immediate predecessor to a Citroën everybody knows: the resilient DS, which came out in 1955, replaced the Traction Avant and of course went on to be one of the most prolific cars on planet Earth.
Cold-starting this ancient piece of equipment was delightfully intimidating. Make sure the transmission’s in neutral, set the choke, set the timing, turn the key, pull a lever and apply just the right amount of throttle to start the combustion process. Like a beautiful and delicate Bop-It.
Nathan walked me through the process, silently praying to the gods of grease that I wouldn’t go all ham-fisted on the thing.
“Are you familiar with old cars at all?”, he asked. I am and told him as much. But while I regularly drive a car from the 1970s and have gone about a decade before that, cars designed before World War II like this one were new to me.
My favorite joke was on the tip of my tongue through his whole tutorial. I wanted to say it. I was dying to say it.
“So why are there three pedals?”
But I didn’t need Nathan having a heart attack, and frankly I was pretty nervous that I was about to make an ass of myself grinding this irreplaceable piece of iron into dust with a missed shift or something.
The other cool components had nothing to do with driving at all. But the lights, man, somehow primitive and regal-looking at the same time. I couldn’t get enough.
Okay, just one more, then we drive:
Driving? Just putting my fingers around the chrome door handle, lithe but sturdy, knowing I was stepping into an honest-to-god time machine was the headiest thing I’d experienced since that gross brownie from the Venice Beach bake sale.
But I made it into the driver’s seat without fainting, and Mullin Museum docent Bill Boetticher climbed in next to me to offer some coaching and reassurance. His presence and demeanor was comforting, actually. Right up until he said he “Sure wouldn’t want to be the guy to screw up one of Peter [Mullin]’s cars.”
The driver’s seat of the 15 was comfortable like your favorite basement couch. A little saggy, a little springy, but the right kind of coarse and somehow just perfectly perpetually worn-in.
I began the firing process: car’s in neutral, just a little choke, retard the timing a touch, turn the key and puuull–
I was soaked in sweat, and now in relief as I managed to power up the 15 without making it sound tortured. “Where’s the A/C,” I quipped nervously. Bill smiled and showed me how the windshield actually popped open like a motorcycle helmet. (So cool.) “I’m not sure how to set it back though, so we’ll leave it alone.” We pushed off, warmly.
Clutch out, gas in.
Just as I started wondering whether the car was actually in gear, I finally found the friction zone and, mercifully, managed to hit the balance smoothly enough to shove off without stalling in front of the museum staff. Probably my peak as an automotive journalist.
Once the 15 was in motion it was actually not that unusual of a driving experience. Besides the iron sewing-machine sounds, steel-spring seat suspension and audible clicking of the odometer slowing removing what I presumed to be thousands of dollars of the vehicle’s value.
The steering wheel the size of a pirate ship’s helm provided enough leverage to compensate for a lack of power assistance and the lethargic throttle response was typical of lawn mowers, old motorcycles and VW Beetles.
Of course then we had to get out onto the road. With traffic, intersections, shifting and braking.
The plan was for us to make our loop around Oxnard and down the coast, with the other journalist in the DS, photographers orbiting us in a 4Runner and the mechanics tailing us in a Tahoe.
“Imagine if we just laid a fat patch of rubber out of here,” I mused aloud, immediately regretting it as I realized I hadn’t completely won my docent over yet. He just kind of snorted and raised an eyebrow.
Part of me really did want to play John Dillinger and strangle the guts out of this thing, come screaming out of the parking lot like we’d just robbed a bank and drive through the nearest ox cart full of fruit. But first I figured I’d better make sure I could shift an unsynchronized gearbox without making it sound like a medieval torture device.
I won’t deny that I hit a few burrs, especially in the first few miles of our lap. When I didn’t match the engine’s speed between gears just right, or tried to move the shift lever a little too fast the car cried out. Every grind cut me like the transmission was one of my own tendons. Emotionally, at least.
The car needed revs, clutch, revs, shift, clutch, go, all gingerly, to change gears smoothly. And the shift lever was not some sword-hilt to be smashed around like a Mitsubishi Eclipse in a Fast & Furious movie. No, this dainty little thing popping out next to the steering wheel needed to be coaxed from one gear to the next. I felt like Bob Ross at his easel, painting brush strokes to keep the car’s engine speed correct.
Coming to a stop was a whole new struggle. If you’ve ever driven something with weak brakes, imagine that, but the resistance doesn’t begin until the last few millimeters of pedal travel. By modern standards, the stopping power on this thing was hilarious. Or horrifying, depending on how soon you really had to stop.
I quickly learned to prepare for red lights hundreds of yards ahead of time, much to the enragement of the California commuters stuck behind me
Pushing the brake pedal was pretty much like throwing an anchor off the back of the ship. But the ship is a Triple-E class Maersk tanker and, oh crap, that anchor was from Pottery Barn and is actually made of poplar wood. Why would you leave that next to the real anchor?!
The car only stops when it’s good and ready to stop. It’s also a real pain to get moving again smoothly, so I trolled through Cal State’s roads and stop signs at the same walking pace.
Finally, we got out onto the Pacific Coast Highway and let the car clear its throat. A fresh, cool breeze blowing through the radiator and a steady 40 mph pace kept the temperature gauge down, the ride smooth and the whole experience nothing short of glorious. The Citroën and I finally understood each other, and the car finally felt happy.
We made it back to the museum without killing anyone or springing a leak, which is actually better than I usually do driving my Scout around west Los Angeles. I have a newfound appreciation for WWII-era cars, and a profound respect for the people who drove them on the regular.
Did I mention that you can check out this 15 and a whole heap of other lovely Citroëns at the Mullin Museum next month? You really should, because this thing is special just to stand next to.