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A prolific gambler, André Citroën’s lifestyle exacerbated his downfall

Making Their Marque Despite a military background that helped him revolutionise car production in Europe, Citroën's extravagance cost him his company during the Great Depression.
André-Gustave Citroën, French industrialist remembered chiefly for the make of car named after him, but also for his application of double helical gears. Courtesy of Bain News Service
André-Gustave Citroën, French industrialist remembered chiefly for the make of car named after him, but also for his application of double helical gears. Courtesy of Bain News Service

André Citroën was as enigmatic as engineers come, an egotist, shameless self promoter and one of life's compulsive gamblers. Yet, despite an indulgent private life that made him the darling of newspaper columns, this man from an immigrant family who became a French national treasure was a pioneer for workers' rights and customer service. His fusion of innovation and industry remain the hallmark of the cars that bare his name, that are as French and fresh as a Camembert cheese.

Born in 1878 to a Dutch diamond merchant and a Polish mother, Citroën's childhood left a sour taste in his mouth. He strived to prove he was no lemon after his father added an accent to the family name to distinguish it from the Dutch word for the citrus fruit. His father committed suicide when he was six and, despite proving a precocious student, the death of his mother in his sophomore year saw his grades suffer. Bereft of options, he enlisted in the army as an engineer.

His military service was to be the making of him as it taught him the value of efficiency and mass production. He applied this philosophy when founding a company making steel gears. One of his clients was French racing car manufacturer Mors for whom Citroën built engines and then joined. Under his guidance, the company increased annual car production from 125 to 12,000 by employing his mass production techniques. This gave him the moniker of the French Ford.

He returned to uniform at the outbreak of the First World War and, dismayed that his unit could not return shell fire, approached his general with a plan to increase production of munitions. Given land and a contract he played a heroic role in the war effort by producing 55,000 shells a day and coordinating munitions supply across France.

After the war, Citroën founded a car company under his own name and transformed the way cars are sold. He was the first to offer customers test drives and warranties, believing that he was selling a service rather than a car. Later, he would establish his own insurance company to offer Citroën owners special rates and write a technical almanac for owners to refer to. He not only took care of his customers but was also a champion of his workers' rights. They enjoyed a gymnasium and crèche, and he was the first motor magnate to offer female workers maternity pay.

He never missed an opportunity to promote his cars, whether it was demonstrating their strength by dropping them off cliffs, embarking on 13,000km treks, or trailing advertising slogans in the smoke-streams of aeroplanes soaring over Paris. He even once illuminated his name and double chevron logo on the Eiffel Tower.

By the mid-1920s, his marque was one of the most successful in Europe, enabling him to enjoy his celebrity and indulge his vices. Renowned for his strut and sartorial extravagance, he was a prolific gambler. Thought to be one of the few men in Europe not to have a credit limit imposed on him, he once remarked that he didn't mind whether he won or lost, only that the amount he bet was noticed. His games were often detailed, move for move, in newspaper columns, as he revelled in his notoriety and the company of doting female companions dazzled by his audacious stakes. This profligacy was to be the seed of his downfall.

When the Great Depression struck in 1929, Citroën did not have the reserves to ride out the crisis. By gambling on expensive yet unnecessary innovations and losing vast fortunes of company profits at the roulette table, he left the company that bore his name vulnerable. Ironically, it was the company's most successful and iconic model that left him broken and contributed to his early death. The Traction Avant, a car that more than any other symbolised France, was the first mass-produced front-wheel-drive car. But it was so advanced that its development costs spiralled out of control and Citroën was forced to retire when the company was acquired by its largest creditor, Michelin, in 1934.

Losing control was too much for Citroën to bare and, in 1935, he meekly succumbed to stomach cancer, his fight deserting him. His new model went on to sell three quarters of a million and was recognised as the first classic Citroën. Though he didn't live to see General De Gaulle make his triumphant return to liberated Paris in an Avant, his light still shines in the French capital - quite literally, as the illumination of the Arc de Triomphe was his gift to the city.

Updated: April 6, 2012 04:00 AM



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