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Not long after it was founded 100 years ago, Citroën nearly became a GM subsidiary

Published in blog.hemmings.com

Photo by Bierlos.

Over the last century, Citroën has introduced a number of of significant automotive innovations from front-wheel drive to the company’s signature hydropneumatic suspension. That legacy of invention, however, very well could have never come to pass had General Motors succeeded in buying the company not a few months after it built its first car.

Ironically, what likely attracted the American conglomerate to the French startup was the latter’s decision to build cars according to the philosophy of the former’s cross-town rival, Ford Motor Company. André Citroën‘s Type A, which bowed in late May 1919 in a rented display space on the Champs-Élysées, was intended from the outset to embody the people’s car principles of the Ford Model T: simplicity, robustness, practicality. No less, Citroën, then a director for the French automaker Mors, took plenty of inspiration from Ford during a pre-World War I trip to the United States. As John Reynolds, author of Citroën: Daring To Be Different, wrote:

On a visit to the Ford factory in Detroit, he saw the advanced machine tools and moving production-line assembly methods that Henry Ford had developed in order to increase output and bring down the prices of his cars. Impressed with the energy and enterprise of Ford’s operations, Citroën understood immediately that these same techniques of automobile mass-production had to be brought across the Atlantic at the earliest opportunity.”

The Great War, of course, delayed those plans, but it also gave Citroën the means to start his own automobile company after the war in the form of the Paris factory he built with government funding to mass-produce shells and ammunition. While his initial plans called for sophisticated Louis Dufresne-designed luxury cars with massive engines, he reconsidered those plans after meeting Jules Salomon during the war.

As Pierre Dumont noted in Citroën: The Great Marque of France, Salomon, who had, before the war, designed cars for Delaunay-Belleville and Unic, and went on to design his own single-cylinder Zebra, was posted to the Citroën factory in February 1917, and by July of that year Citroën assigned him the task of designing the first Citroën automobile.

The Model A, a 10-hp four-cylinder car designed for the common Frenchman, became an overnight sensation, according to Reynolds. “Within a fortnight of its debut, over 16,000 advance orders had been taken,” he wrote. “At first, 30 vehicles left the factory daily, but soon that had risen to 100 cars a day.”

That sort of initial success was bound to draw potential investors, though not from any other French automakers. According to Dumont, Renault, Peugeot, and their Gallic kin initially regarded Citroën with a sort of indifference. “Nobody, at the beginning, took the ‘Citroën experiment’ seriously,” he wrote. “The manufacturers… expected, in a very short period, to see the ‘downfall’ of the person who was then considered an intruder.”

However, over in Detroit, General Motors was once again expanding under the control of Billy Durant. The idea to expand overseas, however, came from John Raskob, Pierre du Pont’s personal secretary and the vice-president for finance for General Motors. Specifically, according to Alfred Dupont Chandler and Stephen Salsbury’s Pierre S. Du Pont and the Making of the Modern Corporation, Raskob wanted to establish a production base in Europe by buying a European manufacturer. He and Durant set their sights on Citroën and in the summer of 1919 sent several prominent executives — among them Charles Stewart Mott, Alfred Sloan, and Charles Kettering — to Paris to look into buying half of the company.

Intriguingly, Walter P. Chrysler also, unofficially, went along with the group. Chrysler had, by that time, submitted his resignation from General Motors, but GM Vice President J.A. Haskell (and, no doubt, Sloan too), in a last-ditch attempt to get Chrysler to stay on at General Motors, convinced Chrysler to join the group. Reportedly, Chrysler was to have led the Citroën works should the purchase have gone through, but by the fall of 1919 Chrysler and Sloan both recommended against the purchase for “technical and administrative” reasons, according to Chandler and Salsbury.

Sloan felt that the Citroën plant was antiquated, and that with the postwar expansion program at home General Motors had absolutely no experienced managerial personnel it could spare to handle overseas production.

Given Sloan and Chrysler’s lifelong friendship and their dissatisfaction with Durant (and the fact that the Citroën plant was, in fact, less than five years old), it’s possible their personal feelings could have swayed the decision and ultimately given the world the Chrysler Corporation instead of a GM-Citroën partnership.

Which is not to say that GM’s decision not to purchase Citroën crippled either automaker. GM opened its first European assembly operations in Copenhagen in 1923 and bought Vauxhall in 1925 before Sloan traveled to Germany in 1929 to buy Opel (a company that, in the intervening years, copied another Citroën car almost bolt-for-bolt to great financial success). GM never did buy a French carmaker as it set up its overseas operations in the Twenties.

As for Citroën, it continued under its founder’s control until the cost of developing and retooling for the Traction Avant drove the company bankrupt in 1934. Michelin took over the company and continued to run it through perhaps its most innovative era until the French government forced the merger of Citroën and Peugeot in 1974.

Given the global nature of modern automakers, it was perhaps inevitable that GM and Citroën would again brush up against once another, though it took until 2012 for the former to take a small stake in PSA Peugeot Citroën. GM eventually divested itself of the stake in 2017 and later sold Vauxhaull-Opel to the French carmaker group when it decided to quit building cars in Europe.

Citroën’s anniversary celebrations have, to date, included a special showing of its heritage cars at Retromobile earlier this month and will, later this year include a slate of other events, both online and off.