Just after New Year 2020 – in much simpler pre-COVID restriction times – I found myself in Paris for a few days, with little more to do than enjoy some wine and croissants. It was my second time in the French capital, and from my previous visit I remembered the experience Champs-Elysees offers to a car enthusiast.
No, I’m not talking about the Arc de Triumph roundabout traffic; I’m referring to all the new car dealerships.
Most of the showrooms situated in this historic part of Paris really know how to lure visitors. They have prototypes and historic models on display, and put together pop-up museums and other interactive experiences. On my last trip, Renault and Citroën impressed, but this around the latter disappointed me. It turns out that Citroën has abandoned their flagship showroom, and their quirky building just sits empty.
I still really wanted a Citroën fix, so I Googled what else the French manufacturer has in Paris and found the Citroën Conservatoire, a warehouse/preservation workshop based in Aulnay-sous-Bois, near Charles de Gaulle International Airport. It looked very promising, so I immediately went to check it out…
On arrival, the location looked empty and the door wasn’t opening, so I assumed the place might be closed. But a second later, a young man ran to the entrance and opened the door for me.
As it turns out, the Citroën Conservatoire doesn’t get many visitors. In fact, I was the only one on this particular morning.
I definitely wasn’t complaining though. Imagine spending a couple of hours alone in any museum, be it one with works of great artists, or cars in my case. It was a unique experience to say the least.Diving Back To The Early 20th Century
My retrospective starts with dreary black and white carriages. The placards proudly tell of innovation and automotive firsts, but let’s be honest, Citroëns that are relevant to the car world appeared a few decades later.
I made my way further through the collection until the infamous ‘gangster car’ caught my eye. The Reine de la Route (Queen of the Road) pioneered mass-production of front-wheel drive, four-wheel independent suspension, and the use of a crash-resistant monocoque body.
The Citroën Traction Avant was very innovative, but the car gained infamy as the vehicle of choice for Gallic criminal gangs. Parisian outlaws portrayed extensively in the French New Wave films of the era and the popular Adventures of Tintin comics always drove this Citroën model, and it got to the extent that one criminal organization became known as the ‘Gang des Tractions Avant’.
Then there was the 2CV, a car that was in production for more than 40 years until 1990.
What started as an utilitarian vehicle for French farmers, later became one of the biggest phenomenons in auto manufacturing. Today, the 2CV is one of the most collected cars in the world, and Citroën’s proactiveness when it comes to its heritage has a lot to do with this. The Amicale Citroën & DS France and the Amicale Citroën Internationale bring together foreign collectors, and the numerous events organized under their supervision have previously attracted tens of thousands of enthusiasts every year.My Favourite Era: DS & SM Models
Back in 1955, it was the avant-garde DS model that propelled Citroën to new heights. At a time when radio receivers were a more popular household item than even a black and white TV set, the ‘Déesse’ model delivered hydro-pneumatic independent suspension, power steering, inboard front brakes, and other innovative goodies. Given these then state-of-the-art features, it’s little wonder Citroën received 12,000 orders on the premiere day of the ’55 Paris Motor Show.
After 15 years of production, Citroën wanted a gran turismo brother for DS, and came up with the crazy modernist SM model that featured a V6 engine from a Maserati. Features like cornering lights and waterbed suspension were inherited by the new model. This was the start of the golden era for GT cars, so the SM was up against BMW’s E9 and Mercedes-Benz’s C107 chassis.
Looking at this car, all I could think about is how amazing the number plate looks sitting behind the transparent nose.
The Citroën Conservatoire has a great display of DS and SM models, from early design studies to special editions, like this 1973 SM prototype ‘Breadvan’. If you think the Citroën C4 looked weird, now you know where the styling cues came from…Conquering Off-Road
I’ll be honest, the moment I entered the hall, I just wanted to run to the furthest corner of the exhibition to the motorsport heritage area for the off-road Dakar and WRC machines. I softly say off-road, but in the beginning, engineers of both Citroën and Peugeot were figuring the best vehicle for the French colonies in Africa. What started with automotive colonization later translated into motorsports.
The 1991 Dakar is where Citroën took over from its sister company Peugeot and won with the help of Ari Vatanen in the magnificent ZX Rally Raid. The evolutions of the ZX would be triumphant in 1994, 1995, and 1996 Dakar rallies, not to mention the other cross-country races all around the world.
The WRC is a bit closer to me. I started following the championship around the time Sébastien Loeb appeared on the scene. As we all know, Loeb dominated the WRC from 2004 to 2012 – nine years straight – and the Citroën Conservatoire has the car collection to prove it.
In 1985 the company produced 200 homologation models of the Citroën BX in order to enter Group B. The road-going version was called the BX 4TC and produced 200hp, while the 380hp rally equivalent was known as a BX 4TC Evolution, and it looked magnificent in the latest Citroën fashion of the ’80s.Prototypes & One-Offs
Remember the DS and SM models from before? These are one-offs presidential specials built by Chapron.
The DS 21 belonged to Charles de Gaulle, one of the most important political figures in French history. The story goes that he had a soft spot for the DS model, and as soon as he became president he decided to freshen up the government’s car fleet. President de Gaulle would be driven in a black Citroën DS 19, but after an assassination attempt he was pressured into increasing his safety and getting a proper bulletproof limo. Unfortunately, it took a number of years to make the DS 21 ‘Presidentielle’, and the president used it on just three occasions.
The Presidential SM was commissioned by Georges Pompidou in 1971. While the predecessor DS was a bulletproof car, the SM was built in calmer times, so it became a 5.6m-long four-door drophead, and was used for parades and ceremonial processions.
The Citroën Conservatoire showcases more prototypes than an average automotive museum, and in my opinion, every car manufacturer should provide more space for their design studies and concept cars like this.
The Citroën Ami is a cute car in its own right, and off the top of my head it’s the only vehicle I know to have a concave bonnet.
Then you have the M35, the Ami’s sleeker brother featuring a rotary piston engine. Citroën engineers toyed with the idea of building a rotary-powered model, so they supplied a number of prototypes to loyal enthusiasts and let them drive the cars under factory supervision. While the M35 wasn’t ever officially sold, the tests were positive and a more powerful rotary setup made it to the production line with the Citroën GS model.
Of all the styling exercises on display at the Citroën Conservatoire, I was drawn to this ‘brown and browner’ pyramid-shaped vehicle. The color suggests that it was designed in the midst of ’80s fashion, and for its creator – Trevor Fiore, Citroën’s styling department director – it was dream car for a future middle-class family.
Most of the time, these kinds of styling projects are never seen by the public, let alone leave the drawing board, but Citroën has created its brand story out of these exceptions.
As I looked at the whole 100-year-old history of Citroën under one roof at the Citroën Conservatoire, I was constantly surprised by how brave this French manufacturer was to put such different models into production. I just hope that Citroën continues down this road with bold design and innovative thinking for many years more.