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CitroŽn in the USA

During the nineteen twenties and thirties, Andrť CitroŽn thought of selling his products on the other side of the Atlantic and a few rare advertisements appeared in the press. In 1931 he even considered building an enormous factory. In 1938, the Challenger Motor Co of Los Angeles CA offered the 11CV lťgŤre for $895, importing the cars from Europe. Others did the same - Campbell Motors of South Pasadena CA who also published proper catalogues inspired by those produced in Slough (right - click on image to see large version - will open in new window).
Shortly after the War, a few rare Tractions were to be seen in the USA, most having been imported by GIs who having liberated France, fell in love with these cars. But the official importation really only began with the DS.
At the beginning of the nineteen fifties, the CitroŽn Export Department was divided into Export Europe under the control of M. Hospital and Louis Garbes and la Grande Exportation under the control of Michel Koundadzť with assistance from Claude Alain Sarre, Andrť NoŽl and Alfred Lucas.
One of their inspectors, Michel Paradis was sent to the West Coast of the USA. There he brought the idea of importing some thirty or so Tractions despite the total lack of any service infrastructure. Only two or three were in fact sold and M. Paradis used the services of an expatriate Belgian garage owner, Albert Bonfond who became the boss of the CitroŽn after sales department for the West Coast, the business being situated in Los Angeles. The remainder disappeared.
But let us leave the Tractions sitting on an anonymous quayside and look at how CitroŽn's economic activities started in the USA.
In an era when when the delivery of cars was fitful, numerous expatriate French people living in North America returned to France for their holidays. The car in France was a luxury object, difficult to obtain whereas in the States, the car was already a consumer product which was readily available. For them and eventually for all American tourists, Michelin, CitroŽn's owners created a company called CitroŽn Car Corporation, a subsidiary of the American company Technical Research which was run by Arthur Lowenstein and Jean Ostheimer (the latter being the person whose claim led to Andrť CitroŽn's business being put into liquidation in 1934). The role of the CitroŽn Car Corporation was to sell cars to American tourists in France.

Click to see large version - will open in new window

After receipt of the customer's order (which, all importantly featured a guarantee of re-purchase by CitroŽn), the car, fitted with its famous TT plates (temporary export plates) would be delivered to the customer when he set foot on French soil. The car would be bought back at the end of his stay. The reason for this was that most production had to be for export and there was such a shortage of new cars that secondhand ones changed hands for more than the list price of an unobtainable new one. Such a wonderful paradox must be the dream of every modern motor manufacturer! Shortly before the launch of the DS, in 1955, a brochure, (ref. AC 5133) prominently featuring the Eiffel Tower was launched.

The arrival of Charles Buchet

The CitroŽn Car Corporation was to be the launchpad for CitroŽn's operations in the USA. The man given the task was Charles Buchet, who had joined CitroŽn in 1952 in Commerce but who quickly moved into the Export department. He left for the USA in March 1954.
His first task was to locate the missing Tractions and with the assistance of Armand Garnier, he found each and every one although some were in a piteous state. Some were still under Customs' control, having been abandoned at the port since the cost of storage soon reduced the value of the cars to zero.
Charles Buchet set about reviving the CitroŽn Car Corporation by making the sale and buy back system better and more attractive. Indeed the financial system he created is that of lease and buy back still practised by the likes of Europcar and Hertz. The monies earned allowed the financing of the infra structure that would become CitroŽn USA who would import cars into the USA. The DS would be the product.
Charles Buchet set off for New York at the wheel of a 15 Six - one of those reclaimed from the docks. He also performed this drive in a 2 CV which he had had sent over from France and he often swore that he would have had more success with this car than with the DS! His boss suggested that the car's plain grey paint be replaced with something more to American tastes - a shrimp pink! Buchet's compromise was a light green paintwork - a particulalry popular colour amongst Detroit's products that year. This car was used in monochrome pictures in the Company's product brochure "The sensational multi-purpose car"...

CitroŽn Cars Corporation

Setting up CitroŽn Cars Corporation in the United States proved to be very difficult as they started with nothing.
However an east coast headquarters was established in New York and then the west coast headquarters in Los Angeles.
The complete infrastructure of these headquarters had to be created, a sales department, a repair and parts department, personnel had to be hired and trained, not on just any car but the DS-19.
There were no repair or parts manuals in the beginning, in any language – never mind English! A dealer network also needed to be created and trained for this vast country.
Buchet started with an office on 5th Avenue in New York City, this was in the same building where Air France had their offices. Both headquarters had their share of problems but the east coast was at a major disadvantage due to their premises.
Once the DS had officially been announced in Paris it meant that the New York headquarters would have to expand, not only did they need a showroom but a workshop would also be an immediate necessity.
They ended up with a nice showroom at 300 Park Avenue and a totally inadequate workshop located in Long Island. Not only were these repair facilities too small but the parking situation was non existent. The technical man in charge on the east coast was Michel Rappellini who was under the direction of Charles Buchet.
In the west the situation was the opposite, they ended up with a nice premises on Wilshire Boulevard in upscale Beverly Hills in Los Angeles. The offices, showroom, repair and parts facilities were all in one location. The commercial director for the western division was Armand Garnier and the engineer was Claude Braux. Albert Bonfond was hired as service manager in 1956, an ex-patriate Belgian who had owned an independent CitroŽn repair shop in Brussels prior to emigrating to America. Braux drove the first DS-19, chassis # 129, to arrive in New York. He drove to Chicago in sub zero temperatures in January of 1956 along with Luigi Chinetti the Ferrari importer for the US and three times winner of the 24 heure du Mans. The first DS was to be exhibited at the 48th Chicago Auto Show.
In the beginning both the east and the western headquarters had issues to deal with, as did the rest of the world where the vehicle was marketed. One needs to remember that this was a brand new vehicle with technical advances well ahead of its time. Of course this would bring plenty of new problems as the DS went through its growing pains. In regards to the North American continent, not only being vast in size but also very different in climate, the eastern portion of the US dealt with severe winter conditions, which affected the D-series vehicles technically and structurally while the west was dealing with dashboards warping in the mid-day sun! Although the east and west had different issues to deal with, the situation was the same, they both still had to create a dealer network and be able to support that network.
There were only a handful of people within the CitroŽn Cars Corporation network that even had a slight inclination of how this new DS operated. Luckily some assistance was on the way – Paris sent four young gentlemen who had been working with the DS at the Quai de Javel, Paul Baert and Jacques Berteau went to New York and Claude Guyot and Hubert Villedannť went to Los Angeles to spend six months in the US to get things rolling. Once things did get going both headquarters did establish a technical support team to train and assist new dealers. To get new dealers was always a challenge, you had those who signed up for a year or two then dropped CitroŽn for a more lucrative and less challenging make and those who stayed on till the bitter end.
CitroŽn Cars Corporation’s attempt at securing a portion of the US market was not without pain, but through the years they did manage to secure a loyal clientele and had one of the better reputations for after sales and service and handling of warranty problems amongst French products sold in the US. Unfortunately this was not enough to stop the demise of the make on the North American continent.
Besides the DS and the ID, CitroŽn also introduced the 2CV, the AMI-6, and handled the Panhard. In the late sixties they introduced the Mehari, all with limited success. It wasn’t until the SM was introduced that CitroŽn was really noticed. Although just over 2000 units were sold in its short lived US presence, this vehicle also brought its share of problems; not only technical but there was also an ill feeling amongst the dealerships as not all were chosen to sell the SM. This included some of the old dealers that had stuck it out through thick and thin over those high profile dealers with fancy premises that took on the CitroŽn SM but dropped them just as fast!
Unfortunately the beginning of the end was already around the corner, a combination of the oil crisis and CitroŽn’s own financial problems led to the demise of the SM and by 1973 there were no new D-models for sale. The staff of CitroŽn Cars Corporation persevered at trying to get the new CX into the US market, and there was some hope but this hope soon faded in late October of 1977 when Renť France, President of CitroŽn Cars Corporation, was summoned to Paris and told to close all North American operations.
A number of businesses - Trend, CINA and CXA continued to sell CitroŽns in the USA after CitroŽn closed down its operations.
Over the last thirty years, there have been consistent rumours about a return but nothing has come of it.

The 1968 redesign did not meet Federal rules and the lighting system had to be changed.
Gone were the glass nacelles fitted to cars destined for other markets, as were the steering and self-levelling headlamps. These were replaced with a fixed, four sealed beam set up.
Indicators were mounted below the bumper in the valance and an orange reflector was fitted to the rear of the decorative cover that replaced the European indicators.

Thanks to the many people who provided me with assistance in unravelling the story including but not limited to , Carter Wiley, Tony Stokoe, Andrť Pol of CXA, Andrew Brodie, Gert Klopper, Brad Putchat, Peter Erkinnen and many others.

Above the launch in 1956 at the New York Motor Show of the DS

US market D series cars underwent a number of modifications - mainly to the lighting with sealed beam headlamps and different turn indicators and tail lamps. The ID Station Wagon below has a CitroŽn badge on the bonnet - similar in style but not location to Slough built cars.

A number of different design proposals were considered for the US market SM's lights.
As was the case with the D series, headlamps that turned with the steering were prohibited as were self-levelling lights.
It is also likely that Federal regulations did not permit the fitting of more than four headlights.
Additionally, the glass nacelle covering the lamps was a non-starter.

© 2008 Julian Marsh/CitroŽnŽt