On this day in 1878, Andre Citroen, later referred to as the Henry Ford of France for developing his country’s first mass-produced automobiles, is born in Paris. Citroen revolutionized the European auto industry by making vehicles that were affordable to average citizens.
Before entering the auto business, Citroen studied engineering and later operated a gear manufacturing company. During World War I, he ran a munitions factory where he successfully implemented mass-production technology. Following the war, Citroen, who was inspired by the assembly-line innovations at Henry Ford’s American auto plants, converted his munitions factory into a facility to make low-cost vehicles. At the time, only the wealthy in Europe had been able to afford automobiles. Citroen’s first car, the Type A, debuted in 1919. The four-door, 10-horsepower vehicle featured an electric starter, lights and a spare tire and was capable of speeds of 40 mph. The Type A was a success, due in part to Citroen’s talent as an innovative marketer. He allowed potential customers to take his vehicles for a test drive—then a new concept—and also let people buy on credit. He put the Citroen name in lights on the Eiffel Tower, launched skywriting ads to promote his products and masterminded attention-getting expeditions to Africa and Asia using Citroen vehicles.
In 1934, Citroen launched the Traction Avant, the first mass-produced passenger car to feature front-wheel drive. The car proved enormously popular, and more than 750,000 were built during the 23-year production run. At the time of the Traction Avant’s release, however, the Citroen company was on the verge of bankruptcy due to Andre Citroen’s heavy investments in new concepts and technology, as well as his alleged gambling debts. In 1935, Citroen was taken over by its largest creditor, the Michelin Tire Company. Andre Citroen, who had been forced out of the business he founded, became ill and died on July 3, 1935.
Citroen remained part of Michelin until the 1970s, when it was sold to the French automaker Peugeot. Today, Peugeot Citroen is one of Europe’s leading auto manufacturers.