Full of character, reliable and surprisingly easy to live with – the Citroën Traction Avant is one of the classic greats. Here's how to buy one
How much to pay
• Project £2500-4000 • Good £13,500-16,000 • Concours £18,000-22,000 •
Running costs ★★★
DIY Friendly ★★★
By definition, revolutionary cars don’t come along very often, but Citroën can lay claim to having made more than most. Its Traction Avant was one of a string of cutting-edge designs, with front-wheel drive, monocoque construction and all-independent suspension – all on a car introduced in 1934.
The Traction Avant cost so much to develop that it bankrupted Citroën completely, but you can enjoy the fruits of its labours by picking up your own usable Traction for surprisingly little cash – although values have increased significantly in recent years.
A few sympathetic upgrades can produce a car that’s suitable for regular use, while DIY maintenance is generally straightforward. In fact, the hardest thing can be trying to work out which of the many variants is right for you; here’s how to pin down your perfect Traction.
Your AutoClassics Citroën Traction Avant inspection checklist
Pre-1954 engines use white-metal bearings, which can be converted to shells, but a more common upgrade is the fitment of a later powerplant. However, as neither engine is more durable than the other, it makes little difference.
Post-1952 engines used bolts instead of studs for head retention, but modern asbestos-free head gaskets don’t compress like the originals. Hence, when leaks occur from liner misalignment during manufacture, owners overtighten bolts with predictable consequences.
Most cars have a 1911cc four-cylinder engine, but there are still a few 1628cc cars around. The earliest Tractions had 1303cc engines, but these are seriously underpowered and now extremely rare. Usefully though, as wet liners were used, it’s easy to use larger pistons and liners to increase the engine’s capacity.
On six-cylinder cars, a rattling when starting is probably the starter ring gear about to come away from the three-spoked hub (the tri-ax) upon which it’s mounted. Leave things and the engine could be destroyed, so tighten things up before any damage is done; this can be done with the engine in situ.
Water pumps leak into the bellhousing, so the clutch seizes, while juddering as the clutch is released points to worn suspension; repairs could be involved. However, it could just be that the engine mountings have perished; repairs are cheap and easy. Minor oil leaks from the front of the engine are to be expected.
All Tractions have a three-speed manual gearbox, which can be fragile on four-cylinder cars. Syncromesh fails readily, so go up and down through the gears to see if there’s any crunching; there was never any synchro on first.
Crunching gears can also be caused through a worn or badly adjusted gearchange; setting everything up is easy, with the various bushes and linkages all available to eliminate any wear.
If you’re struggling to start a Traction, don’t bump start it, as doing so will probably wreck the gearbox.
Suspension and brakes
From 1936 all Tractions featured excellent rack-and-pinion steering. Any stiffness or play means it hasn’t been lubricated properly, while gaiters are prone to splitting, so inspect them carefully.
The hubs are held onto the driveshafts by a taper, but the hub nut has to be done up to around 250lb ft. If it’s loose it will wreck the driveshaft, which may even snap, and it will take the hub and brake drum with it.
Check the rubber collars linking the torsion bars to the suspension. Many Tractions still have their original units because the back axle has to be removed to replace the rears, while swapping the fronts means the engine has to be taken out.
There are various suspension points which need to be lubricated every 1000 miles, including the bushes and swivels. Stiffness and creaking indicates wear in the lower balljoint swivels, possibly because of water ingress. It’s often possible to adjust the suspension to remove this play, but there are limits.
Judder when braking suggests worn suspension bushes or swivels. Silentbloc pins are a common fitment in place of the originally specified top wishbone pins. This eliminates a pair of grease points. Inner wishbone bushes on four-cylinder cars have to be greased regularly or there will be rapid wear, resulting in judder under braking and clattery suspension over bumps.
Brake drums can lose their shape and replacements aren’t easy to find, but skimming them back to circular is sometimes possible.
The Traction’s structure is durable, but door bottoms and lower panels need scrutiny, so analyse the footwells, floorpans and check the door fit; if it’s way out, the the monocoque is probably rotten. Also check the three-piece sills, which are crucial to the car’s structural integrity.
The extensions protruding either side of the engine from the front bulkhead are called the jambonneaux; they’re tough but can rust, although repairs aren’t difficult once the front of the car has been stripped down. Also inspect the front suspension mounts, as repairing them can be awkward.
If some of the panels don't line up too well the car has probably been poorly restored; there’s plenty of adjustment in the panel fit. If the car has been crashed however, the jambonneaux will be rippled, as will the bulkhead.
Most Slough-built Tractions have a sliding steel sunroof, which leaks when the drain holes block up. Check the floorpans carefully if the roof has leaked, and also inspect the windscreen pillars for water channelled through perished drain tubes. All cars are fitted with an air vent just ahead of the windscreen; when this leaks the footwells fill up with water, so check the area carefully.
The beading between the wings and bodyshell can hide rot, while the wing mountings are also rust-prone; repairs can be straightforward, but if the captive nuts have broken free it willl be a pain to fix. Cars without an extended boot suffer from rot to both the boot lid and the floor, so check these areas along with the bootlid hinge mounts – they rot and are a pain to sort.
French-built cars have cloth trim but Slough-built Tractions have leather, which is why the latter tend to have tidier interiors. The Bakelite steering wheels can crack but replacements are available. Other than that, be wary of tatty interior trim – much of the repro stuff available doesn’t fit very well. As a result you’ll need to get things done on a bespoke basis.
French-built cars had six-volt electrics whereas those made in Slough had 12-volt systems. Although neither set up gives any problems (and many French cars have been converted) the continental cars have to be in tip-top condition to avoid starting issues.
- 1934: The Traction Avant debuts; in Britain the first RHD cars are unveiled at the Olympia motor show. UK cars have a 1303cc (7CV) engine but French buyers can choose a 36bhp 1628cc (9CV) engine. The Traction’s massive development costs lead to Citroën's bankruptcy, leading it to be taken over by Michelin.
- 1935: At the London Motor Show two new derivatives are shown: the Sports 12 (7S) and the Super Modern 15 (11A).
- 1938: The first six-cylinder cars appear, with 76bhp 2866cc engines.
- 1946: Citroën reopens its factory in Slough to produce the Traction Avant. Over the next nine years around 19,000 examples will be produced, most for export.
- 1949: Citroën’s Slough factory starts production of left-hand drive Tractions, for export to France.
- 1953: The Traction’s biggest redesign sees an extended boot, which now houses the spare wheel.
- 1954: Six-cylinder Traction Avants gain hydropneumatic suspension at the rear, in preparation for the introduction of the DS.
- 1955: The DS goes on sale and the Slough factory ceases production of the Traction Avant.
- 1957: The last Traction Avant is built, the 708,339th to be produced.
Charming, very usable and generally tough, the Traction Avant is a classic that you can buy with your heart as well as your head. The Traction was built in France from May 1934 until July 1957, while Slough production ran from August 1934 to October 1955. French and British factories produced the same bodystyles, with saloons, fixed-head coupés and roadsters all available until the start of the War, but post-war there were only saloons.
Confusingly, French and English editions had different names, there were five engines (a quartet of four-cylinder units plus a six), and saloons came with a choice of three wheelbases and four distinct profiles (Legeres, Normales, Familiale, Commerciale). The Familiale was a seven-seater saloon with three rows of seats, while the Commerciale offered just two rows of seats but with a tailgate, later replaced with a hatchback.
Iron out the frailties and the Traction makes a lot of sense – with sympathetic upgrades you can even use one as everyday transport. Speaking to existing owners and looking at lots of cars is essential before buying. You’ll almost certainly end up with a 1911cc four-cylinder car as they’re by far the most common, but there are different bodystyles too. The key thing is that whatever you buy, there’s surprising practicality – plus all Tractions have fabulous presence.
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Picture courtesy of MagicCarPics