Citroën cars were like no other, nor were Citroën’s engineers – least of all its greatest exponent.
Few carmakers operated quite like Automobiles Citroën, not only during the tenure of the company’s eponymous founder and chief architect, but equally in the years that followed the carmaker’s initial collapse and takeover by Michelin in 1934. Michelin had placed Pierre-Jules Boulanger as company President, under whom existed an environment which permitted Citroën engineers a great deal of freedom to explore their more creative flights of fancy, while never entirely losing sight of André Citroën’s guiding principles.
Foremost amongst these was André Lefèbvre, a conceptual engineer of remarkable ability, creativity and foresight. Described by author, John Reynolds as a dashing figure with a lordly bearing; a man who allegedly never imbibed anything apart from water or champagne, Lefèbvre initially qualified as an aeronautical engineer at Paris’ École Supérieure d’Aéronautique.
An acolyte and lifelong friend of visionary architect, engineer, aviator and artist, Gabriel Voisin, Lefèbvre’s contribution to the double chevron (and the SM itself) cannot be overstated – his guiding hand being perhaps the most profound amid Quai de Javel’s Bureau d’Études for more than two decades.
Recommended to André Citroën by Voisin himself, Lefèbvre had emerged from an unproductive stint at Billancourt, departing in rancour, following creative differences with Louis Renault. At his arrival at Quai de Javel in March 1933, he is believed to have remarked that he had moved from an Empire to a Republic. Unquestionably the most significant of Citroën’s technical appointees, his inspiration, work ethic and pioneering spirit saw Citroën not only get the faltering Traction Avant into production, but to lay his indelible imprint upon three of the most significant and important car designs of the mid-20th century – (Traction, DS19 and 2CV).
A career-long adherent to the principle of front wheel drive, Lefèbvre is believed to have become frustrated with some of the voices within management who questioned the carmaker’s continued adherence to the traction avant formula. Determined to prove the principle against those who questioned its viability above a given engine size and power output, Lefèbvre set out to demonstrate that a high powered motor car was capable of being driven by its front wheels, setting deputy, Jacques Né the task of creating a series of performance models based on the DS 19 at his Rue de Théàtre skunkworks in 1956.
According to chronicler, Jan Norbye, these experimental cars were to be purely that; scoped, schemed, designed and built with the intention of developing a data bank for future use, rather than to directly inform or influence any forthcoming production vehicle. Therefore it would not be until 1959 that the first of these prototypes was built, consisting of a cut down, short chassis DS. This prototype series would continue in a number of forms, employing a variety of experimental power units until 1963, when Pierre Bercot is believed to have approached the Bureau d’Études, inquiring as to how much additional power could be placed through the production DS’ front wheels.
Informed of Lefèbvre and Né’s experiments, Bercot’s next move was to officially sanction a formal research programme to investigate the outer limits of the performance envelope for a front-driven car, lending it the title, S-vehicle. Still lacking production intent, it nevertheless now carried the approval of the President himself, a matter which undoubtedly would have given Lefèbvre considerable satisfaction.
Sadly however, he had been taken ill in 1958 (it’s been suggested he suffered a major stroke). He never recovered sufficiently to return to work, and in 1964, this gifted engineer, racing driver and father of the DS, passed away. His loss to Citroën would be profound.
Citroën’s engineering department and indeed the entire Bureau d’Études was possibly unique within the industry at the time. Nominally headed for many years by engineer, Jean Cadiou, there was little by way of conventional hierarchy. Merely a collection of gifted specialists scattered across various locations across Paris, who worked in a loosely arranged series of cells, largely without rank – or much by way of oversight. Only the term Responsible for marked out the individual whose responsibilities might lead one to suggest a supervisory role.
What is evident is that while Lefèbvre may not necessarily have been in charge, he was very much the spiritual leader amid the Bureau d’Études’ collection of rival engineering cells and his loss left both a creative and power vacuum at the Rue de Théàtre. In his wake and amidst an ageing engineering cohort, many of whom were reaching retirement age (Cadiou included), a new direction and fresh thinking was required.
Citroënistes owe André Lefèbvre a colossal debt, for his contribution was elemental – there literally would be no Citroën legend as we know it today had he not fallen out so spectacularly with Louis Renault in 1933. No SM either, for that matter.
Robert Opron L’Automobile et L’Art: Peter I Pijlman
Citroën SM : Jan P. Norbye
Sa Majesté – Citroën SM : Peter I Pijlman/ Brian Cass
André Citroen – Engineer, Explorer, Entrepreneur – John Reynolds