André Citroën and Henry Ford: An unlikely pairing?
The often innovative cars his Quai de Javel factory on the banks of the river Seine produced were noteworthy, as was his unmatched knack of thinking of new and audacious forms of publicity, but André Citroën always kept an eye open for new ideas and methods initiated by other manufacturers as well; notably those from the land of the free and the home of the brave. Over the course of two decades Citroën would visit the USA three times and on each occasion meet with Henry Ford.
Considering Ford’s achievements, Citroën’s interest in and admiration for the farmboy made good was logical, and despite the fact that they were as different in character, upbringing and physical appearance as could be, the two industrial giants saw eye to eye where it mattered and respected each other’s talent and achievements.
One was born and raised on a Michigan farm from an Irish father and Belgian mother, the other was a flamboyant intellectual, son of a Dutch diamond merchant and a Polish mother; the two men made a fascinating duo. Despite Ford’s well documented antisemitic views there is no evidence to suggest this ever lead to any aversion between the two men; in fact, whenever André Citroën was referred to as “the Henry Ford of France” he always gladly took it as a compliment.
Citroën operated a successful steel and gearwheel manufacturing business and although at the time of his first trip to the USA in June 1913 he had not yet started producing cars under his own name, he had taken charge of Automobiles Mors in 1908. Impressively, Citroën had nursed the moribund manufacturer back to commercial health over the course of just a few years.
There are unfortunately no surviving records or itinerary of Citroën’s first visit to America – the only thing known for certain is that he met with Henry Ford and toured his Highland Park factory. It is not unreasonable to assume that after visiting Ford the Frenchman started to hatch plans that were bigger than just producing gearwheels and running the relatively small Mors car factory; these plans would have to be put on hold however as the outbreak of the first world war intervened.
At first mobilised for the war effort and stationed with a heavy artillery regiment as a captain, André Citroën experienced at first hand the frustration of a continued shortage of ammunition which was produced in a fashion that could simply not keep up with the demands of early 20th century warfare. Citroën presented a plan to his commander, General Basquet, for a dedicated munitions factory that would be able to produce 10,000 75 mm artillery field gun shells per day; that was deemed an ambitious output but Citroën’s plant at Quai de Javel would double that figure before the end of the war.
Citroën, who had been given a leave of absence from military duties to realise his plan, went from strength to strength by applying new and modern methods of organisation and manufacture – doubtless at least partly inspired by observing Henry Ford’s assembly line system and the principles laid out by Frederick Winslow Taylor, the father of time and motion studies and scientific management.
Javel’s output was so impressive that after America entered the war several representatives of the US government and industry visited his new factory, leading to many American newspapers dedicating columns to Citroën. When the guns finally fell silent in November of 1918 Citroën’s Javel factory did not switch back to making gearwheels but prepared to produce the first car bearing his name – the Type A – introduced in march 1919.
The second visit of the French industrialist took place in 1923, by which time Citroën had already firmly established himself as a force to be reckoned with within the European automotive landscape. Accompanied this time by his wife and three of his best engineers, André Citroën disembarked from the RMS Olympic on April the 4th.
Again, he would visit Henry Ford. He had sent him a letter beforehand from which this excerpt: “The reason for my visit is twofold. One – I want to study and compare the American organisation and industrial system with the one we have in France. Two – I wish to explore the possibilities of my autochenilles for use in the USA, mounted on a suitable American car. I am convinced that the autochenille provides the solution to the transport problems caused by bad roads. I will bring along a model T Ford converted to autochenille and will gladly demonstrate it to you.”
The T Ford could not be converted in time however, so Citroën brought along two autochenilles of their own. Over a period of two days, Henry Ford’s son Edsel put the autochenilles to the test with André Citroën in the passenger seat; it did not lead to Ford adopting the system but the US Army would later on make several types of halftrack vehicle, producing the autochenille system under license from Citroën.
Contrary to his first visit, Citroën’s arrival in the USA did not go unnoticed this time and the press published several newspaper articles. Some implied that Citroën might be planning to establish a factory on US soil; he was cited: “All the qualities of the affordable and dependable Model T notwithstanding, what is missing is agreeable styling. When you produce a cheap car, it does not mean it has to lack grace and be ugly – life is already ugly enough as it is. In my opinion beauty does not need to suffer in volume production.”
The factory never materialised as we now know; it is unclear whether the newspaper articles were simply – to use a word out Henry Ford’s book – “bunk“, or that the US car industry did not welcome the arrival of a competitor like Citroën and used their influence to prevent it from happening.
After this visit, André Citroën was convinced that expansion was key, as were adaptation of the modern American production methods but translated into a European context. Apart from Ford, he had also met with Edward G. Budd in Philadelphia and signed a license agreement to use the all pressed-steel body process for his upcoming new model, the B10.
Upon his return in Paris, Citroën sent a team of engineers to Budd to work out the subtleties of the process; huge presses weighing up to 1400 tonnes were shipped across the Atlantic to France and within a few months, to the astonishment of Budd’s specialists, Citroëns B10 production line was up and running in 1924.
The investments required had been substantial but the B10 “Tout Acier” (all iron) proved to be a success; Citroën’s publicity department promoted the at the time innovative construction process very effectively and it was probably the first time that the argument of safety was used to sell cars.
Part two will follow shortly.
 In 1925 Citroen purchased Mors outright, closed car production and converted the Mors factory to the production of Citroens.
 Sister ship to the ill-fated Titanic.
 Halftrack vehicles, an invention by Adolphe Kégresse (one of Citroën’s engineers).
 It was not just one-way traffic: Budd produced steel wheel rims under license from Michelin.