Scribing one’s name across the firmament.
The roaring twenties was a favourable decade for Citroën; not only did his cars gain a reputation for reliability, economy of operation and modernity, but the carmaker also was one of the first in the field to appreciate and apply the power of publicity on a grand scale. And we do mean grand. During the 1922 Paris motor show he hired an aeroplane to fly over the city and write his company name in the sky – over three miles long – the first time this was ever done.
A few years later, the Eiffel tower would become the world’s largest lighted commercial display by means of 250,000 light bulbs; upon his final descent to the airport of Le Bourget after his 33-hour solo flight, Charles Lindbergh used the lighted Eiffel tower as a guiding beacon. Seizing the publicity opportunity, Citroën invited the aeronautic pioneer to Javel where the entire workforce as well as the domestic press greeted the first man to fly non-stop over the Atlantic.
There were also the placques Citroën: thousands of enamelled metal road traffic signs that were seen all over France. They were donated by SA Citroën but cleverly incorporated the by now famous logo of the company in their design, thus doubling as unmistakeable advertising signs. Amazingly, by the end of 1925, after just six years of existence, Citroën ranked as the fourth largest car company in the world: only Chrysler, General Motors and Ford had a larger output.
André Citroën, one of whose famous mottos was “When the idea is good, the costs are irrelevant“, also created headlines in the press for less positive reasons: he was a compulsive gambler and played at the only level he knew – the highest stakes. In early 1929 the bespectacled Frenchman lost US $500,000 at the casino in Deauville in one evening; if today a person of note would lose such an amount in one night it would likely still generate publicity – let alone in 1929.
Having said that, Citroën had not long before won US $1,3 million on a single night at Deauville as well which might explain why he did not seem particularly bothered by the loss. On more than one occasion he rebuffed those who criticised him on the subject thusly: “If I were not a gambler, I would not be where I am today“.
When Citroën arrived in America in October of 1931 for his third and what would be his last visit, the general mood in the country was quite different compared to eight years earlier: the USA was in the midst of the great depression that swept the country at the turn of the decade. Many American carmakers had been wiped out, but Ford had survived and André Citroën would once again visit him, presenting him with his new C6 while Henry Ford showed him Dearborn’s Model A.
Accompanied by the French ambassador to the USA, Citroën visited president Herbert Hoover at the white house; the two men were no strangers to each other as Hoover had visited Citroën’s Javel factory near the end of world war 1, then serving as head of the US Food Administration.
The French industrialist’s busy schedule included a lecture at the university of Columbia, one at the Congress of American Industry and a presentation of a film produced by Citroën about the gruelling Croisière Noire as a guest of the National Geographic Society. Now at the height of his fame, André Citroën was hosted like a celebrity and often escorted by an impressive motorcycle detail carrying both the French flag and the Stars and Stripes.
The French carmaker also visited Budd again and had a meeting with Walter P. Chrysler in New York, whose car bearing his name had been introduced a year after Citroën’s previous visit to the USA; a licensing contract was signed whereby Citroën obtained the rights to use Chrysler’s floating power rubber engine mounts in his cars. The system would be known as the moteur flottant (floating engine) on Citroëns and cars so equipped wore a badge with the evocative image of a swan serenely drifting on the water surface.
In his diary, André Citroën noted the conflicting images he was confronted with in a troubled country crippled by a depression: “Despite the fact that the crisis has affected so many people negatively, I am amazed that the larger cities bathe in light, day and night. Even the railroad tracks are illuminated which seems like an enormous waste to me. Shops with luxury goods and fashion continue to thrive, and cinemas remain popular. Wine and other alcoholic drinks are still easy to acquire despite the Prohibition rules. The streets in the city centres are clogged with row after row of cars.”
Not long after his last trip to the United States, Citroën’s fortunes began to decline, not simply as a result of his boundless ambition but also an obsession to surpass his French rivals and above all, Renault; the almost total rebuilding of the Quai de Javel factory in 1933 at enormous cost, during which production continued almost undiminished being a prime example.
The seminal Traction Avant posed several stubborn teething problems during and after its development as well as a few costly engineering dead ends and would be the final straw for the banks upon which Citroën relied on for the lifeblood of his company. Forced to relinquish the reins to the Michelin family and his spirit broken, André Citroën succumbed to slumbering stomach cancer in July 1935.
The company that continued to bear the double chevron would survive, even thrive for extended periods of time, and for several decades after his death would continue to develop and produce innovative and intelligent cars as well as accompany them with a publicity effort where originality and style were guiding principles, just as they were when André Citroën illuminated the Eiffel tower with his name.