Citroën Traction Avant: The car that propelled a nation

Summer, 1940. The Luftwaffe is poised to begin air raids over Paris, and Panzers are advancing through the Ardennes forest. On a farm just 100km south of the French capital, a man spreads straw over the dusty black flanks of a 1939 Citroën Traction Avant; the advancing blitzkreig has an insatiable appetite for wheeled transport, and is known to requisition cars it meets on its march west.

By late June, Paris will have fallen, and the streets will see a familiar sight turned sinister: commandeered black Traction Avants driven by flying squads of Gestapo agents, arriving in the middle of the night. For a time, the car’s twin-chevron grille will be a harbinger of evil, a maw that swallows whole the enemies of the Third Reich and their families.

It was also the chariot of choice for thieves and gangsters, men such as Pierre “Le Fou” Loutrel, who collaborated with the Nazis when it suited his needs, and then gunned down German officers when the tide of the war began to turn. The Traction was agile, low-slung and spacious, and many would be pressed into use by la resistance, their doors hand-lettered with the white “FFI” of the French Free Army.

Many Traction Avants met their end in this turmoil, but not the one covered in straw. It stayed hidden throughout the war, emerging only after gasoline rationing ceased. It was driven sparingly, and eventually passed into the hands of a US collector who drove it on hunting trips across Europe. His quarry: rare sports cars to import. Eventually it would make its way across the Atlantic, change hands once again and find itself parked across from a cheery red Citroën 2CV in the garage of Chris Adshead, a resident of the sleepy seaside village of Horseshoe Bay, British Columbia.

Adshead has owned his Traction Avant since 1977, and the 2CV – his 13th – since 1986. He also has a bottomless collection of Citroën memorabilia, from a carton of models passed along by fellow “Citroënthusiast” Dave Clifford, to a pair of toy Traction Avants manufactured at the Citroën factory under the direction of André-Gustave Citroën himself.

Born in Paris in 1878, Citroën was less an engineer than a dreamer, gambler and showman. The toy cars are just one of his brainwaves, built to spur the imagination of children such that they would grow up to buy a Citroën automobile.

Starting out producing simple and durable bulk transportation, Citroën was fascinated by the process of mass production, something he became quite expert at. Those well-known twin chevrons come from a pattern of herringbone gears he stumbled across, patented and promoted. During World War I, his Paris-based factory produced artillery shells in huge quantities. Though not initially interested in cars, he found himself part of the nascent automobile industry.

The Traction Avant, which celebrates its 80th birthday this year, was filled with innovations. Styled by sculptor Flaminio Bertoni and engineered by André Lefèbvre and Maurice Sainturat, it was incredibly modern by the standards of the time, being the first mass-produced unibody, front-wheel-drive car, and containing hydraulic brakes. Conceived in just 18 months, it would nevertheless ruin the man whose name it bore.

The Traction Avant was  not built to a radical spec sheet: targets were set for a modest top speed of 100kph (62mph), and 10 litres of fuel consumed for every 100km travelled. Though originally intended to operate with an automatic transmission, early gearboxes failed and the car ended up with a three-speed manual. The final product, however, was still a very forward-thinking design. Built entirely of steel at a time dominated by wood-frame construction, the Traction Avant was approximately 25% lighter than its contemporaries. Because the unibody construction eliminated the need for frame rails, it was much lower than other cars, yet still boasted a capacious interior.

With its expansive wheelbase, the Traction Avant was stretched and languid. Initially available as a Berline, cabriolet, or faux-cabriolet (coupe), variants would later include the rare commerciale with its flat-folding rear seats, and the familiale, which could seat nine. Early cars were fitted with a four-cylinder 1302cc engine making just 32 horsepower, earning it the official name 7CV for seven chevaux vapeur, or steam-horsepower. Later models would have greater power outputs, with the 11CV (known simply as the Onze) making up to 63hp, and the later six-cylinder 15CV up to 73hp. A prototype model called the 22CV was built with a 3.8-litre V8, but never entered production and no examples are believed to survive.

The tremendous cost of developing and producing the car eventually bankrupted Citroën, and the company fell into the hands of Michelin, the company's primary creditor. Just one year after the Traction Avant launched, André Citroën died of stomach cancer in Paris.

He never witnessed his Traction Avant become a central part of French motoring culture. The public was first scandalised by the exploits of Le Fou Peirrot and his gang des Tractions Avant, and later terrorised by the Gestapo. Just as the powerful Ford V8 would become a favourite of US bank-robbers such as John Dillinger, the nimble Citroën's ability to outpace other cars down narrow roads would make it a favourite of French outlaws.

From these unsavoury uses, the Citroën would become the car of choice for French politicians in the post-war period, and find itself immortalised in popular culture. Hergé, creator of the Tintin series of cartoons, would pit his boy detective against a black Traction Avant in The Calculus Affair. In the 1952 and 1955 Tour de France, a Traction Avant would carry 1948 World Champion accordionist Yvette Horner through the countryside, following the cyclists. Perched on the roof, Horner serenaded the onlookers in a quintessentially French scene.

At any point in its rollicking journey, the Traction Avant stood as a symbol of French identity. It ferried dignitaries and criminals, families and film stars, and the commerciale versions were a common sight delivering baguettes in French villages and cities.

Including cars built abroad in Forest, Belgium, and Slough, UK, nearly 800,000 Traction Avants were made between 1934 and 1957. Eventually, it was replaced by the DS, which would usher in a golden age of innovation at Citroën.

Adhead's 1939 Traction smokes a little as it performs a heavy-helmed three-point turn on the local pier; even in this, it is quintessentially French. Onlookers gather, a curious cyclist snaps a picture with his smartphone, an older gentleman – clearly familiar with the car – asks pointed questions.

While not as immediately recognisable on this side of the Atlantic as a “Tin Snail” 2CV, the Traction Avant is arguably the more important car, the French voiture par-excellence.

If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Autos, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.