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10 Citroëns that will make you shout, “Magnifique!”
The phrase “It’s only original once” echoed through my mind as I walked past a Citroën 2CV with fewer miles on the odometer than the average press car. Over the course of nearly 40 years, French collector Henri Fradet has meticulously built a shrine to originality and authenticity called CitroMuseum. Located in Castellane, a picturesque town in the lower French Alps, the museum houses more than 110 post-war classics best described as time capsules. His cars look new, smell new, and, perhaps surprisingly, drive like new. With two notable exceptions, every car in the collection is in running condition.
The museum is relatively low-key; only a few signs on the historic Route Napoleon indicate its presence. Don’t look for spinning displays or flashing lights inside. The cars are neatly aligned in rows, roped off, and complemented by memorabilia like dealer signs, emblems, and period documents. It’s all in honor of Citroën. While Fradet has finally decided to display some newer, Peugeot-powered (or Peugeot-designed) cars, there is not a single vehicle in the CitroMuseum not fitted with Citroën’s double chevron emblem. Even the golf cart he uses to get around his property wears the front sheet metal of a 2CV.
The CitroMuseum is open every afternoon from April to October. Admission is €8 (about nine dollars). If you can’t trek out to the French Alps, join us for a look at some of the most eye-catching cars hidden inside.
1954 2CV A – 7285 kilometers (4526 miles)
In the 1950s, there was nothing noteworthy about this 2CV A. It was a run-of-the-mill car powered by a 9.5-horsepower, 375-cc flat-twin engine that many members of the public and press vilified for being far too basic. What’s undeniably special about it in 2019 is that it’s still in the same shape as when it was merely one of the numerous late-model 2CVs crawling across the French countryside.
The original owner was a young lady living on the outskirts of Paris who purchased the 2CV to occasionally take an elderly family member on short trips. After that person passed away in 1958, the owner parked the car in her garage and never took it out again, keeping it for sentimental reasons. In 1991, she left her garage door partially open just long enough for Citroën enthusiast Bruno Deltombe to catch a glimpse of its grille. He rang the doorbell and asked about it, but he was told in no uncertain terms that it wasn’t for sale—or even for viewing.
Deltombe knew he had spotted a real gem, and he couldn’t stop thinking about it. Over the following years, he occasionally stopped and chatted with the owner, who lived less than a mile from his house, and in 1993 he was ultimately granted the privilege of seeing it up close for the first time. It was just as he imagined: a time capsule. It took another two years of persuasion before the owner decided to sell it.
Deltombe effortlessly got the flat-twin running after cleaning the spark plugs, and he occasionally drove the 2CV until he sold it to the CitroMuseum. It’s still entirely original except for the fuel tank, which was changed when the car emerged from its 38-year slumber, and wear-and-tear parts like the battery. It is likely the last 2CV fitted with the protective paper applied to the door panels at the factory.
This 2CV starred on the cover of the first issue of 2CV Magazine, released in 1996. My parents bought the magazine for me, and the 2CV’s story fascinated seven-year-old me—I read it over and over again. Though I’ve been obsessed with cars since before I could walk, this 2CV had a formative influence on my fanatical quest to find and buy barn find-type cars—and sometimes wait years for them.
1955 DS 19 – 69,007 kilometers (42,878 miles)
There are so many different variants of the DS housed in the CitroMuseum that I wondered if Fradet figured out how to breed them. He hasn’t, for the record.
Though rather mundane at first glance, this black 1955 example stands proud as the oldest regular-production DS known. It wears chassis number 32, which makes it the 14th DS sold, but the first 13 cars are unknown, as if they never existed.
The DS made its global debut at the 1955 Paris auto show to the popping of flashbulbs. Citroën’s stand was completely mobbed; no one had ever seen anything like it. While the firm received thousands of orders during the event, it managed to make only 175 cars in 1955 because it didn’t finish building the assembly line until February 1956. Chassis #32 was consequently assembled by hand. It takes a well-trained eye to tell it apart from a later car, but step inside and you’ll notice the ride height control lever normally found in the driver-side footwell, on the left of the foot-operated parking brake, isn’t there. The feature wasn’t added until February the following year, so owners of early cars needed to use a conventional jack to lift the car and change a wheel. On later models, changing a wheel simply required raising the suspension to its highest setting, slipping a jack underneath the car, and lowering it.
Chassis #32 was originally shipped to a dealership in Valence, France, to be used as a demonstrator. It should have been returned to Citroën, but the dealer ended up selling it to a customer he knew well who really wanted to get his hands on a DS without standing in line. He might have regretted his purchase; he put only 10,000 kilometers (6200 miles) on it over the course of two years, and the car suffered from the various hydraulic problems that plagued early examples.
The 14th DS passed through the hands of several more owners, including at least one who recognized its significance, and spent 13 years in a museum in Holland before joining the CitroMuseum in 2004. It’s still fitted with its original 75-horsepower, 1.9-liter four-cylinder engine.
1966 DS 21 Cabriolet – 147,174 kilometers (91,449 miles)
In the 1960s, sun worshippers who wanted to cruise in a topless DS had several options. More than a half-dozen coachbuilders in France and abroad chopped the top off Citroën’s flagship model for clients willing to pay a not-insignificant sum. However, the only factory-authorized convertible conversion was made by coachbuilder Henri Chapron.
The factory-approved conversion retained the DS sedan’s front end and its mechanical components, including the hydropneumatic suspension. Chapron reinforced the A-pillars, added about four inches of sheet metal to the front doors (which required using two hinges per door), and built a convertible-specific rear end using a single piece of steel. Most of the trim pieces were specific to this body style, too. In other words, good luck finding them today.
Chapron made 1365 examples of the factory-approved convertible. The model was sold through Citroën dealerships, but the painstakingly long production process made it about twice as expensive as a regular, four-door DS. Somewhat confusingly, Chapron also made 289 units of a convertible he designed himself, which featured a different rear end.
The CitroMuseum’s Cabriolet lived in Paris from 1966–70. It was then purchased by a man who sold French fries in Cannes, on the French Riviera, before ending up in the hands of one of Fradet’s friends. It’s a little bit of an oddity in the museum because its mileage is relatively high, and it’s not entirely original; it was restored during the 1990s. Its rarity earned it a spot in the collection, though.
1970 M35 – 31,244 kilometers (19,414 miles)
The M35 is one of the most off-beat production models made by Citroën, and wasn’t designed to generate any kind of sales volume. It was a highly experimental car built in limited numbers and put in the hands of carefully-selected customers to gather feedback and real-world data about the technology stuffed under its sheet metal.
Starting with an Ami 8 platform, Citroën added an evolution of the hydropneumatic suspension that equipped the DS. It was the smallest car in the firm’s portfolio to offer this feature. Power came from a 995-cc, single-rotor Wankel engine developed by Comotor, a joint venture created by Citroën and NSU. The rotary delivered 49 horsepower and 50 lb-ft of torque, figures that made it a real powerhouse compared to the Ami 8’s 31.5-hp twin, and it sent the M35 from 0–62 mph in about 19 seconds. The best time Ami 8 drivers could hope to achieve was around 30 seconds.
The Wankel was so silent that Citroën added a sensor that triggered an audible alarm when it approached its 7000-rpm redline. Coachbuilder Heuliez topped the M35’s frame with an entirely new, two-door body with a fastback-like roof line.
The M35 cost more than an entry-level DS in 1969, its first year on the market. Only customers who could prove they drove more than 30,000 kilometers (about 18,500 miles) annually were eligible to purchase one of the 500 examples planned. Citroën couldn’t fill every available build slot. While each M35 was numbered with a sticker on the driver-side fender, the numbers were adjusted to make it look like 500 examples were produced. In reality, the company made about 267 cars.
Citroën attempted to buy back every M35, sometimes by offering owners generous incentives, but about a third of the production run survived. Two examples are in the CitroMuseum. Numbered 388 and 160, respectively, both were stored for extended periods of time, and both are in running condition. Citroën has at least one M35 (#169) in its private collection on the outskirts of Paris, while another that’s missing its serial number lives in Volkswagen’s Zeithaus museum in Wolfsburg, Germany.
1972 Mehari – 4376 kilometers (2719 miles)
Fradet spent several years searching for a Mehari worthy of joining his collection. Citroën made approximately 144,000 examples of its 2CV-based beach car, so calling it rare wouldn’t be accurate, but very few have survived in original condition because the Mehari has completely transcended its status as an economy car. In 2019, it is often seen parked next to Porsche Cayennes and BMW X6s at high-end restaurants on the French Riviera. When it was new, however, it was a disposable workhorse that owners happily drove into the ground without thinking twice.
Numerous aftermarket companies specialize in transforming clapped-out examples into jet-setter-approved classics that look good but are anything but original.
Fradet wanted the real thing. He found exactly what he was looking for in a small town named Effiat, located in central France. City officials were finally selling the Mehari they purchased new in 1972 for their fire-fighting department. It had always been stored indoors, but its hood was badly faded. It buffed out; pardon the expression.
The Mehari in the CitroMuseum is a two-wheel-drive model powered by a 602-cc flat-twin engine rated at 33 horsepower. To participate in fire-fighting missions, it received a searchlight on the A-pillar (though the base of the light is wider than the pillar) and a beacon above the windshield.
1974 GS Birotor – 28,832 kilometers (17,915 miles)
Citroën didn’t go through the trouble of designing, manufacturing, and destroying the M35 just for the sake of doing things as unconventionally as possible. In the early 1970s, it doggedly believed the Wankel engine would power upmarket variants of cars like the GS and CX. That’s why the SM’s V-6 didn’t fit in the CX’s engine bay; run-of-the-mill examples were planned with a four-cylinder, while more expensive variants were envisioned with compact twin- and triple-rotor rotary engines.
Back to the road: Citroën began its Wankel-fueled upmarket push by releasing a more lavish version of the GS named Birotor. It was powered by a 107-hp, twin-rotor evolution of the M35’s single-rotor engine that spun the front wheels through a three-speed semi-automatic transmission. That sounds like an odd choice, and it is, but insiders later explained engineers couldn’t make the Wankel-manual combination smooth enough in time for the car’s launch at the 1973 Frankfurt auto show. The hydropneumatic suspension from the regular GS remained, but the front disc brakes were installed directly behind the wheels rather than mounted inboard.
Citroën initially planned to differentiate the Birotor from its flat-four-powered sibling by giving it a noticeably different exterior design, but it couldn’t afford to make the changes. Instead, the Birotor got fender flares, model-specific paint colors, 14-inch steel wheels held by five bolts, and an array of emblems, among other minor details. It was also a nicer place to spend time, thanks to a full instrument cluster, thick carpeting, and seats with built-in headrests.
The Birotor’s career started on the wrong foot. It cost more than an entry-level DSuper 5, and few buyers felt comfortable with the idea of spending DS money on a GS, even one with nearly twice the power of an entry-level model. This problem wasn’t insurmountable — the Wankel would have likely gotten cheaper as production increased — but the 1973 oil crisis decimated the Birotor’s career.
Citroën hadn’t been able to keep the Wankel’s voracious appetite for gasoline in check. The Birotor consequently became nearly unsellable when fuel became an expensive and scarce commodity. The few motorists who could afford to run one daily weren’t able to exploit its full potential because the French government instituted strictly-enforced speed limits on the nation’s growing network of freeways.
Birotor production ended in 1975 after Citroën made about 847 examples. On the brink of another bankruptcy, the firm had little interest in making spare parts for the model, so it attempted to buy back as many examples as possible to destroy them.
Only about a third of the production run survived. One of two examples housed in the CitroMuseum, this 1974 Birotor died on its way to a Citroën meet in central France in 1995. It was sold during the event as a non-running project and traveled to the south of France before joining Fradet’s collection. It’s one of the two non-running cars in the CitroMuseum; the second is an electric Saxo that’s missing its battery pack.
1978 GS Basalte – 97,250 kilometers (60,428 kilometers)
The GS never got the opportunity to turn a tire on American asphalt. If it had, and Citroën fully planned on selling it here, it would have looked a lot like the limited-edition Basalte released in 1978.
Based on the GS Club, which used a 1.2-liter, air-cooled flat-four, the Basalte gained an array of upmarket equipment developed for export models, including the American-spec car Citroën aborted when it left the United States. It received headlight wipers, chromed mirrors, full hubcaps borrowed from the range-topping Pallas model, front fog lights, sunroof, and an edition-specific red and black paint job with Basalte emblems. All told, it looked sportier than a standard GS (pictured in beige).
The treatment continued inside with two-tone cloth upholstery, black carpet, and a cassette player. There were no mechanical modifications, which was par for the course when it came to limited edition cars. The Basalte’s flat-four made 65 horsepower and 67 lb-ft of torque. Citroën built 5000 examples of the Basalte, and it allocated 1800 of those to the French market. The car sold out in a matter of months. In 2019, it’s one of the most sought-after variants of a model that’s largely brushed aside by collectors.
The CitroMuseum’s Basalte was sold new in southwestern France. Four years later, the buyer traded it in to the same dealership he bought it from. The owner of the garage was aware of its rarity, so he stored it in a corner of his shop for over 30 years. He never drove it, but he maintained it and kept it in running condition. Its mileage is high compared to other variants of the GS in the CitroMuseum, but its rarity and the fact that it’s in like-new condition convinced Fradet to add it to his collection.
1986 Axel – 1936 kilometers (1202 miles)
Some of the most collectible classic cars come from the Citroën family. The 2CV, the DS, and the HY van are sought after by collectors all around the world. The Paris-based firm has also made cars that, decades after their release, are among the most under-appreciated (and sometimes downright rejected) models in the pantheon of automotive history. The Axel is the latter group’s poster child.
The Ami 8 that was released in 1969 was a minor update of the Ami 6, which was launched in 1961 using components borrowed from the 2CV presented in 1948. It was not exactly cutting edge, in other words. To replace it, Citroen teamed up with Fiat and began working on a brand-new car internally referred to as Project Y. It was a four-door city car powered by a Fiat 127-sourced four-cylinder engine. Project Y was on track to enter production in the mid-1970s until Fiat and Citroën suddenly ended their collaboration. It then morphed into a prototype powered by a GS-sourced flat-four, but that project also got side-tracked when Peugeot saved Citroen from an uncertain fate and embarked on a cost-cutting campaign.
The 104 was alchemized into the LN to inject a much-needed dose of modernity into the Citroën family as quickly and as cheaply as possible. Behind the scenes, however, Project Y continued zig-zagging towards production, this time using an architecture (and, for some trim levels, engines) borrowed from the aforementioned 104. It was finally released in 1978 as the Visa. Citroën needed money, and the Project Y in its post-Fiat configuration was nearly ready for production, so officials tried selling it to another automaker. The problem is that they were peddling an utter bastard of a car in the truest sense of the term. No one wanted it until Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu knocked on Citroën’s door in search of a people’s car to pelt below Dacia’s Renault-based range.
Citroën and the Romanian government formed a joint venture named Oltcit in December 1976 to manufacture the Project Y, but production didn’t begin until 1982. Many blamed the nearly six-year delay on the dense jungle of red tape that surrounded Romanian bureaucracy in that era. Meanwhile, designers deleted the Oltcit’s rear doors to make it easier and more affordable to build.
The Oltcit became the Axel when it joined the Citroën portfolio in western Europe in 1984. Powered by a GSA-sourced flat-four, it was an oddity in a lineup that also included the 2CV, Visa, LNA, and, later, the AX. Citroën didn’t want it, and it certainly didn’t have the space for it, but the deal it signed with the Romanian government in 1976 required a half-hearted attempt to distribute the car in western Europe. The Axel cost less than a 2CV, shockingly, but the car’s confusing positioning, outdated design, and atrocious build quality prevented it from gaining traction on the European market. Production for western Europe ended in 1990 after about 28,000 examples were sold in France.
The CitroMuseum’s Axel is a 1986 model exhumed from a Parisian parking garage where it spent 20 years. It was purchased by a man diagnosed with Diogenes syndrome. His condition likely explained his purchase; he didn’t have a driver’s license, according to his family, but hoarding is one of the known symptoms of Diogenes. After he died, his brother got it back in running condition and later sold it to Fradet.
1987 CX REGAMO prototype – 30,296 kilometers (18,825 miles)
At first glance, there is nothing unusual or noteworthy about this CX GTI. It needed to fly under the radar because it was one of a dozen prototypes built by Citroën in 1987 to test the new, more advanced suspension system it was developing for the XM planned for release in 1989. It received a firmness regulator under the hood, an ECU for the suspension hidden under the carpet in the passenger-side footwell, and a switch on the dashboard that let the driver select one of two suspension modes called automatic and sport, respectively. All three features were later found on the XM.
Citroën kept about half of the prototypes and put them through various tests in-house. The rest were dispatched to dealers and loaned to hand-picked loyal customers who could prove they drove at least 30,000 kilometers (about 18,500 miles) annually. They were asked to provide feedback about comfort and reliability, among other points. The prototypes tested by customers were returned to the dealership they came from at the end of the 30,000-kilometer test period, stripped of the XM parts, converted into standard CX GTIs, and sold as used cars—likely to buyers who had no idea that they had just purchased a former rolling laboratory.
The owner of a Citroën dealership in southern France kept this example when it was returned to him. He decided not to transform it into a CX GTI because he accurately predicted it would become a rare, obscure, and fascinating classic. He stored it indoors for decades.
1990 2CV Charleston – 726 kilometers (451 miles)
Citroën created one of the most emblematic variants of the 2CV as a last-ditch effort to squeeze as much life out of the model as possible. In 1980, when sitting in a new 2CV felt like traveling to a past geological epoch, the automaker’s marketing department designed the limited-edition Charleston model by giving the car a two-tone paint job loosely inspired by the Roaring ’20s, houndstooth cloth upholstery… and not much else. Power still came from a 602-cc flat-twin rated at 29 horsepower.
The 2CV Charleston made its debut at the 1980 Paris Auto Show as a limited edition model. The 8000 examples that Citroën planned to build sold out faster than anyone imagined possible in spite of a 10-percent price hike. And, to the company’s great surprise, the Charleston drew younger buyers into showrooms. Suddenly, the 2CV became a trendy fashion item rather than an umbrella on wheels.
The Charleston’s popularity single-handedly extended the 2CV’s career. It became a trim level in July 1981, and it was later offered in additional color combinations, including black and yellow. Fittingly, the last 2CV made—on July 27, 1990—was a Charleston.
The example in the CitroMuseum is one of the last 2CVs built. In early 1990, after Citroën announced the end of the 2CV’s 42-year-long production run, two brothers from the eastern part of France decided to each buy a Charleston and keep them in like-new condition. Fradet’s car was driven sparingly for the first six months of its life because its owner wanted to take advantage of Citroën’s free maintenance plan. It was parked with 451 miles on the clock and stored indoors for the next 20 years. The second 2CV was only driven from the dealership where it was purchased to the location where the owner stored it, so its odometer shows 13 original miles. It’s still in the hands of the original owner.