Driven joins Citroen enthusiasts out to celebrate their favourite car's 80th

When engineers drove the first Traction Avant into a Paris car showroom in 1934 they knew it was special.

The super-stylish Citroen was decades ahead of its time, with front-wheel-drive, a welded monocoque body, hydraulic brakes and independently sprung suspension (a torsion bar and wishbone arrangement).

The Traction ate up rough roads, always handled well, proved extremely reliable and won many races. About 760,000 units were produced from 1934 till 1957 and it's said they just got better as they went along.

In fact, the Traction Avant remains popular with classic car buffs the world over, all parts are still manufactured in Europe and as little as $20,000 gets you a reliable example in Kiwiland.


But there was no need to preach any of this to about 60 enthusiasts gathered at Continental Cars Greenlane recently. The Citroen Owners Club was out in force to celebrate the 80th birthday of the remarkable car. Having stoked up on coffee and pastries, we formed a convoy -- which included at its peak between 10 and 15 Tractions, plus a few more modern hangers-on. Resembling some reunion of the French Resistance, we plied rural roads between Pokeno, Cambridge, Te Awamutu, Kihikihi and Te Kuiti.

All day we drew longing looks of admiration and spent a pleasant evening chewing the fat at Waitomo.

Those slightly nerdy Citroen enthusiasts -- a few from the Waikato, Bay of Plenty and Taranaki -- were great companions and they certainly didn't hang around on the back roads. My wife Debra-Rose and I rode not in one of the stately long-stroke/three-gear Tractions, but in a 2014 Citroen DS5, a 120kW diesel-turbo kindly loaned by Sime Darby Automobiles. This was a beautiful car to drive and I didn't want to give it back. True, my over-hasty programming of the excellent sat-nav got us well lost. But after some light-hearted (Paul Simon/Edie Brickell-type) "banter", we eventually caught up with the convoy.

"You seldom see anything as stylish on the roads -- they look magnificent in a long line," said Whitford man Rufus Scott, who was riding along as a supporter in his DS station wagon with his daughter Stella Scott-Hansen, 12.

Dick Megchelse, of Tauranga, had polished up his gleaming Traction just for the outing. "It's the technology that gets me," he said.

Top, the DS5 DSport 2-litre turbo diesel alongside its Traction Avant ancestors.

A really stunning example was driven by event organiser Christof Colpi and his wife, Vreni. When training as an aeronautical engineer in 1970s Switzerland, Christof and his mates enjoyed hooning around in Traction Avants. Today his 1954 model -- modified with an ID 1964 motor and four-speed gear box -- is one of the best around.

"There's no doubt about comfort on a reasonable trip; these long-stoke motors are superb for cruising and you can safely go into a corner pretty much any speed you like," said Christof.

Auckland branch president Chris Grove and wife Dina were supporting the convoy in their DS. However, Chris has fond memories of his years driving his own Traction during in the mid-1960s.

"I was told it would be unreliable but that was just misinformation from British and American car importers. I often drove with my girlfriend from Auckland to her parents' place in Gisborne. The car was superb over those rough roads, with great handling and good positive steering. It got only basic servicing but we never had a problem."

Legendary Waimate Motors during the 1960s

Of course, any 80th anniversary is also an opportunity to recall flamboyant Traction owners no longer with us.

My mind went back to meeting the late Mairangi Bay identity Ernie Sklenars, who during the mid-1980s had a large property boasting several Citroen-crammed sheds.

During the 1930s, when Ernie was trained as an apprentice mechanic, you could buy a Ford or a Chev for £250 but a Citroen cost three times as much. "And worth every penny," Ernie told me.

He took delight in pointing out that Rolls Royce cars of the modern era still had a brass plate on the firewall, stating, in effect, that their brakes and suspension were courtesy of Citroen.

Ernie boasted that his 1953 Big Six French Police Traction could do 112km/h in first and make right-angle turns at 160km/h.

Ernie Sklenars, who died in 1997, was a true Citroen identity but there was one greater, "Mad Max McKay, the Citroen Crank".

"Mad Max" McKay, the Citroen Crank

During the early 1950s the young McKay got to ride at speed across the Taranaki back roads in a Traction Avant and that experience with the sure-handling car changed his life. He later launched Waimate Motors, became a Citroen dealer and set about convincing South Taranaki residents that Citroen was the only really safe car on the road.

"Max started terrorising the local townsfolk with his on-again-off-again road driving demonstrations, and calling them 'fools' if they did not heed his warnings on how unsafe the more conventional cars were," said North Island Citroen magazine.

"He had a knack for selling. In that first year there were 50 Citroens within a 16km radius of the garage. Driving a potential customer along the road he'd suddenly swerve on to the berm, bumping along the road edge to prove what a smooth ride the car gave. Often he'd take a customer on a 300km trip, arriving home hours later, just to convince them of its comfort and handling ability on all roads. Because of Max it was said Manaia had more Citroens per head of population than Paris. "He could be generous, lending money to hard-up locals, or secretly dropping off a carton of groceries at someone's back door. But in business he could be ruthless."

On October 13, 1983, just two months short of his 70th birthday, Max was found dead in a Citroen. Police said there were no suspicious circumstances.