1951 Citroën 15-Six Traction Avant
Avant-Garde Hot Rod Driving a rapid rallying Citroën Traction Beneath its unassuming exterior, this racy Citroën 15-Six Traction Avant has been built into a recreation of an unlikely rally competitor. Words Richard Heseltine. Photography Manuel Portugal.
MONTE-CARLO OR BUST!
‘Once freed from the bovine throng that passes for traffic in these parts, the Reine de la Route hooks up with a chirrup from the front tyres. Blimey, wheelspin!’
1951 Citroën 15-Six Traction Avant
She furrows her brow and nods, curious and approving, before returning to the business at hand. We are moving at the pace of a funeral cortège, having lost sight of the camera car a while ago. Flanked by the nice lady with the headscarf and a big stick, not to mention her herd of chocolate-brown heifers, there’s plenty of time to take in our surroundings. It isn’t as if we will be catching up with our comrades soon. We are more than halfway up a mountain, with weather-beaten stone walls and farm equipment ventilated by age and neglect peppering the landscape. In the distance, wind turbines churn and behind us is an elderly gentleman aboard a very noisy, modern-ish microcar.
And then there’s the road ahead. It is much the same as the road behind us: sinuous, perfectly smooth, and with only the occasional sliver of Armco to stop you from tumbling into a different realm. Motorsport is rife in this locale, and this has World Rally Championship stage written all over it, and writ large. Perfectly contorted switchbacks beckon you, and we have the perfect tool for the job – a 1951 Citroën 15-Six D. Talk about bringing a dull spoon to a gunfight.
Except, as soon becomes clear, this isn’t your average Traction Avant. Scroll back half an hour and glances were exchanged and batted away between mechanics and the car’s keepers. Those, and smirks. They then let slip that outward appearances here are deceptive; that this Citroën would be full of surprises. Accordingly, this leaves us with no excuses for how surprised we are by what surprises us. Once freed from the bovine throng that passes for traffic in these parts, the so-called Reine de la Route (Queen of the Road) hooks up with a slight chirrup from the front tyres. Blimey, wheelspin!
A few more revs and we’re into second on the vertical H-gate with a pronounced ‘ker-klunk’. It’s an idiosyncratic gearchange, the ‘mustard spoon’ lever protruding from the centre of dashboard – it is almost six feet away from the actual gears. You also have to remember that the shift pattern is decidedly odd by modern standards: first is where you expect fourth to be, second is first, third is second, and reverse is first. Of course. Naturally. It doesn’t like to be rushed, either, but you don’t think about it after five minutes spent behind the vast tiller.
It’s all rather austere in here, that’s for sure, but there’s plenty to commend. The Citroën’s signature feature is its limousine-like proportions, if only on the inside. There is plenty of room in the cabin, in part due to the lack of a transmission tunnel. The painted metal dashboard is simplicity itself. However, it appears to have picked up a few extra gauges along the way. It’s blisteringly hot, mind, a situation that isn’t helped by the fact that the 15-Six is black (naturally), and ventilation is somewhat lacking even with the windscreen cantilevered open. That said, it doesn’t help that fiddling with the controls back at base has resulted in the heater being engaged by accident: two pipes are now feeding hot air from the engine directly to the driver’s feet.
Twin Webers for tweaked motor. Below, l-r: 15-Six is better known as luxury transport; bonnet louvres among few outward signs.
Not that there’s much time to remedy the situation. Even with only a modicum of throttle, this thing moves. It isn’t fast by modern standards, but it’s way quicker than its sober exterior would have you believe. On a straightish section, it romps along with an eagerness that belies its antiquity. Into top gear, the swell and soar of the 2867cc straight-six is enthralling. It doesn’t sound like a Citroën at all, but instead has the timbre of something that bit more thoroughbred; perhaps a Le Mans Delahaye. It bellows when pressed, detonating sound in fusillades when double-declutching for downshifts in a manner that makes it hard not to giggle with childlike glee.
The beauty of any Traction Avant is its roadholding. The Autocar famously opined that the car’s prowess at taking bends at what appeared to be foolhardy speeds had no peer. ‘It is a quite exceptional car,’ it claimed, before adding: ‘One of those rare cars that improve on one’s best time for a familiar journey.’
With a little acclimatisation, it is indeed possible to hustle through bends far more quickly than you might have thought possible. The rack-and-pinion steering set-up was advanced for its day, but it isn’t lightning-quick in terms of responses – and you wouldn’t expect it to be. But it isn’t slow-witted, either.
There are limits, though. On these roads you should be anything but tittering – more clinging to the huge Bakelite wheel like a life belt. The thing is, for a four-door saloon that’s close on 70 years old, you cannot help but be astounded by its agility. Understeer isn’t pronounced; it doesn’t threaten to spill. Even by Citroën’s lofty standards, it feels as if it is from a different age. And then there are the brakes. There are some decidedly non-vintage levels of stopping power, here; levels of retardation that inspire confidence. You won’t find yourself desperately pumping the middle-pedal on a downhill section. It’s almost surreal.
After only an hour or so spent in the company of the Citroën, one thing is abundantly clear: you cannot quite believe it, but you can believe in it. It’s a Q-car, but not one where the essence of the original Traction Avant has been eroded. Latter-day running gear hasn’t been substituted – well, not exactly. It’s hard to define what, precisely, this car is. You can’t call it a ‘restomod’ because it still feels like something redolent of its era, just with its faculties dialled up to 11. All of which goes some way to explaining why the family that owns the Citroën enjoys using it so regularly, be it for a quick trip up the mountain or on long-distance events. They do so despite having access to half a dozen Bugattis, several Ferraris and other exotica.
So what is the story here? It stretches back to 1951, the year that privateer João de Lacerda entered the Rallye Monte-Carlo in a Traction Avant. The 30-something roped in Harry Rugeroni – whose family held the Rolls-Royce concession for Portugal for several decades – to be his wingman, but theirs wasn’t a happy outing and they came home in 119th place. A year later, de Lacerda entered a different Citroën and fared somewhat better. That was the year when Sydney Allard famously became the first man to win the Monte in a car of his own manufacture, with rallying new boy Stirling Moss claiming second spot aboard a Sunbeam-Talbot 90.
De Lacerda was that time assisted by Jaime Azarujinha. The duo was one of only nine crews to depart from Lisbon, Portugal, which ultimately assisted their bid. Even though it was one of the furthest start points from Monaco, the weather was better than, say, Glasgow, from where most of the British teams embarked in sub-zero temperatures. There was, of course, the small matter of the Pyrenees to contend with, but they had plenty of hassle-free running early on. Most equipes did not.
As Motor Sport reported at the time: ‘Mostly, the 1952 Monte-Carlo Rally was a story of crashes and ditchings in the snow and ice from Clermont-Ferrand onwards. Hereafter, conditions were terrible and car after car either collided with objects mobile or stationary or slid into snow banks and ditches.’ De Lacerda and Azarujinha, meanwhile, placed a highly respectable 13th overall from 328 starters. There were 165 retirements that year.
What’s more, they didn’t rack up a single penalty point, which put them in rarefied company. De Lacerda would drive the same car to 43rd place in the altogether less treacherous 1953 event, and 69th a year later. He also raced and hillclimbed the Citroën, prior to switching allegiances and campaigning a DKW.
An amateur from a time before the term became a slur, de Lacerda competed for the fun of it. However, his motorsport outings came to a juddering halt in 1957, when his brother Abel died in a road accident in which João was also seriously injured. Following a long convalescence, he was obliged to give up his medical practice and run the family health resort. His competition career was over, but the purchase of a decrepit Ford Model T and its subsequent restoration led to a new-found obsession: reviving old cars. His collecting instincts would ultimately lead to the creation of the Museu do Caramulo.
Nevertheless, he never forgot his rallying exploits. The Citroën in which he claimed his best results on the Rallye Monte-Carlo still exists, but this isn’t it. His grandson Tiago Gouveia explains: “He was very fond of the Traction Avant, and in the 1990s he became aware of a car built by Philippe Rochat. Philippe was – and remains – very well-known in the Traction Avant world, but perhaps more so for his restorations. He made modifications to his own car, which transformed it. This led to him perfecting the changes and my grandfather commissioned him to build something similar. You have to know that he collected many cars and motorcycles but he would never alter them, they were always kept in original condition or restored to how they were originally, so this was something unusual for him.”
“A car was located in France in the late ’90s, then restored and modified accordingly,” he continues. “The engine was stripped and rebuilt using Porsche valves. The oil pump is also a Porsche item. The crankshaft was balanced, and a pair of Weber carburettors was installed along with things such as electronic ignition, an electric fan and an oil can to retain the oil from the engine breather. Because the transmission was always the Achilles’ heel of the car, two Audi halfshafts were also fitted.” This is a thumbnail sketch of the work that was involved, not least because not even Gouveia and his cousins who maintain the car are aware of all the changes that were made. That said, it has been tweaked a little subsequently.
“Some time after he took delivery of the 15-Six, my grandfather and Philippe decided to do the Tour du Maroc,” Gouveia adds. “There was an issue with overheating, so louvres were cut into the bonnet. The louvres are the only outward difference people spot between it and a standard Traction Avant. There were problems with the brakes, too, which took a beating so discs were installed. It’s a Maserati set-up.” Portuguese motorsport historian and author Adelino Dinis recalls: “I remember João talking about bombing down from France to Spain and then to Caramulo at 170kph [106mph] or more in his souped-up Citroën. He was still a fearsome personality even into his 70s – a remarkable guy who drove flat-out everywhere. He used to impress visitors to the region with a drive up and down the mountain.”
João de Lacerda died in 2003, but his grandchildren and other family members still enjoy this ‘tribute car’. “We participate in a number of rallies in Portugal and have a lot of fun overtaking cars that are 20 or more years younger, which leaves their drivers baffled,” Gouveia chuckles. “We normally let everyone in on the secret on the final day of an event. We wouldn’t want them to go home still scratching their heads…”
Thanks to Museu do Caramulo, Portugal (www.museudocaramulo.pt)
De Lacerda/Azarujinha head for 13th on the 1952 Monte. Right, from top: extra dials for cabin; discreet hot rod