A Citroën “Big Fifteen” Proves a Thoroughly Satisfactory Family Car on a Hurried Excursion to the West Country and Wales
Motoring journalists, when they are not being feasted sumptuously prior to being shown a new car or accessory for which publicity is sought (who first had the bright thought, I wonder, of “feeding the brutes” before letting them put pens to paper – or chisels to stone ?) are, in the eyes of their readers, tearing about the country in an endeavour to destroy motor cars lent to them by gullible manufacturers for purposes of road-test.
To conduct a full, scientific road-test can be very hard work, so it wasn’t long in the history of motoring journalism before the journalist discovered that he could avoid technicalities by thinking up a touring article as an excuse for borrowing a new car brim-full of petrol and taking it on a pleasing holiday excursion.
From the title of this article you might deduce that the Editor had sunk to this level when he asked Citroën Cars, Ltd. for the weekend loan of a “Big Fifteen” saloon. This, however, is not quite the whole story.
The fact is that, some time ago, certain correspondence was published in MOTOR SPORT concerning the demerits of the traction avant Citroën. No car is perfect and in any case enthusiasts for this popular car rallied to its defence, but in order to put the matter into better personal perspective I decided that I should renew acquaintance with this famous car, the conception of which dates back to 1932 or earlier. What I desired to do was to judge the Citroën not so much from the viewpoint of the professional road-tester as from that of the private owner. If, I argued, I took my wife and three young daughters for a quick glimpse of the West Country before winter closed in, I should, on my return, be in a position to decide whether the front-drive Citroën is an out-dated design or a satisfactory family car.
It is only fair to confess that when this ambitious idea of taking the children for a hurried look at the south coast of Cornwall, the north coast of Devon and a little of South Wales, as well as visiting some friends in the course of one weekend, took shape, I could think of few cars better suited to the undertaking than the modern Citroën.
The level-keel ride of the car from Slough is an advantage when children are amongst the “crew” apart from reducing fatigue in adults, and the well-known safety-factors of strong all-steel structure, low build, and safety-glass in all the windows, offset a natural apprehensiveness which secretly most parents possess when driving fast with the family on board. Moreover, the spaciousness of the “Big Fifteen,” its durable real leather upholstery, entire absence of fumes, and the ample storage space for luggage and auxiliaries are other features of obvious value for family motoring – the new 124 cu.ft. luggage boot possesses great carrying capacity in spite of the spare wheel being carried therein, so that its rather ugly exterior is readily forgiven (throughout the weekend in question the children counted Citroëns – “those with humps and those without !”)
On this topic, let me say that the boot lid has a convincing supporting-stay with sensible release and that the doors and back of the front seat squab have unobtrusive but useful pockets, while the facia has an equally useful cubby-hole. All this was a great help when my wife produced the usual enormous mountain of luggage on the Friday afternoon. Just before 4 p.m. the two elder children were scooped up from school, the wide bench seats providing ample accommodation for everyone, and we were away. The back ways were taken to Basingstoke and soon we were cruising at a secure sixty miles per hour down A30.
This “Big Fifteen,” although having a four-cylinder engine of only 1,911 c.c., thinks nothing of cruising at between 60 and 70 m.p.h., although its normal maximum is not much in excess of the latter speed. Its steady riding and imposing dimensions contribute to the sense of effortless running, and the almost entire absence of rolling when cornering fast pays ‘dividends where children’s sensitive stomachs are concerned. The bench seats have folding central armrests, but the aforesaid absence of roll renders these unnecessary, save for resting the arms while those “pulls,” by means of which occupants of many modern cars contrive to retain their dignity, would be quite out of place in the Citroën! The low build is doubtless responsible for this delightful stability (you step down into a Citroën !) yet the ground clearance is ample, even the exhaust pipe being positioned sufficiently high up to be out of harm’s way when reversing up to kerbs, etc.
Yet, for all the firmness of its torsional suspension the Citroën gives an exceptionally comfortable ride over the notoriously bad road surfaces encountered up and down the country – which is no slight on the roads of the West Country, which in general are splendidly maintained and decently signposted. The only penalty for this comfortable yet stable suspension is a mild degree of up-and-down but pitch-free movement at low speeds when, incidentally, the car is sufficiently quiet for you to hear the upholstery creak.
To leave the Citroën’s detail merits for a while and return to our November journey, the last of the daylight faded round the gaunt trees fringing Salisbury Plain, the Cathedral spire appeared dead ahead, we negotiated the long detour of Salisbury town and night closed about us. Without hurrying, and with two pauses, we reached Exeter, where we planned to spend the first night, just before 8 p.m., with 149 miles on the odometer. A very helpful policeman found us the small, comfortable hotel we sought, and for the sake of others who find themselves in this elegant town after the children’s normal bedtime we can recommend taking a route straight to St. David’s Station (it still bears the “G.W.R.” crest on its grey-stone portals) and the hotel opposite.
This winter evening run had proved the Citroën capable of putting 40 miles into each hour without fireworks (although only a hustling Austin pick-up and a Jaguar up Chard Hill, before entering that fine avenue of trees, had overtaken us), and when, after dinner, it was suggested that I should take a friend of my wife’s to Newton Abbot to catch her ‘bus to Brixharn, while my wife stayed with the children, I was able to confirm the car’s ability to cover the ground without pushing its speedometer reading beyond 70 m.p.h. It was only natural that, alone in the “Big Fifteen,” I should forsake family driving for road-test tactics. Including negotiation, both up and down, of a 1 in 7 gradient, finding Newton Abbot’s ‘bus station and turning round to return, the Citroën again comfortably pushed 40 miles into less than sixty minutes. During this hour’s drive I experienced again the joy of steering which, if heavy, is completely devoid of lost motion, is high-geared, shock-free, and exceedingly accurate. I delighted in rushing into wet, leaf-strewn corners and employing traction avant to take the car securely round. The Lockheed brakes, I decided, were entirely adequate, although seeming to lack power until, during subsequent experiments, I stamped really heavily on the pedal. They were entirely devoid of tricks and could be used purposefully on slippery roads with a certainty that retardation would be in a straight line. The judder which accompanied hard applications was in no way troublesome.
The big steering wheel, the polished-wood facia panel with its high-quality instruments grouped before the driver (lacking, however, oil-gauge or thermometer), the good visibility (somewhat blanked to the near side by a big central rear-view mirror) and the rigidity of the car, as conveyed by its tremor-free bonnet and lamps, appealed so much that I experienced surprise that in the past I have craved cars with finger-light controls, supple springing and pressed-tin interiors adorned with “dried milk” fittings.
It is not my intention to deal in this article with the detail aspects of the Citroën, for the “Big Fifteen” is very similar in appointments and equipment to the six-cylinder and a full road-test report on that model appeared in MOTOR SPORT for May, 1952, under the heading of “A Truly Excellent Motor Car.”
But in a weekend jaunt, which, as will be seen, exceeded 700 miles, certain features proved invaluable. Of these, I would include the high-set headlamps, which, unlike many in-built lamps I have driven behind, gave an admirable light in both normal and dipped positions, and the typically-French lamps control, extending from the steering column, carrying the button for the sensibly-toned horn at its extremity, and giving side lamps only or headlamps additionally by turning its knob, a flick of the lever itself taking you, according to the position of the knob, from side lamps to dipped headlamps (for signalling) or from full to dipped headlamps. The horn press is rather lightly sprung, however, so that you are apt to sound an aural warning when meaning to give a visual one. I found no inconvenience in an indicator control set on the facia, liked the hand ignition control, could easily reach the roof lamp switch, but thought the pedals rather too close-set.
With these discoveries in mind I went to bed in keen anticipation of some good motoring on the morrow.
Saturday morning dawned wet, but so warm that we had no need to “pull the bung” of the charmingly simple Citroën heater. The engine started easily and settled to its work with a minimum of choke and no protests from the Solex carburetter. The rain was only a nuisanee because of the disappointment of not being able to open the sunshine roof – the Citroen ranks as one of the few modern cars possessing this excellent ventilatory feature, for which we can forgive it absence of half-windows, rain vizors and rear window blind ! – for the car is at its best on wet roads, and has efficient screen wipers. I delighted in flinging it into corners and as Devon gave way to Cornwall and the route became more sinuous I found that the steering becomes lighter and pleasantly smooth for fast cornering. There are cars which need less effort to take round bends, but few, I fancy, which feel quite so “glued to the road” and stable as the Citroën, whose tyres did not protest at our manner of going.
Our immediate destination was Liskeard. The rain became wet mist as we ran at 70 m.p.h. across a desolate Dartmoor, although even here an inevitable “Tea, Coffee, Minerals” notice was spotted! Drake looked disdainfully down on us as we turned right in Tavistock, after which we filled up with National Benzole from a hand pump operated by a talkative lady, a few miles from the Devon/Cornwall border. The rain eased off as we drove under much gay bunting in Callington and, from a 9.30 a.m. start (and a stop to buy a Biro Citizen with which to write this story and to clean the screen and windows with our new “Clean-a-Screen” device), we made Liskeard, with its 10-m.p.h. speed limits, by 11.22 a.m.
Cornwall abounds in narrow streets and lanes, into one of which scarcely wider than his car, the owner of an old Morris Minor two-seater was unconcernedly manoeuvring out of his garage. After a brief visit we went on to Looe, for the “seaside” is always an attraction with children, although on this occasion we had to disappoint our youngest daughter, aged four, when she asked “Have we got bathing costumes with us ?” However, the rain stopped and, driving beside the single-track railway and through the narrow streets of this Cornish fishing village, we were able to leave the Citroën unmolested by parking regulations or uniformed attendants and picnic on the soft sand of the sheltered beach. As we did so a huge tortoiseshell cat, spotlessly clean, came to make friends, and above us the fisher-folk mended their nets and tended their boats.
At 1.10 p.m., with 255 miles covered already, 67 of them that morning, we set off for the opposite coast, at first on the undulating lanes and then on a fine fast road to Great Torrington, up the steep main-street approach to which the Citroën ascended strongly in the middle gear of its three-speed box. That brought the mileage to 312 at 2.50 p.m., and although with friends to visit the sea eluded us, we did go to Bideford for tea, parking on the river wall, from which there is an unguarded drop into the water below. Kingsley on his pedestal was getting a drenching !
The afternoon had brought one unhappy episode, when, leaving Looe, we encountered, at a country cross-roads, an early Austin Seven saloon and a Ford Prefect saloon, both on their sides. As a local waved us on we concluded we could be of no assistance, but the impact must have been recent, for the road was strewn with broken glass and we feared for our Michelins. They proved as durable under this unwanted test as our Michelin map had proved valuable in finding the correct route.
The day’s motoring had now grown to 224 miles and although the children were tired we contrived to make Taunton that night, a chance encounter at a small garage there when inquiring about hotels revealing that its owner is a member of the Humber Register. (We pointed to a saloon standing in his yard and asked “Is it a 9/20 ?”; “No, a 9/28,” came the reply, but clearly we had established a motoring “password “!)
On this run in the dark from Great Torrington to Taunton I caused momentary consternation by tackling a “miniature Porlock” on the way to South Molton and, in concentrating on a sudden left hand bend up the 1 in 4 gradient, missed the change-down from second to bottom gear. Had I been alone the position would have been difficult because the hand-brake (well placed but of the modern pull-out variety) failed to hold the car, and the front wheels spun wildly when attempting to re-start on the slippery gradient. With the rear window steamed-up and no reversing lamps I should have been in an awkward predicament had I been alone. As it was, my wife got out and waved me into gateway, where I was able to turn round, descend, and then climb strongly in bottom gear.
“Ah,” the critics, will say, “what did we tell you ? The change from second to bottom with that facia gear-lever is impossible”. So I will now come to the point of this article, and answer Citroën critics. The gear change is not easy, I admit, although there is excellent synchromesh on second gear for the ham-handed, and the gears mesh easily providing the clutch pedal, which is light to operate, is fully depressed. The change from second to first gear calls for some brutality if hurried, but most certainly is not “impossible” and I readily admit to being ham-handed in missing it under the circumstances outlined. The fact is that, in spite of a four-cylinder engine of under-2-litre capacity and modest power output in a very big and spacious vehicle, the Citroën somehow contrives to be largely a top-gear car. It will run down to around 20 m.p.h. slog up normal hills, and accelerate quite briskly, particularly above 50 m.p.h., in that ratio. Second gear is not used much above 40 m.p.h. and bottom is very seldom needed at all once the wheels are rolling. This being the case, the gear-change characteristics can be written down as adequate, and the lever location certainly leaves the front compartment entirely unobstructed.
The steering may be heavier than on many modern cars, but I would not willingly exchange the “feel” and accuracy of its rack-and-pinion mechanism for the light but soggy and “remote” steering of many other cars, any more than I would deem their frail, finger-tip, synchromesh masked gear shifts necessarily preferable to the Citroën’s crude, but positive change. In my opinion, anyone who enjoys motoring for its own sake should be a sufficiently skilled driver and sufficiently interested in the control of his or her car to readily overlook the modicum of concentration needed in respect of these departments of the Citroën, whose virtues of first-class steering, stability and roadholding offset an occasional “crunch” from the gearbox and, in my case, slightly sore hands due to holding the deeply-serrated two-spoke steering wheel without wearing gloves ! Another criticism levelled at the modern Citroën is the frequency with which the front-drive universal-joints need greasing. Much of this and other criticisms can be laid at the door of neglected secondhand mechanism, and a Frenchman who visited the MOTOR SPORT stand at Earls Court and would not hear a word of complaint against, the marque told me that since investing in a special grease-gun with a suitably long snout he almost enjoys the 1,000 miles ritual of feeding the universals with fresh lubricant . . .
That disposes, so far as this writer is concerned, of Citroën criticisms, and arriving at Taunton after a day’s effortless family motoring of over 200 miles in rain and gale he had no reason to alter his opinions. Before a fresh spate of letters arrive from these who always contrive to average 70 m.p.h. or so from A to B (B usually being 400 miles or more from A) I would place emphasis on the family aspect of this journey, for my three young daughters are no better (if no worse) in a motor car than other children of like age, and most parents, even those who read MOTOR SPORT, will agree that there is a difference between undertaking a journey en famille and setting out to establish new personal records for speed and distance covered !
We duly found an empty hotel in rather unprepossessing Taunton, but it had no garage. However, the railway officials politely as well as willingly allowed us to leave the car in the station car park for the night for a charge of 1s. – whereas in other towns we have been told “only if you are a railway traveller.” The weather was so mild on this November Saturday evening that we had no qualms – in any case., the engine had been given its dose of Esso anti-freeze mixture.
We were not away until 9.45 a.m. next morning, taking the dull but fast road to Bristol to make another brief visit. The Bristol Constabulary were most helpful in directing us and in telling us how to cross the Bristol Channel to Wales ! So, after just missing the 11.30 a.m. Aust Ferry, we sat waiting for the 12.30 p.m. boat, the children eating Sharp’s toffees as a precaution against mal de mer. This ferry, signposted Aust Ferry for miles and finally Chepstow Ferry, costs 11. 6d. for a car of the size of a “Big Fifteen,” less for smaller cars, and there is a nominal charge for adults and children. It takes about 10 minutes to get over, loading and unloading facilitated by a turntable on the Severn Queen, which has accommodation on deck for up to 81 persons and which steamed along in fine style, riding as smoothly as a Citroën. As it saves a detour of nearly 60 miles from Aust to Chepstow via Gloucester, the ferry is worth taking and in the average car represents no financial loss in view of petrol saved. It might interest rally organisers besides holiday travellers. We could be excused for expecting to be the only users on this winter Sunday morning with sea-mist and rain blotting out he opposite coast. Not a bit of it! Cars were queuing up on both sides to make the crossing.
Incidentally, it is possible to entrain a car through the Severn Tunnel, farther down the coast, but this service does not operate on Sunday morning. It is, however, worth noting that the cost is only slightly more than by Severn Queen and is balanced by an even greater saving in petrol and time.
Wales greeted us with rain, fog as we ascended into the hills, and closed shops, so that we made a slight diversion in Usk to be certain of obtaining petrol, filling up with Esso Extra. We now encountered two Singer 1,500 saloons in quick succession just as, over Dartmoor, two 1 1/4-litre M.G.s were encountered. Otherwise, only a nice 12/40 Lea-Francis two-seater and a Singer-based Special enlivened this part of the journey. Then on towards Pontypool, along the twin-track road past the vast British Nylon Spinners factory, and fast up the Ebbw valley so that the youngsters could have their first look at coalmining. There is none of the squalor that I saw in my schooldays, although the scene was bleak, with a gale hurling driving rain down from the hills, as we hurried along closely pursued by a Bristol 400.
We now began to think that perhaps, with a crew of three children whose combined ages totalled only 17 years, we had undertaken enough, for the weather was dismal and 495 miles had been covered since we set out. After buying minerals and being “attacked” by geese in a side street in Blaina, we set off home, via Monmouth, Ross, Gloucester, and through Cirencester, Hungerford, Newbury and Basingstoke back on to A30. At 3 p.m. we had been beside the South Wales coalfields, at 8.5 p.m., after an unhurried pause for tea in Gloucester, we were home, the mileage totalling 656. Not bad, we thought, for a family weekend’s motoring.
Collecting and returning the Citroën brought the final mileage up to 740 miles and it conveniently ran out of petrol immediately outside the Slough factory.
In this mileage the water level had not been checked, the flashing lamp indicator on the facia gave us no reason to suppose that the Castrolite required topping-up, and the fuel consumption came out at the excellent figure of exactly 26 m.p.g. But for this last-named figure we should have had no reminder that the Citroën is propelled by an engine as-small as 1,911 c.c., for if it is a little more noisy than a six, flexible mounting masks any roughness and, as has been said, it contrives to do most of its work on the 4.3 to 1 top gear.
The car had given us a great deal of pleasure and was as sound at the finish, brakes just as powerful, body as silent, as at the start. Only a slight “seagull noise,” to quote the passengers for whom this hurried journey had been planned, emanating from the screen-wipers, hinted at the hard work undertaken. The “Big Fifteen” had certainly proved ideal for the task, the security imparted to the occupants and the driver’s knowledge that he had the car under control at all times adding greatly to the enjoyment. For a car costing, basically, £750, the Citroen “Big Fifteen” imparts a feeling of dignity and quality expected of far more costly cars, and the manner in which it combines good handling characteristics, spaciousness, comfort, security and economy make it an outstanding vehicle in spite of the fact that its design has remained generally unchanged over a considerable number of years. Its appearance is as imposing as it is in good taste and the unchanged aspects of the front-wheel-drive Citroën are its own reward. For in an age when automobiles grin ever wider with their radiator grilles, roll alarmingly on soft suspension and do all but drive themselves motoring connoisseurs appreciate all the more the “sure-footedness” and practicability of this outstanding car. – W. B.