Keep on runnin’

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Most cars do about 11,000 miles a year. One Citroën did 27 times that – in four relentless months

Think records are all about speed? Not always. If you’re trying to sell a small car of no great distinction you can’t push that angle, but you could try proving its reliability – over a ludicrous mileage. And then offering a prize of millions to anyone who beats you.

That was Citroën’s position in the early Thirties; its line of six- and four-cylinder family cars introduced in 1932 was selling like cold cakes, despite their one-piece steel body and synchro gearboxes. Enter oil company Yacco, keen to get into Citroën’s handbooks. Buying a Citroën C6, nicknamed ‘Rosalie’ by the drivers after a popular song, Yacco’s little team had broken 14 records in 1931, running trouble-free around the banked Montlhéry circuit for 25,000km and alerting the marque to the PR possibilities for its flagging little car. After Yacco’s team set records with Rosalie II and III, Citroën came fully on board for an endurance test like no other.

Keen to push its small 8CV model, Citroën gave one to Yacco’s wizard tuner César Marchand, who prepared it for action. Under a narrow, taper-tail single-seater body Petite Rosalie’s standard chassis and 1452cc engine offered a meek 30hp and a bare 60mph, yet seven drivers were persuaded to arrive at the huge autodrome on March 15, 1933 to test their mettle. And they didn’t know when to stop.

In mesmerisingly dull five-hour stints, the alternating drivers, which were living in a hut on site, droned around the steep oval bankings. They stopped only for fuel, tyre, oil (Yacco, naturally) and water works in a drive-through shelter attended by eight mechanics and eight timekeepers, stopwatches clicking every minute and a half as the upright blue machine droned past. Three weeks later, the 50,000km mark arrived – and they went on, past 100,000km, then 200,000km… three months later!

Yet as records kept falling, Petite Rosalie keep rolling. The team decided it would call a halt – after another 100,000km, so it wasn’t until after 134 tedious days and endless nights at an average of 57.8mph that the concrete ring heard Rosalie’s last rattle. She had knocked over 57 international and 28 world records. Most are long-since toppled, but not all. André Citroën himself flagged the little car off the track, and immediately offered a prize of three million Francs to anyone who could beat Petite Rosalie’s feat. It has never been claimed.

Citroen 8CV record breaker