Cars of the Tour de France: Iconic Citroen — Paris to Sacramento

Bugatti, Citroën, Peugeot and Renault are the current major French automakers. With the exception of Bugatti, French highways and country roads are often crowded with many models, new and old, from the other three carmakers.

And also with the exception of Bugatti, I’ve driven Citroën, Peugeot and Renault models as rental cars in different years since I began attending the Tour de France in 1997.

French cars, like other countries’ cars, have strengths and weaknesses. Yet, French cars often get criticized unfairly. While none of the French carmakers’ vehicles I’ve driven can be described as performance cars, all of them got me through three weeks and about 4,000 miles of driving, including some treacherous ordeals in the Pyrenees and the Alps.

During the 2010 Tour de France, I drove a Citroën C5, which fared well. It had a six-speed manual transmission and used diesel fuel. But with its newfangled technology and streamlined looks, it seemed like a distant relative to the iconic Citroëns of yesteryear.

2010 Citroën C5 All Images © James Raia/2012

It’s fairly uncommon to see a Citroën in the United States, and when one passes on the open road, it always reminds me of the Tour de France.

It’s also why the current exhibit at the California Automobile Museum in Sacramento, “Citroën: L’icône français,” is particularly intriguing — at least for me.

The exhibit wasn’t set up to correspond to the Tour de France. But the timing is good. The 99th Tour de France will be held through July 22, and the Citroën exhibit will be on display through July 29.

Eight Citroën models are featured, all on loan from Northern California owners, and all with their own stories. The one-of-a-kind display features an explanation of each car and some interesting signage and details of the history of Citroën, the company founded by André-Gustave Citroën in 1919.

Although unheralded, Citroën has a vast, important history. Consider:

* Citroën was the first mass-production car company outside the United States;

* The Eiffel Tower served as billboard for Citroën from 1925-34;

*  Citroën produced Europe’s first all-steel-bodied car, the B-10;

*  Citroën produced the first European production car with disc brakes.

The unusual Citroën design made the car popular for use in children’s books to Hollywood movies.

Among the models in the California Automobile Museum are a 1961 Citroën 1d19, a 1967 Citroën DS21 Pallas and six other beauties.

Among the display items is an example of what auto reviewers said of the now vintage machines when they were new:

“It’s obvious that the new Citroën has fallen from the sky,” the reviewer wrote. “It appears at first as a supreme object.”

The California Autombile Museum: 2200 Front St., Sacramento, CA, 95818. Tel. 916-442-6802; Fax: 916-442-2626. Website: Hours: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. daily.                                                                 

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