With front-wheel drive and unibody construction, the Citroën Traction Avant helped set the template for modern cars. A 1949-built example of the groundbreaking French sedan was featured on a recent episode of Jay Leno's Garage.
Introduced in 1934, the Traction Avant wasn't the first car with front-wheel drive, but it was the first to try to take front-wheel drive mainstream. Company founder André Citroën identified the benefits of front-wheel drive, including better traction from positioning the engine over the driven axle, and greater interior space due to the lack of a transmission tunnel. Unibody construction gave the Traction Avant greater structural rigidity than traditional body-on-frame cars, while independent suspension improved ride quality. These features are commonplace on cars today and they all existed when this car was introduced, but few if any others put them all together. Several of those features would take decades to catch on in the industry.
For all of its innovation, the Traction Avant was a financial failure. André Citroën gambled big on the car, rebuilding his company's factory in anticipation of production. But he couldn't recoup that investment, and eight months after Traction Avant production started, the company went bankrupt. Michelin soon took control, and André Citroën died shortly thereafter. However, the Traction Avant stayed in production until 1957 (excluding the World War II years), with about 760,000 built.
1949 Citroën Traction Avant on Jay Leno's Garage
Leno's car is a later 1949 model with the larger 2.9-liter 6-cylinder engine. Leno said he prefers this version because he believes the earlier 4-cylinder engine was underpowered. The bigger engine allows the car to keep up with modern traffic, although the extra weight in the nose makes the steering a bit heavier, Leno said.
This car is unrestored, as evidenced by scuff marks on the painted steel wheels, and currently shows 58,000 kilometers (36,000 miles) on its odometer. Leno, who is the third owner, said he made some mechanical repairs and updates, but has otherwise tried to keep the Citroën original.
Watch the full video for more details on the Traction Avant, and to see Leno put that 6-cylinder engine to good use on the streets of Los Angeles.