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  • Master marketer who understood the public taste

    Marketing genius
    Feb. 5, 1878-July 3, 1935

    Sylviane de Saint-Seine
    Automotive News Europe

    Emmanuel de Sartiges, a 76-year-old Parisian, still remembers the time in the early 1930s when he was being driven around in a bright yellow Citroen Spider, encased in a small open boot at the back of the two-seater, his elated mother at the wheel.

    "It was one of the very first cars on the market she could drive herself," he recalls. "She found it so cute, so fun and easy to handle. One did not need to be a sportsman, or have a chauffeur."

    The Spider was one of the many cars to come out of the Citroen Paris plant on the bank of the Seine that seduced consumers. André Citroen, the company's founder, was first and foremost an entrepreneur and a marketing man who had a magic understanding of public taste for 15 years of heady growth.

    Citroen did not enjoy engineering like other early company founders. While his great rival Louis Renault fiddled with engines, Citroen gambled huge sums at baccarat in casinos.

    He was born in 1878 to a family of gem merchants, and at age 22 he graduated from Ecole Polytechnique, France's most prestigious engineering school.

    His first job was with a gear-making company owned by family friends, and he borrowed the idea of a double helical gearing when he chose a double arrow, or chevron, as the symbol for his cars.

    When he was invited to the board of the car builder Automobiles Mors in 1908, Citroen joined the car industry. Mors made its cars in a cramped workshop, on different floors, with machine tools grouped together according to their type.

    In 1912, Citroen visited America and Henry Ford's new Rouge River plant in Detroit, where the mass production of Model T cars was getting more and more efficient.

    He saw the clear advantage of mass production in vast, well-lit halls, on a single floor. Three years later he got to apply those principles, making shells for France in World War One.

    At the end of the war, Citroen turned his arms factory into his car company and in 1919 his first small, inexpensive car arrived. A year later he made 20,000 cars, more than Peugeot and Renault put together.

    He was a master of marketing. He promoted his plant to tourists as "the most beautiful in Europe." When American pilot Charles Lindbergh landed in Paris in May 1927 after the first solo flight across the Atlantic, he threw a party at the plant. He rented the Eiffel Tower and had his name put up in 125,000 lights: "Citroen" shined over Paris. He sponsored rallies in Asia and Africa that received wide coverage in the press.

    All that glitter came to an end in 1934. Citroen had amassed massive debts over the years. Some came because he was generous with workers, some because his workers were on strike, some undoubtedly from his panache. His largest creditor was the tire maker Michelin, and in 1934 Michelin took over the plant, cut costs and switched off the lights in the Eiffel tower.