Celebrating Citroën’s centenary of innovation

Englishwoman Linda Jackson is helping Citroën celebrate its centenary from a position of power. The Connexion talks cars with the former accounts department worker

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Citroën celebrates its 100th anniversary this month with Englishwoman Linda Jackson as its head.

She is the only woman to lead a French car company. Mary Barra, who heads General Motors in the US, is her sole female companion at the global car-makers’ CEO table.

Ms Jackson, originally from Coventry, has worked all her life in the car industry – first for Jaguar and then for MG Rover, where she started in the accounts department.

While there, she worked her way through night school between 1988 and 1992 to graduate with an MBA at Warwick University.

Her first job in France was in 1998, as a finance director, and then she was promoted to French managing director in 2000 and European finance director in 2004.

She told Connexion that she had good school French, having taken A-levels, and used it on holidays and during other travel.

“It was only when I moved here and started using it for work that I really improved,” she said. “For me, it is the best, and probably only, way of really getting comfortable with a language: working and living with it.

“I had to be interviewed by the French media and that was a real incentive to improve.”

Ms Jackson joined Citroën in 2005, first as finance director of the UK subsidiary, and then for the French operation between 2009 and 2010.

Promotion to head of Citroën’s UK and Ireland subsidiary followed in July 2010, and from there she was appointed head of the company in 2014.

“It is a job I absolutely love,” she said. “In the last five years the company has achieved so much and I am full of plans for how we can continue.”

Her office is in Paris and she lives in a flat in the western suburbs of the city but at weekends often goes to her house in Normandy. It is in a small village and she loves the peace and quiet after Paris. “I do not get back to the UK very often,” she said.

“My family mainly comes to see me – it is amazing how popular you are when you have a flat in Paris and a house in Normandy.”

Ms Jackson also spends a lot of time in airports – Citroën is present in 60 countries and she visits most of them.

She drives one of Citroën’s flagship C5 Aircross models.

Citroën is part of the PSA Group, which includes Peugeot, the group’s founding company, the luxury Citroën brand DS, and now Opel and Vauxhall.

Asked if she was looking for further promotion, she laughed. She said that Carlos Tavares, appointed CEO of the PSA group in 2015, was doing a “magnificent job”, and she was sure he would be for some time to come. Citroën, which has had a chequered financial history, was bankrupt when bought by Peugeot in 1976 from its previous owner Michelin, the tyre maker.

Since then, it has sometimes seemed to be the unloved child in the group, with solid, reliable and bourgeois Peugeot getting the attention while creative but quirky Citroën was tolerated only so far and often told to tone it down.

This impression was strengthened when the DS brand was created, but Ms Jackson says it is wrong.

“We have launched six new models in five years,” she said. “Far from being the least loved child, we have been loved to bits. Our sales figures and profitability figures show how important we are to the group.”

She added: “The creation of DS was actually a good thing for Citroën. It enabled us to go ahead and forge a new modern design and character.”

Does she think women look for different things in cars to men?

“The fundamentals of having a good engine, good handling and being easy to drive are the same,” she said.

“You can say that women are also looking more at the practical aspects, especially the interior. Things like getting children in and out, and having good storage space, so you can put bags in with kids’ stuff and find it easily later, that sort of thing.

“They perhaps put more emphasis on feeling safe, which is one of the main reasons why SUVs are so popular. The high driving position lets you see ahead and makes you feel safer.”

The move for Citroën to next-generation electric vehicles is due to start next year. It has sold the C-Zero small electric car with 130km range since 2011, and also has an electric Berlingo passenger van in its line-up.

The first of the new cars will be a plug-in hybrid version of the C5 Aircross, expected to do about 50km on the battery alone, or run on a combination of electric and petrol power.

“In years to come, all our cars will have diesel, petrol and electric versions, with much better range, at around 300km, than the first generation,” said Ms Jackson.

She also talks up the Ami One concept car, a small electric two-seater with a top speed of 45kph, which in France will be available for 14-year-olds to drive and is focussed on urban mobility.

Unveiled at the Geneva Motor Show, it is promoted as being an alternative to public transport and two-wheeled transport, accessible to all.

The failure of Paris’s popular AutoLib scheme last year, with disputes over the subsidy wanted by the operator and Paris city council, does not mean that all car-sharing schemes will fail, or become very expensive in the future, said Ms Jackson.

“The idea with Ami One is that you can have it for five minutes, five hours, five days, or months or years,” she said. “When you look at the models, car-sharing can be profitable, without subsidies in dense urban areas. I am sure it will spread.”

Citroën has always had passionate fans and some complain that quirky features which made them different from others have been ironed out in the name of bland conformity.

Examples include the famous pump-up, hydraulic and nitrogen gas suspension used from the late 1950s until recently, but also things such as “rolling drum” speedometers on some models, unusual switches, or replacing conventional brake pedals with sensitive rubber mushroom-shaped ones.

Ms Jackson said fans could still be proud of the unique design features. An example is the use of shock absorbers with progressive damping, originally designed for rally racing, which are used in C4 Cactus and C5 Aircross cars.

“They give the same ‘magic carpet’ effect as the old hydraulic suspension but at much lower cost,” she said.

“Some of the things that are called quirky were actually very innovative and an asset for the company, something very much part of our unique design and comfort, part of our DNA.

“We are aiming to have cars that are light, have good air quality and are comfortable and modern. Our technology has always made a difference and will continue to do so.”

Asking which is her favourite old Citroën produces different answers at different times, she said.

“At the moment I am torn between the 2CV, which was produced for such a long time and has become almost a symbol of France, or the Traction Avant, which was such an innovator and so comfortable for the time, and which looks good too.”

The future will see Citroën returning to the market with a large saloon car because, although that market has collapsed in Europe in favour of SUVs, they are still popular in other parts of the world, such as China.

Ms Jackson is enjoying her job too much to think about retiring but said: “I expect it will be in France or the UK, or possibly a lot of travelling between the two, but it is not something I am thinking about now.”

Readers and their Citroën

We’ve travelled all around the world in our 2CVs for some incredible adventures

Irish writer Terence Kennedy and his Dutch wife Elise know the Citroën 2CV better than most people – they have driven nearly all round the world in one.

The couple, now settled in Tarn-et-Garonne, were first bitten by the bug when they bought a 425cc car from a friend in the Netherlands for 10 guilders in the early 1970s.

Mr Kennedy had dreamed of doing the “hippie trail” overland to India in a London taxi and also driving overland down Africa, but the taxi was hopeless for the job, mainly because of its low ground clearance.

“With the 2CV, it all clicked and we were off,” he said. “In total, we have travelled some 300,000km in 2CVs.” He wrote a book about their travels, A Non-sense Of Direction, which he is planning to republish as an e-book.

After a succession of classic 2CVs, they graduated to a brand new Méhari, the plastic-bodied open-top 2CV, and built a double-storey, hardboard “house” on it, which they took through the Sahara. “Because it was so light, it could go where heavier vehicles, like Land Rovers and Jeeps, would get stuck,” said Mr Kennedy.

“When it did get stuck, because it was so light, it could be lifted out of trouble.” The first Méhari was changed for a rare 4x4 Méhari, developed for the French Army. Again, a double-storey “house” was built on it, this time heavier than the last, which proved to be a problem when the chassis snapped on a rough road in what was then Zaire.

“We were still missing one piece when a Roman Catholic missionary picked me up hitchhiking.

I explained the problem and he said he might be able to help, as he had buried a scrap 2CV 20 years before because it was an eyesore. We dug it up, and it had the piece we needed.”

While on the old road between Addis Ababa and Nairobi, they averaged three punctures a day, and could change a tyre, with a patched inner tube, in 12 minutes.

Their final Méhari is now on display in a Dutch museum.

“It’s often surprising we survived,” said Mr Kennedy. “Life on the road hit us with everything from malaria to dysentery to the toughest affliction of all: a lack of funds.”

We love corrugated H vans

Those old 2CVs and H vans looked so funny... family holidays in Brittany and Normandy as a child left a lasting impression on motorbike magazine writer Kevin Raymond, especially the cars.

One of four children, he used to look out for the Citroën 2CV cars and corrugated steel-sided H vans, which were then fairly common.

“They just looked so funny compared to the other cars, I loved them,” he said. “We called the vans biscuit-barrel vans, because of the sides.”

Years later, when his then girlfriend, now wife, Carole said she wanted to buy a 2CV, she found she was pushing at an open door.

“It was black and yellow and proved to be rotten with rust nearly everywhere. Through it, we made good friends with a garage owner in Loughborough who specialised in 2CVs. When we moved to France, he asked me to look out for 2CVs and H vans for him to do up and I continued the interest.”

While in the UK, Mr Raymond joined a team driving 2CVs in 24-hour endurance races. The cars were on lowered suspensions and only limited modifications to the engines were allowed.

“In one race we were in third place for many hours, but had to stop in the pits. We got so good at changing the whole engine that we could do it in 12 minutes flat.”

The couple, who live in Normandy, have an H van they have fitted out as a camper van. With only three gears, a top speed of around 80kph and petrol consumption heavier than a Rolls-Royce, it is not the most practical way to tour, but they have used it to follow the Tour de France.

“It gets great interest wherever we go,” said Mr Raymond.

As for 2CVs, they own one in bits and an old van awaiting restoration. Parts are easy to find as Mehari Club Cassis has been licensed by Citroën to make spares to original specifications.

The supply of 2CVs, which used to be ample and cheap, has now dried up, with many being scrapped.

‘Gangster car’ gained us friends

Buying a collector’s Citroën Traction Avant and a 2CV van have proved to be a great way for Elisabeth and Allan Dollie to mix with French people and make new friends.

The couple moved to their holiday home in Lot-et-Garonne when they retired and talked about buying French collector cars to celebrate the move.

They fell in love with the flowing lines of the Traction Avant, the first mass-produced car in Europe to use front-wheel drive.

Built from the 1930s to the mid-1950s, the car gained a reputation as a gangster’s favourite, then as the car used by the Gestapo in World War Two.

After the war it was one of the first luxury cars available. Citroën was tasked with building luxury cars while Renault, taken under state control, built for the masses.

After buying the car, the couple joined the Traction Avant Périgord club, based in Bergerac.

Mr Dollie, who is working hard on his French, said: “Having a shared hobby is a wonderful way to meet people and break the language barrier. The people in the club have been very welcoming and it is rare that a meal does not end without a toast to les anglais, which I find very touching.”

The car, called Seible, needs a lot of maintenance, including a full greasing every 800km, which Mr Dollie does himself.

The couple previously bought a 2CV van with a small 425cc motor that they call Henri.

“We take Henri out to the market each week, and there is a steep hill we have to go up,” said Mr Dollie. “It is so underpowered that sometimes I wonder if it will make it.”

DS saves De Gaulle’s life and other Citroën facts

A special gear, patented in Poland in 1900, inspired Citroën’s famous double V logo.

Company founder André Citroën (pictured left) bought the rights and successfully developed the gear design, laying the foundation for his industrial success.

The V form of the gear allowed easier engagement, less noise and more efficiency.

André Citroën was a marketing genius and in 1920 was the first to register a consumer credit company in Europe to help people buy his cars.

Visitors to Citroën showrooms in the 1920s and 1930s received typed letters with handwritten sign-offs from André Citroën himself, something credited with sealing thousands of sales.

Expeditions such as his trans-Sahara crossing, and crossings of Africa, Asia and Alaska also promoted his company.

One of the first uses of lights to advertise on the Eiffel Tower was in 1925 and Citroën was the company featured.

The advertisements were renewed annually until 1935 when Citroën was bought by Michelin.

Charles Lindberg said seeing the tower lit up (by Citroën) as he flew towards Paris on the first non-stop Atlantic crossing, brought home to him the immensity of his achievement.

It also boosted the image of the car company.

Through a quirk in sanctions- busting, for a while in early 1970s Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), the only new cars on sale were Citroën DS21s, Alfa Suds and Datsun 120Ys.

André Citroën was in financial difficulties in 1934, when the famous Traction Avant was first put on sale in France and he counted on the car to bring in cash.

Teething problems gave the car, later to become famous after 1936 design changes, an early bad reputation, leaving him no option than to go into bankruptcy and the firm into receivership.

Michelin bought the firm in 1935. André Citroën died from stomach cancer later that year, aged 56.

The SM was a luxury coupé, powered by a V6 Maserati engine derived from a V8 racing car motor.

Produced between 1970 and 1975, the car did not survive the oil price shocks of 1973 and 1975 and the engine’s high maintenance costs, but is now a sought-after collector’s item.

The iconic 2CV, on sale from 1948 to 1990, was actually first produced in 1939, just before World War Two broke out.

It was created with rural users in mind and was designed to fit four comfortably, traverse rough country roads, transport a flat box tray of eggs across a ploughed field without breaking any, and be affordable and fuel-efficient.

All the 250 models built in 1939 were dismantled and destroyed to avoid them falling into German hands.

Prototypes and some parts were hidden in the loft of the building at the Citroën test track and in the cellar of the Citroën design centre in Paris.

Two attempts on President Charles de Gaulle’s life, in 1961 and 1962, failed while he was being driven in a presidential Citroën DS.

During the first, the car was blown across the road by a bomb made of 40kg of plastic explosive and dynamite, oil and nails, but stayed structurally intact, upright and accelerated away.

De Gaulle praised the unusual abilities of his unarmoured DS – a French pronunciation gives déesse, meaning goddess – for saving his life.

In the second attack, by machine guns, bullets punctured the car’s front tyres but the front-wheel drive and hydraulic suspension of the DS allowed the car to be driven away from the would-be assassins.