- The Washington Times - Friday, June 12, 2009

The trail that led Paul O’Brian to his 1952 Citroen Traction Avant began in Kentucky. It was there that he met a foreign student who convinced him that owning one of the famous French cars would be magnificent idea.

In 1973, Mr. O’Brian and his wife Patricia were in France visiting their friend. He took them to a small village in western France where he had located a vintage front-wheel-drive Traction Avant.

Citroen manufactured a total of 758,858 Traction Avant models from 1935 to 1955. The Citroen that Mr. O’Brian went to see had just had the 1.9-liter four-cylinder engine rebuilt.

The three-speed manual transmission - mounted forward of the engine - is operated via the gearshift lever protruding from the dashboard. Second and third gears are synchronized.

Mr. O’Brian purchased the French Citroen and then flew back to the United States. His black car arrived at a port in New Jersey in June 1973 where Mr. O’Brian and son-in-law Thomas Lillich took possession of it. As the pair left the port, one of the employees cautioned Mr. O’Brian, “Don’t forget to gas up.”

On that beastly hot day, they had driven the Citroen just south of the Newark airport when the engine began to sputter. As the car ran out of fuel and coasted to a stop in the middle of about 12 lanes of traffic, Mr. O’Brian remembered the earlier warning.

A patrolling police officer summoned a service truck that came to the rescue with a can of gasoline. The day-and-a-half odyssey home to Lexington, Ky., continued at what Mr. O’Brian calls “a reasonable speed.” The independent front and rear suspension provided a comfortable ride. Figures from the automaker indicate a maximum speed when new of 70 mph for the Citroen.

Near Harrisburg, Pa., Mr. O’Brian discovered the usefulness of the big knob at the top of the dashboard. Driving through a rainstorm, the wipers quit working, but the intrepid travelers continued on by twisting the knob by hand that operated the left wiper.

The rest of the trip home was uneventful, until Mr. O’Brian turned onto his home street and the headlights went out. Fortunately, he says, it was near the summer solstice and the long days and extra hours of daylight enabled him to safely complete the journey. Soon after arriving home, Mr. O’Brian had the amber headlights working again.

Spending one and a half days in the car gave the 6-foot, 3-inch Mr. O’Brian a new insight about his Citroen. “It was made for short Frenchmen,” he opines.

Seated at the two-spoke steering wheel, he also discovered that the Citroen had large blind spots to the rear, a problem he addressed with the installation of an outside mirror on the left side.

The gray fabric seats were well-worn, as was the rest of the upholstery, which prompted Mr. O’Brian in 1975 to have a new interior installed in his car.

A few years later, Mr. O’Brian took his Citroen to a shop near Dayton, Ohio, where it was resprayed with black paint. The yellow wheels were freshened at the same time. “The grille had been pushed in a little,” Mr. O’Brian says. It was repaired before the repainting. Both chrome bumpers were replated in Louisville, Ky.

Idiosyncrasies of the car, such as the rectangular spare oil can mounted on the firewall, amuse Mr. O’Brian. He notes that the horn button is not located at the hub of the steering wheel. Instead, it is located on the multifunction turn signal lever. “I never thought I would have a car this old,” Mr. O’Brian says.

The 46-horsepower engine remains eager whenever it is summoned to provide power. Even when not in motion, Mr. O’Brian reports that his car makes a wonderful conversation piece.

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