A small and exclusive group of cars became as much associated with police dramas as the human casts; the Wolseley 6/80s and 6/90s of Scotland Yard, the Ford Zephyr Six Mk. IIs and Mk. IIIs of Z-Cars and the Ford Consul 3000 GT of The Sweeney. Plus, of course, a pipe-smoking senior officer of the Brigade Criminelle sweeping up at the scene of the crime in his black Citroën 15/6H.
The Traction Avant history has been extensively documented, so we merely say that when it made its bow on the 3rd March 1934, the gathered dealers were incredulous. It was not just the new Citroën’s front-wheel drive and the hydraulic brakes, but coachwork that was comparable with virtually no other European car. Three years later, the Traction began a long tradition of service with the Paris police, and detectives almost fought to be issued with the 1.9-litre “Onze Normale” rather than a slower and more dated Renault.
1938 saw the introduction of the magnificent 2.9-litre six-cylinder 15/6, widely known as the Reine de la Route – ‘Queen of the Road’. The Judiciaire commissioned a small number of this truly formidable vehicle for ‘prestigious’ assignments and high-speed patrols. Car production at the Citroën works ceased in June 1940, and during the Second World War, the Resistance made great use of Tractions. Manufacture resumed in 1946, and in that year, the notorious Gang des Tractions Avant carried out their first raid. Their getaway car of choice was the 15/6 and their leader Pierre Loutrel (aka “Pierrot le Fou”) coined the phrase ‘Traction Avant, Police Behind’.
During the 1950s, the Gendarmerie patrolled the routes nationals in 15/6s, where they struck fear into the hearts of errant Renault 4CV drivers. 1954 marked the 15/6H debut, and its Hydropneumatic rear suspension served as a test-bed for Traction’s replacement. Citroën unveiled the remarkable DS at the 1955 Paris Motor Show, and the 15/6H ceased production shortly afterwards. However, the Police Judiciaire continued to deploy a fleet of unmarked Traction radio cars.
When the BBC series of Maigret first aired on 31st October 1960, many viewers would have been familiar with the Traction, from both the cinema and everyday life. In 1926 Citroën established an assembly plant in Slough, and the “Light Fifteen”, “Big Fifteen” and “Big Six” were far removed from the average Morris or Austin. Motor Sport magazine thought the 2.9-litre version ‘quite out of the ordinary run of cars’ and advertisements claimed ‘it’s quite amazing what a Citroën will do for a man’s morale at the wheel’.
In 1962, The Guardian observed, ‘Elaborate sets are built in the studios, some location work is done in England, but the three or four minutes of real France that get into the 50-minute episodes are worth every New Franc’. The production tried to avoid using clichéd views of Paris, while the locally-hired Tractions were equally essential in differentiating Maigret from standard British thrillers of that era.
Rupert Davies’s son Tim recalls ‘the BBC used several 15/6s and the Citroën featured most of the time was the black one fitted with Hydropneumatic rear suspension. My father bought it from the hire firm after the last Maigret location shoot for the vast sum of £50! He also bought a second 15CV in grey from the same garage – one which was not used on screen’.
Citroën Numéro Deux was eventually sold to a Swedish enthusiast after the actor took part in a Maigret PR tour of that country. The black Traction remained part of the Davies household, and Tim, a motoring enthusiast like his father, vividly recalls its ‘very particular character. The 15/6H is essentially a six-cylinder lorry engine in an extended Onze Normale. There were bags of torque, and you changed gear with a “mustard spoon” lever mounted on the dashboard”.
One of the most notable aspects of the 15/6H was the steering – ‘very high-geared and very heavy; it needed a two and three-quarter turn from lock to lock’. Another was its handling – ‘it corners in an extremely entertaining way, the Michelin tyres making a remarkable noise. Negotiating roundabouts became an art’. As with many of the large-engine versions, the Davies Citroën was also in constant need of replacement driveshafts.
By 2005, the 15/6H was sold to the Traction aficionado Jamie Maisey. ‘I had wanted such a Citroën ever since childhood, and my first car was a Big Six. I heard about the “Maigret car” in the 1990s, and a few years later, Tim’s brother Hoagy approached me about the Traction’. At that time, its condition was best described as ‘challenging’, or as Mr. Maisey puts it, ‘a true “barn find”, for at that time it resided in a barn’. The building was open, exposing the notoriously rust-prone bodywork to the elements, while the Traction had ‘scaffolding both in it and on it’.
Over the past 16 years, Jamie has rebuilt the engine and transmission and has installed new driveshafts. ‘The rear suspension is currently non-functioning, but there is no reason to believe that the pumps will not work once the car is back on the road’. The bodywork is currently in much the same state, and once the restoration is complete, the Citroën will again be fit for duty at 36 Quai des Orfèvres.
Jamie finds the 15/6 the best-looking of the range – ‘it is that imposing grille and the bodywork’s sense of balance’. During his travels, he discovered, much to his surprise, that the Polish police also employed the mighty Citroën, although ‘it is unlikely that Scotland Yard ever drove the Slough-build models’. Naturally, he revels in the Traction’s many and various idiosyncrasies, including the lack of a demister – ‘in winter you have to wrap up warmly and open the windscreen and both front windows!’
And it would be fair to state that the Davies/Maisey Traction is not just a very rare example of one of the world’s finest motor-cars, but a minor icon of British television. Tim describes it as ‘a real joy and a real pain’; Citroën devotees would not have it any other way.
With Thanks To: Tim Davies and Jamie Maisey
Film Historian Andrew Roberts MA PhD FRSA