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Jay Leno Drives One of the Most Innovative Cars You’ve Never Heard Of

Ground-breaking engineering isn’t only found on pricey supercars like the McLaren F1. It’s more impressive when cars everyone can afford have innovative features. And French automaker Citroen knows something about that. Its iconic 2CV remains a beloved people’s champion, and the 1955 DS is still an impressively-advanced luxury car. But, as Jay Leno explains, before them came a car whose touch is still felt today: the Citroen Traction Avant.

What made the Citroen Traction Avant so revolutionary?

A red 2021 Euro-spec Volkswagen Golf GTI
2021 Euro-spec Volkswagen Golf GTI | Volkswagen

Today, consumers don’t blink twice at the thought of a front-wheel-drive unibody sedan with independent suspension. FWD is standard on many sedans, crossovers, and hot hatches. Apart from pickup trucks (not including the Ridgeline) and SUVs, every vehicle uses a unibody/monocoque platform. And only a select few vehicles, like the Jeep Wrangler, retain more than one solid axle.

1939 Bentley 4 1/4 Litre pickup
1939 Bentley 4 1/4 Litre pickup | Comtes de Dampierre via Instagram

That wasn’t the case in the 1930s, though, Petrolicious explains. At the time, even high-end companies like Bugatti and Bentley were body-on-frame with RWD. And only Italian automaker Lancia had independent front suspension at the time.

A black Citroen Traction Avant 15/6 parked in a grassy field
Citroen Traction Avant 15/6 | Citroen

All this made the 1934 Citroen Traction Avant nothing short of “a pioneering engineering marvel,” The Drive explains. In addition to the FWD and unibody chassis, it has 4-wheel hydraulic brakes and independent suspension, Automobile reports. It wasn’t the first production car to have these features, Car explains. But it was the first mainstream vehicle to package them all at an affordable price.

Even by the time it went out of production in 1957, the Traction Avant was still fairly advanced. It gained hydraulic self-leveling suspension in 1954. And its aluminum transaxle eventually found its way into several World Championship-winning F1 cars, Top Gear reports.

Unfortunately, the Citroen Traction Avant almost cost the company everything. Founder André Citroën demolished his old factory and built a new one according to Henry Ford’s mass-production principles to manufacture the Traction Avant. But all that investment meant that, when initial sales were poor, the automaker went bankrupt. Eventually, the Michelin family stepped in and took over. And André sadly died of stomach cancer before he could witness the Citroen Traction Avant’s eventual success.

What does Jay Leno think of the Citroen Traction Avant?

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Jay Leno’s 1949 Citroen Traction Avant doesn’t have the self-leveling suspension. However, when the comedian and motoring enthusiast purchased the car 3 years ago, he specifically went for a post-war model, Road & Track reports.

That’s due to the engine. Initially, Citroen only offered the Traction Avant with a four-cylinder engine. But, despite growing in displacement over time, the largest 1.9-liter four-cylinder only made 46 hp, Hagerty reports. But after WWII, you could order it with a 2.9-liter six-cylinder with 74 hp, Petrolicious reports, known as the ‘15CV’, or ’15 steam-horsepower’, BBC explains. And Jay Leno wanted it for that extra power and torque, as well as its 81-mph top speed.

A man stands near a black 1938 Citroen Traction Avant 11B Cabriolet parked by a hotel
1938 Citroen Traction Avant 11B Cabriolet | Citroen

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The Citroen Traction Avant was eventually offered in a 2-row cabriolet, 3-row 9-passenger ‘Familiale,’ and even commercial trim, Hemmings reports. Jay Leno’s car, though, is the ‘standard’ sedan model. But despite its age, it’s a fairly practical car. There’s plenty of room inside, and because of the FWD and transaxle layout, the floor is completely flat. The unibody design makes it lighter than contemporary cars, and like modern cars, the Traction Avant has rack-and-pinion steering.

A 1957 Citroen Traction Avant's front seats and dashboard
1957 Citroen Traction Avant front interior | Bring a Trailer

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Apart from a new fuel pump, battery, muffler, and some engine and suspension components, Jay Leno’s Citroen Traction Avant is all-original. The seats are very comfortable, and you can even open the windshield for some fresh air. And it’s still fast enough to keep up with modern LA traffic, despite its 3-speed manual transmission.

Getting one today

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For all its ground-breaking features, the Citroen Traction Avant isn’t a particularly expensive classic car. Apart from the roadster models, it’s possible to pick one up for less than $20k, Bring a Trailer reports. And even restored Concours-level examples rarely cost more than $45k, Hagerty reports.

True, you can get a modern FWD sedan for less than that. But apart from some transmission shifting quirks, it’s arguably one of the most forward-thinking vintage cars. That’s definitely worth some street cred.

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