Bernard A. Drew | Our Berkshires: Waiting for the French cars
GREAT BARRINGTON — My latest local history project in print and available in independent bookstores and museum shops, I opted to blow out the mental carburetors with a Father's Day trip to the Saratoga Automobile Museum for the annual gathering of the Citroens.
The book is about early motorcars in the Berkshires, you see, and has a title longer than the muffler on a stretch limo: "Well-Wheeled: How Cortlandt Field Bishop, Marguerite Westinghouse, Alden Sampson II and Gilded Age Lenox Cottagers Fueled the Brass Era of American Automobiling."
My research lasted two years and I was still finding nuggets the day before the pages went off to the printer. I learned very late, for example, that Pittsfield native Clinton E. Woods started a company that manufactured hybrid automobiles; in 1911 it made vehicles with side-by-side electric and gas motors that, operated in tandem, could zoom 35 mph.
A remarkable roster of 237 automobile brands showed up in our area in the period 1903 to 1922. Vehicles included some of Andre Citroen's French creations. C.F. Bishop of Lenox, an avid driver in the snowiest of winters, in 1923 imported a Citroen-Kegresse-Hinstin Autoneige, a half-track with skis on front. There's quite a story about his adventures.
Citroens with a distinctive double chevron logo show up in motion pictures ranging from "The Sound of Music" and "To Catch a Thief" (TAs) to "For Your Eyes Only" (2CV or two-horses, "deux chevaux"),"X-Men: Days of Future Past" (DS sedan) and "Ratatouille" (HV light cargo truck).
I spotted a vintage Citroen at the Great Barrington Fire Department's September car show last year. There, squatting among the Corvettes and T-birds, VWs and Chargers was a Citroen Traction Avant.
I tracked down the car's owner, Don Breslauer of Salisbury, Conn., to garner info for an appendix in my book. It turned out he'd driven to Great Barrington to shop for trousers at Berkshire Outfitters, unaware of the car assemblage. A policeman recognized his car as a classic and waved him to a parking spot on Castle Street. He became an instant contestant.
I totally admired the robust yet elegant Traction Avant — the first production vehicle with front-wheel drive, monocoque frame and torsion bar suspension. Some 759,111 TAs were manufactured.
WHERE WERE THE CITROENS?!
It rained on Father's Day. We stopped at an in-town convenience store in Saratoga and saw a few Citroens at a motel across the street.
At the auto museum, we waited for the cars and drivers to show up for the announced gathering on the lawn. None came. We made a short trip to a farmers market for a cider doughnut and when we returned, there was a Citroen CX in the lot.
I saw two people standing under a tree. Own the car? I asked? No. The man owned a Pugeot. In France, the woman had driven around in a Citroen 2CV — a car that somewhat resembles oversized tuna fish cans crimped together.
The car's owner came out of the museum and said his car was a 1977 DM. He demonstrated its hydraulic suspension, raising the chassis 6 inches higher.
Another man joined us. He said he'd purchased a Citroen SM in New York in 1975 for $12,000. It had a Maserati engine.
A 2CV Dyane pulled in just then. Knowing the driver was a rally organizer, the woman asked: When are the cars coming?
Dix minutes, il a dit.
After 15 minutes, a Traction Avant glided in. We learned it was a 1955 model. The French-Canadian owner said the cars were manufactured from 1934 to 1957. His was a 15/6. It could go up to 80 mph. He imported it from France. Until it graced Montreal, he said, it had never felt snow. He'd just paid $2,000 for new tires. (That's about $1,500 U.S.)
Most Traction Avants were black; his was "gris gris," according to a manufacturer's label inside the glove box. Slate gray.
He said the car has two horns. One horn goes BLAAAAT in the country, he mimicked, the other mneep-mneep in the city.
Another 1955 Traction Avant arrived from Quebec, this one black. Ducking the rain, the driver only told me it had a 6-cylinder engine and hydraulic rear suspension.
Rain. The expected stewpot of Citroens wasn't happening.
Recalling the few cars we'd seen in town, Donna searched her cellphone and said the club members were probably lingering over breakfast at that very motel we'd seen.
We U-turned back to town, found the motel and walked through the parking lot. A few dozen car owners had indeed abandoned rally plans and were gabbing under the motel's front balcony. I snapped photos of 20 or so Citroens, from TAs to 2CVs to DMs, SMs and a utility truck.
See, I'd overloaded on automobilia!
I knew way more details than is healthy.
I needed the purge.
We lunched at Harvey's Irish Pub and wandered Broadway's stores and galleries — skipping the hat emporiums, as we had no plans to go to the horse races any time soon.
My carburetors have reset, my current interest has now taken me deep into the countryside northeast of Paris in October 1918 as a Berkshire military leader faces a tough German enemy in order to free a French village.
C'est la vie for a local historian.
Bernard A. Drew is a regular Eagle contributor.
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