Parlez-vous FranÁais?

Fifty years after his first trip to Paris, Robbo finally prises open the door on Citroenís long-secret cache of classics

WORDS PETER ROBINSON PHOTOS SIMON CHILDS

WAS but a kid of 21 when LH254 flew me into Paris on Sunday, 26 December, 1965. Seduced by the beyondbeautiful Citroen DS, an aerodynamic wonder already a decade old yet still utterly contemporary, my plan was simple: catch a bus to central Paris, find a DS taxi Ė and only a DS Ė for the ride to Le Grand Hotel.

Ignoring the Peugeots and Renaults at the taxi rank, I waited, intent on landing my first ride in Citroenís elegant sedan. Finally, wallowing in the unmatched comfort of its vast rear seat, I knew it was the most comfortable car Iíd experienced. Who said you should never meet your heroes?

A couple of days later I hired a Citroen Ami 6, the weirdly styled, rebodied 2CV. I wanted the sedan with its reverse-angle rear window Ė like a í59 Ford Anglia Ė but they could only offer a wagon. On snow-covered roads, I drove to Le Mans to lap the famed road circuit Ė a thrill, even with a mere 602cc, 19kW and 105km/h top speed. My notebook tells me I ďduelled with a girl in pigtails, also driving an AmiĒ, though I doubt she was aware of our contest. Less than two years later I tested a DS21 Pallas, writing: ďThe Citroen is a long distance runner, out front and alone.Ē

In 1971, three months into the editorship of Wheels, my enthusiasm for Citroen pushed the new GS to the cover. Sales bombed and a Citroen hasnít appeared on the cover since. Fifteen years later, circumventing import restrictions, I bought one of the last new 2CV Speciales, and now I canít believe I sold that most honest of all cars. Two Citroens Ė 2CV and SM Ė featured on my 2011 list of the 50 Greatest Cars Ever.

Citroen is one of my car Gods.

Rumours of a secret Citroen bunker first surfaced about 15 years ago. It was located somewhere in the suburbs of Paris and contained a stash of historically important models, including once hush-hush prototypes.

My enquiries were ignored; normally helpful Citroen people denied any knowledge of the collection.

Frustrated at not being able to breach the secrecy while living in Europe, I retired disillusioned, knowing one of the few genuine possibilities on my now-short automotive bucket list remained unfulfilled.

Citroen is one of my car Gods. Who said you should never meet your heroes?

Not quite. At the Wheelsí COTY dinner in January, I mentioned the bunker to Citroenís new press person.

A few months later he asked if Iíd like to see whatís called the Citroen Conservatoire. Retirement, I instantly decided, can be ignored if it means realising a dream.

Tucked off to one side of Citroenís old Aulnay-sous- Bois plant, which closed in 2013, and close to the A1 autoroute heading north to Charles de Gaulle airport is a low, nondescript grey and mirrored-glass building surrounded by near empty carparks. One doublechevron logo adorns the awning of the entrance of a structure that was purpose-built to house nearly a centuryís worth of Citroens, including several rare, oneof- a-kind models and an example of nearly every model the company has produced.

Before the museumís inauguration in 2001, most of the cars, engines, documents and memorabilia were scattered throughout northern France in various PSA Peugeot-Citroen factories.

During the 1980s and í90s, when Citroenís creativity was minimal and it was building many boring cars under a PSA regime that deliberately set out to ignore Citroenís history and dilute its reputation for avant garde designs, the company consciously turned its back on the quirky models from the past, including the Traction, 2CV and DS.

Fortunately for us, under a more enlightened management, Citroen has come through the denial period and now takes its rich history seriously.

Almost every piece of Citroenís collection is now located in the Conservatoire, though not everything is on display. About 300 of the approximately 400 cars in

Rumours of a secret Citroen bunker first surfaced 15 years ago. I was desperate to see it

the collection are on the floor at any given time and most are in excellent running condition and used on a regular basis. The others are on loan for classic car events and publicity campaigns.

The archive section is located in separate rooms that boast almost two kilometres of shelf space and can now be accessed for research and to obtain detailed information on old Citroens.

At first the Conservatoire wasnít open to the public, only Citroen car clubs. Today, §7 ($10) buys a 90-minute guided tour. Book with martine.darblade@citroen.com.

You wonít regret it, I promise.

Thereís no point comparing the Conservatoire to the glossy extravagance of the German carmaker museums; this one is slightly spartan, with no interactive displays or coloured lights and (wonderfully) no elevator music.

So there is no distraction from the main focus: row upon row of cars in what is undoubtedly the worldís most complete collection of Citroens; a hanger-sized treasure crammed with cars that literally take your breath away. Mine anyway.

The collection includes the first car made by the eponymous Andre Citroen Ė a 1919 Type A Ė which he repurchased in 1925, knowing even then that it was worth retaining. Only from 1982 did Citroen adopt a formal policy of keeping the first or the last (or both) of any new production car, all concepts and crucial engineering prototypes, though at that time it was without a dedicated repository.

The density of innovation on display is obvious and includes a rotary-powered RE-2 Citroen helicopter, the twin-engined 2CV Sahara, rotary M35 coupe, dune buggies and Sebastian Loebís World Rally Championship-winning cars.

Most cars I knew, if even vaguely, but one gold mystery car confused me. Built in about 2000, it was only a foam mock-up based on the Xantia and lacked an engine and interior. Though ordinary in appearance, this little-known styling exercise was intended for a Detroit show as a proposal for Citroen to re-enter the American market. Nothing came of this no-name model.

Itís possible to trace the evolution of the 2CV from

There is no distraction from the main focus: the worldís most complete collection of Citroens

the 1936 TPV Ė French for very small car Ė singleheadlight prototype to the final Portuguese production car in July 1990, the last of 5,114,966 units.

Among all the 2CVs is a special display of three dusty 2CV prototypes. During the summer of 1939 Citroen built a pilot run of 250 cars, brochures were printed and everything was ready for the 2CV to be launched at the Paris motor show in October. The outbreak of war forced abandonment of the unveiling and for decades it was believed all but two of the cars were destroyed to prevent their use by the Germans.

Until, in 1994, workmen found an additional three TPVs walled up in the attic of a barn at a Citroen test centre. Deliberately hidden from the invaders and then forgotten, they were discovered by accident. Today, happily, they remain covered in grime and unrestored.

And that, says Citroen, is the way they will stay.

At the other end of the scale are two presidential vehicles: the DS 21 Presidentiale (a one-off by Henry Chapron, used by Charles de Gaulle and stretching to 6.53 metres long, weighing 2660kg and powered by a regular DS 2.1-litre four) and the 1972 SM Presidentiale (a 5.6m four-door open cabriolet version of the Maserati-powered SM).

The thread that binds all these wonderful cars is creativity, imagination and genius. Is it too much to hope that the creation of DS as a stand-alone brand allows a revival of Citroenís authentic character to push the boundaries of technology and style?

I still stop and stare whenever I see a DS, to admire its exquisite proportions

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