The Citroën That Minnie Raced… And Which Beat The Boys Regularly

Images: Makarand Baokar, Gautam Sen, Calcutta Motor Sports Club (CMSC)

[The restorer of this Citroen, Rahul Sircar, passed away on the 1st of December 2021. This article is a tribute to one of India's most knowledgeable and finest restorer and automotive enthusiast]

The Citroen Traction Avant wasn’t the first car with revolutionary front-wheel-drive—Adler, Alvis, Cord, DKW, Stoewer and Tracta had already launched front-wheel-drive cars. And neither was it the first to feature a monocoque body—Lancia, with the Lambda, preceded Citroen, but the Traction Avant was the first car that combined front-wheel-drive with monocoque construction, along with independent suspension on all four corners and hydraulic brakes, making the Citroen the most modern car, by far, in 1934.

The Citroen Traction Avant now owned by Indrojit Sircar showcased in Delhi before the Nazir Hoosein Memorial Drive

And that modernity translated to a design—by young sculptor Flaminio Bertoni—that was significantly lower than most cars from the period making the Traction Avant a dramatic new automobile. The Traction Avant was hurried into production with a design-to-roll-out gestation of barely 18 months, and the first customers had to bear the brunt of the car’s early unreliability issues and teething problems.

Restored in a striking purple and blue by Rahul Sircar, this Traction Avant remains a very handsome vehicle

However, the carmaker’s engineers, led by André Lefebvre, constantly kept improving the reliability of the Traction Avant and by 1936 all gremlins had been sorted out. Though some 760,000 Traction Avants were produced between 1934 and 1957, when production ended, the total number of the six-cylindered cars made was, in comparison, a relatively modest 47,442.

Low and long the Traction Avant 15 was the bigger car with more space inside

By adding two cylinders to the Traction Avant 11B’s engine, the six-cylindered Traction Avant’s displacement totalled 2867cc, with maximum power at 77bhp, though the fiscal horsepower was 16. Yet Citroen described the car as a 15 CV, with the model’s branding as a 15-Six. Despite its size, the 15-Six was a relative lightweight, thanks to the monocoque construction, and with an impressive 130 km/h V-max, the 15-Six soon became the ‘Queen of the Road’ across Continental Europe.

The same Traction Avant in action at a race in Calcutta during the 1950s with Minnie Pan at the wheel

Though Indians have never been great fans of French cars (with the notable exceptions of a handful of royal Francophiles), fairly decent number of the Traction Avant seems to have been imported into India and was arguably the most popular French car ever in India. Of course, most have been the smaller four-cylindered cars, the Seven and the 11, with the Sixes more of a rarity.

The Traction Avant leading over a Studebaker, once again in racing action

The car you see here, this purple-and-blue 15-Six, is a French-built car that dates from 1952. It has a most interesting history. This car was raced and was well known in Calcutta’s famous racing scene from the 1950s and 1960s. What’s more, it was raced by an indomitable woman, a Chinese lady by the name of Minnie Pan, who didn’t hesitate to go fender-to-fender with the boys.

As the badging explains, this is the version 15 which is differentiated by its six-cylinder engine

It was also her daily drive, when she must have been going fender to fender with the infamous cabs of Calcutta. And she kept the car with her until she emigrated sometime in the late 1960s or so, leaving it behind with her boyfriend. He had the car till he passed away in 2008, when the car came up for sale.

Resplendent with all the club badges, the double chevron of the Citroën marque dominates the radiator grille

Prominent Kolkata restorer Rahul Sircar (who sadly passed away on the morning of the 1st December 2021) heard that the car was for sale and as enthusiast Himanshu Ajmera was looking to acquire another classic beyond the MG TC that he already had, Sircar suggested this very special 15-Six to him. Ajmera acquired the car and Rahul Sircar restored it, by painting the car a striking combination of purple and blue. In 2015 Ajmera sold the car and Sircar’s son Indrojit became the proud new owner of this remarkable car.

Prominent restorer Rahul Sircar, who passed away on 1st of December, 2021, posing wth his rare Mercedes-Benz (Pic by Deepanjan Sarkar)

Gautam Sen

Serial concours judge, author, founder-editor of several Indian auto mags, as well as co-conspirator with design greats Marcello Gandini, Tom Tjaarda, and Gérard Godfroy on a few vehicle projects


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