Colin Boyles has owned his 1938 Citroen Light 15 for just four months, but his history with the model goes way back to the first car he owned, a 1939 model. “I couldn’t find a 39 this time,” he says, “but the 1937 to 39 are all the same motors and shape.”
The former sharemilker says he loved that first car. “I met my wife when I had that and did my courting in it.”
The 1939 Citroen was 22 years old when he bought it. This one is 77. Colin spotted it on Trade Me, and bought it sight unseen. “My partner said, ‘You silly old fool’.”
He flew to Canterbury on a Friday afternoon, changed the ownership on the net, picked the car up from Timaru and then drove to the cemetery nearby, where his wife is buried. “I called in and showed it to her.”
He then drove to Christchurch, where he stayed overnight, before continuing the drive home to Cambridge.
“It was a long trip. I was meant to be away five days and I was back in three, early Sunday, and my partner, Alison, was sound asleep.” He had a kip on the boat and at Bulls on the roadside.
He says this latest acquisition was imported into New Zealand new and sold to a lady doctor.
“It’s English-assembled, which is a little bit unusual,” says Colin.
Some time over the past few decades the motor was reconditioned and the paint and bodywork brought up to scratch.
He had to wind the window up only once to keep warm, when crossing the Desert Rd. “It has no heater – there is a hole for one – but you get quite warm from the motor, and that was enough. It was cruising at 80-90km/h. It sounded comfortable at that, and may have hit 100.
“It did shudder a bit under braking, I found a second-hand pair of drums from a chap in Arapuni. We put them on, and they were in better condition, so I pull up without shudder now.”
Colin thinks this was the first front-wheel-drive car. He’s right in that it was the first one with a steel unitary body frame – though the decades between the first-recorded front-drive vehicle (a single-cylinder Graf and Stift voiturette built between 1895 and 1898, of which only one was made) and Citroen’s 1934 Traction Avant were littered with front-drive experiments, none of which were a success, with the possible exception of BSA’s three-wheeler, built from 1929.
The format didn’t engender trust. “They used to say you couldn’t roll one; I heard Citroen put up £10,000 to anyone who could roll one on a flat surface,” he says. And there are reports of a crash test – driving one off a cliff — to prove how strong it was.
Colin managed his own crash test with his first Citroen. “I rolled it, it was piddling with rain. I went to sleep and hit a drain, it flipped on its side, neatly rolled, we slid in backwards and ended with the front wheels in line with a power pole. That was three in the morning – we’d been to a deb ball.”
Another memory is of the time Colin, originally from Taranaki, was driving to show the car to his parents, with his brother aboard. “I was saying, ‘Gee, these miles are clicking over nicely’ and, as I said that, there was a bang and there were bits all over the road.”
Long story short, his dad was working in the Midhurst Dairy Factory and had a mechanic friend who helped pull it apart and weld bits back in.
“If I came across that motor I’d know it.” A special tool was made to get the engine and gearbox out, and Colin still has it.
By now we’re having a putter aboard. There’s a flexible 1922cc engine up front with 15hp, drum brakes all round and a 12V Lucas electrical system. His first Light 15 had a crank handle, but this one’s electric.
The gear lever is on the dash — “They classed them as a ladies’ car because of that” — with three forward speeds and reverse. The only changes Colin has made are upgraded front and rear lights and proper indicators, though working trafficators still flick out from each B-pillar. Quirks to modern eyes include rear-hinged “suicide” doors and a dial to open the front windscreen.
There’s plenty of headroom, even for the rather tall Colin, and remarkably few rattles. You can see why he was happy to drive from Timaru to Auckland. It feels remarkably modern from inside, even now, and he looks right at home behind the wheel.