Big 6: we check out a big, charismatic Citroen with a great story
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Adrian Wright bought this lovely 1950 Citroen Big 6 just two months ago, but he's had quite a history with the brand.
This car was bought new by the Marist Catholic Church.
"Apparently when the church had it the gearbox packed up. They had it on the back seat sitting in the shed till the gearbox virtually fell through the seat. Then a gentleman found and restored it."
Wright learned this from the previous owner, who knew he was a fan of Citroen's Traction Avant.
"As a young fella I used to use a 48 Citroen Light 15 for hunting," he says. "I had the keys to the forestry at Kinleith, and could get away from the rangers, as it was faster than the Land Rovers of the day. After I'd finished wrecking it in the bush my sister bought it off me and restored it."
Any temptation to suspect exaggeration was scotched when he pulled out the old photos, with two young men lounging against those graciously curving guards, the bonnet obscured by the large dead boar tied over it ...
"When she passed away, she left it to me. I sold it to a neighbour, then this one came up ... "
The Big 6, Light 15 and Light 12 -- which he's also owned -- are all Citroen Traction Avant models from different years, the numbers relating to their fiscal horsepower rating -- a tax, rather than power designation.
The cars like this one, built in Slough, England, differed from the French equivalents as they used 12-volt Lucas electrics and Smiths instruments, wooden dashboards and Connolly leather interiors, plus trim variations -- and colours other than black as well as a right-hand steering wheel.
This is a very rare car, Wright says. "My Citroen mechanic wanted it, but he talked me into buying it as he's a bit crook, and can't use the clutch. He used to come on Citroen runs with me, and if he comes right he'll probably buy it off me."
In better condition, by the sound of it. "It had a lot of problems when I first bought it, [caused by] a cracked exhaust manifold that we couldn't isolate. After cleaning out the petrol tank, new spark plugs and everything else, we found the cracked manifold was causing vapour locking." That causes petrol to turn from liquid to gas before it gets to the fuel pump, which then can't do its job, causing the car to stall, or lose power.
Fortunately, new parts are still available out of the UK, as most fit an array of Citroen models, "It's just the block that's different, this is a normal motor with two extra pistons," it's a 2867cc six-cylinder, "they always had a problem with that manifold."
Adrian hasn't had the chance to take the car far yet, in part because he has three other classics, and ensures each of them are driven once every month, "otherwise something goes wrong".
That said, he and his wife like long trips, "I go to Whanganui regularly, and Tauranga," he says. "A lot of people my age have camper vans, but I like to go in the old cars. You meet people, all sorts, who come and talk about the car. At every garage stop, someone will come and talk to you." Indeed, this is proved true at our photo stop at Kerikeri's Old Stone Store.
He's had five or six old Citroens over the years, although this is the first Big 6 and, he says, the hardest to drive. It's not the engine, or even getting used to the gear lever amidships in the dash, "It's the hardest one I've had to change gears. Rosco [the previous owner] said there's a synthetic oil in the gearbox, which is too slippery, so the synchros won't work.
"My next job is to put normal gear oil in."
I notice he's taken his shoes off to drive, despite nicely spaced pedals. "We were very poor as kids, I never had shoes until I went to high school -- now I take them off to drive."
He must love all these luxuries then. As well as the obvious -- like windscreen wipers, and dual horns, and indicators -- "trafficators" which pop out of the B-pillar to save you sticking your arm out the window -- it has a slide-out ashtray in each rear seat as well as for the front, and though there are no seatbelts, or power steer (unless you count the driver's biceps), it also has monsoon shields, three interior rear-view mirrors -- the two side ones are tiny -- and the party trick, a little ring-pull for the driver to raise a rear window blind.
And that's before we get into the invisible trickery -- the first of the Traction Avant line introduced front-wheel drive and four-wheel independent suspension to mass production and it's very comfy. If his mechanic does persuade him to sell, it won't be long before another joins his fleet.