The Convoluted Destiny of French Cars in the United States

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Citroen Traction Avant print ad in the United StatesPeugeot 403 print ad in the United StatesPeugeot 504 print ad in the United StatesCitroen DS print ad in the United StatesCitroen DS print ad in the United StatesPeugeot print ad in the United StatesRenault Le Car print ad in the United StatesRenault Fuego print ad in the United StatesRenault Le Car print ad in the United StatesPeugeot print ad in the United StatesPeugeot 404 print ad in the United StatesPeugeot 403 print ad in the United StatesPeugeot 403 print ad in the United StatesPeugeot 403 print ad in the United StatesCitroen Mehari print ad in the United StatesCitroen 2CV print ad in the United StatesCitroen DS print ad in the United StatesRenault 17 print ad in the United StatesCitroen print ad in the United StatesRenault Le Car print ad in the United StatesCitroen print ad in the United StatesPeugeot 304 print ad in the United StatesRenault Dauphine print ad in the United StatesPeugeot 405 print ad in the United StatesRenault 12 print ad in the United States
PSA Peugeot Citroen sold more vehicles in China in 2015 than it did in any other part of the world. Renault still has a lot of catching up to do in the Middle Kingdom, even though the French automaker sold a record 2.8 million vehicles worldwide in 2015.
That’s jolly and all, but a question looms over the success of French manufacturers. Why aren’t French cars sold in the United States of America? A friend of mine with a moderate interest in cars asked me this just a few days ago. That got me interested in looking deeper into the subject and I found out that it’s not that simple to understand why French cars didn’t work here, though there are some explanations.

Now that DS has become a standalone brand with premium ambitions, the French car could return to the Land of Opportunities. According to recent reports, including this piece from Car & Driver, DS could set foot on North American soil by the end of the decade.

Eric Opode, the development boss of the Citroen-owned DS brand, declared that his team “proposed a strategy to be in the top 200 cities in the world, and that is what we are following.” Need I say anything more about the possibility to buy a DS in the U.S. in the near future?

When you think about it, the DS could work in the United States because the DS 3 Cabrio supermini is tres coquette and the DS 5 diesel hybrid is the most avant-garde family car I know of. In addition to those, the Citroen C4 Cactus also ticks the right boxes with its funkiness.

Then there’s Peugeot. Hot hatchbacks like the Peugeot 208 GTI and 308 GTI are interesting alternatives to the ST-ified Ford Fiesta and Focus. The 508 RXH diesel hybrid station wagon and the RCZ R sports car also make sense. As for Renault, models such as the Kadjar crossover and 7-seater Espace would be interesting propositions for those buyers in the market for something different, something outside the predictable.

This is the thing with the French automotive industry. Ever since Edouard Delamare-Deboutteville built the first gasoline-powered car in France in 1884, the land of the Franks took a different approach to making cars compared to the rest of the world. And people all over loved the quirkiness of French cars.

The Fiat Chrysler merger marked the return of Fiat to North America. 52,675 cars were sold by Fiat during 2015. Compared to the Italian marque, the trio of French carmakers has more varied models in the lineup. If they were to compete against Fiat in the United States, diversity would be their advantage.

Americans started getting a taste of French cars through more or less official channels in the 1930s, before the outbreak of WWII. Exotics such as Bugatti, Delahaye, Facel-Vega, and Talbot-Lago don’t count because they made low-volume cars. Instead, we’ll focus on the holy trio of mainstream French carmakers.

The first one to be imported in North America was Citroen. Los Angeles-based Challenger Motor Car Company started selling the Traction Avant in 1938 for $895, which is approximately $15,045 in today’s money. In other words, the price of a 2016 Ford Fiesta SE Sedan.

A brochure put together by another importer named Campbell Motors advertised the Traction Avant as being “a sports car for the family.” Descriptions such as flashing performance, outstanding roadability, and torsion bar suspension were also used. If you don't believe it, check the first image in the gallery.

After the war, Citroen Cars Corporation was established in N.Y. and Los Angeles. The repair and parts departments and a small dealership network were online by 1956. Everything from the 2CV to the DS and SM sold poorly, though. The truth of the matter is that these were radical cars for the period and Americans weren’t prepared to spend money on such different cars. Tired and weaker than ever after bleeding money for two decades, Citroen closed all North American operations at the end of 1977.

Renault arrived in North America in the latter half of the 1940s with the rear-engined 4CV. Ferdinand Porsche worked on this little runaround when he was imprisoned in France. It’s no wonder that the Renault 4CV is similar in concept to the Volkswagen Beetle. In addition to that, the Renault 4CV was cheap, it returned up to 50 miles per gallon, and it had a little bit of Plymouth design cues to it.

By the time the Dauphine replaced the 4CV in 1959, Renault was the most popular French automaker in the United States and Canada. Everything was going well for Renault in North America throughout the 1960s. When the Le Car was launched in 1976, everything started to go downhill for the marque. 1,300 AMC dealers were supposed to sell the thing, but the salesmen were keener on moving Jeeps, Pacers, and Eagles.

The early 1980s saw the Le Car turn into the Le Flop. Renault tried to turn things around by manufacturing sedans in the United States. More specifically, the Renault Alliance (R9) and the Encore (R11). As fate would have it, both proved too much of a hassle for the AMC dealership network. Not even the title of 1983 Motor Trend Car of the Year could save the Alliance from selling poorly. By 1987, Renault decided to sell all its North American assets to Chrysler (including half of AMC) and never come back here again.

Peugeot was late to the party, with official imports starting in 1958. Road & Track described the 403 sedan as being one of the seven best-made cars in the world. Automotive News said that it’s a competitive package. Columbo, the police detective of Italian descent from the eponymous American television series, drove a 1959 Peugeot 403 convertible which often exhibited mechanical problems. Thanks to Columbo, the Peugeot 403 sold well in the United States. Its successor didn’t, nor did the 504, 505 and 304.

The increasingly boring products rendered Peugeot obsolete in the eyes of post-1973 oil crisis North America and more fuel-efficient Japanese imports. In 1986, the manufacturer sold almost 14,000 cars in the U.S. and Canada. It was even more dramatic in 1990 when Peugeot sold 4,200 cars. On August 6, 1991, Peugeot decided to throw in the towel. The manufacturer still maintains an office in Michigan, though.

As for Simca and Panhard, they started their American adventure on the wrong foot and ended it badly. Simca was bought by Chrysler, then Chrysler sold Simca to PSA Peugeot Citroen, then the brand disappeared altogether. Panhard made its last car in 1967, after which it started manufacturing tactical and military vehicles. The once-great marque is now owned by Renault Trucks Defense.

The rise of French cars in the United States and Canada can be attributed to how different they were in the ‘30s, ‘40s, and '50s compared to gas-guzzling full-size sedans and humdrum pickup trucks. But French cars aren’t unique. They’re just quirky, which isn’t a selling point in the long run in such a dynamic market.

Another problem is that all major French manufacturers didn’t have big, competent dealer networks. Fiat was smart and it got around this problem by buying Chrysler. Other than the 500X crossover, Fiat is selling a family of models with no direct rivals. Citroen, Peugeot, and Renault didn’t think about this kind of thing, which is why they failed to compete against the well-established domestic automotive industry.

Given the history of French cars in the United States, PSA Peugeot Citroen will have to commit a helluva lot of resources to establish the DS brand in this part of the world. Renault, however, is still selling cars in North America through is strategic partnership with Nissan. For every Nissan and Infiniti sold here, Renault profits without raising a finger. Renault was the first automaker to understand that to sell its cars in North America it first needed the brains of a Japanese automaker. The eccentric in me quite likes the DS, though.
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About the author: Mircea Panait
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After a 1:43 scale model of a Ferrari 250 GTO sparked Mircea's interest for cars when he was a kid, an early internship at Top Gear sealed his career path. He's most interested in muscle cars and American trucks, but he takes a passing interest in quirky kei cars as well.
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