MY 1949 Light 15 Citroen is a survivor car. I bought ‘Bernie’s car’ two years ago from Clare, Bernie’s widow, after they owned it from 1951 through to 2015. Clare, now in her 80s, learned to drive in it!
It has never made the slightest complaint and I am only the third owner.
Bernie’s car starts and runs as it should and rewards my patience with its reliability.
When more sophisticated and complex cars refuse to cooperate for whatever reason, the Light 15 requires but a little tickle of the fuel pump over-ride, full choke, a squirt on the accelerator and then always fires on the first or second caress of the starter button.
The first mass produced front wheel drive car, the ‘Traction Avant’ is a design icon and paved the way for the Citroen DS that still looks futuristic today.
I have in earlier columns described small improvements I have made to Bernie’s car that seemed sensible and in keeping with his stewardship. Included is the fitting of period driving lights sourced from the Bendigo Swap Meet.
The slow and painstaking installation process of gently placing them into location is gloriously addressed in technicolour back in Unique Cars issues 396 and 399.
But last month I had a near-miss that sent me into shock and forced a moment of soul searching. It has been a long time since I have badly damaged any car let alone one that I love.
And the prospect of ending the distinguished life of a survivor car left me weak at the knees.
The car easily copes with city traffic. I adore driving this car and use it often – the lovely view along the bonnet, the reflections on the back of the chrome headlights, the sun roof open. A special experience. Some small concessions to modernity make it safer. Proper indicators replacing the flipout pillar semaphores first among them.
I was travelling on a Sunday morning on a major arterial, in flowing traffic and light rain. The single blade cable-driven wipers barely register on the flat windscreen. But visibility is not the issue. Just as I arrive at a huge intersection, the traffic lights change to amber. The Hyundai hatch with P plates in front of me accelerates and I decide not to brake but to catch the amber and go through too.
Then the Hyundai driver changes their mind, slams on the brakes and their ABS kicks in. A 1949 Light 15 Citroen does not have ABS brakes.
I stamp on the brake pedal.
The rear wheels lock. The front wheels pull sharply to the right. Thankfully there is no car in the next lane. I am sliding on the wet road towards the rear of the Hyundai on a 45 degree angle. The passenger-side door and sill will hit the back driver side corner of the hatchback. My heart stops.
I jerk the steering wheel, slam the accelerator to the floor and swing around the P plater. The front wheel drive pulls me around and I sail through the still amber lights and utter an unprintable oath.
Anyone watching would have viewed a manoeuvre that was worthy of Stirling Moss or wondered if Peter Brock had been re-incarnated as a Citroen tragic. A spectator may well have said to themselves “gee that bloke in the old car can really drive” without realising it was as much reflex and good fortune as experience or technique.
As I stutter home, knees trembling and palpitations interrupting my usual heart rhythms, I promise to adjust the brakes before I next drive Bernie’s car. Various disaster scenarios play out and I visualise waiting for a tow truck with my mangled treasure bent and buckled, possibly beyond economic repair. Citroen pioneered the use of a monocoque hull in 1935 with this model, and the entire drive train sits on two front horns that do not like being distorted. Smashed and bent Light 15s are never the same again, and I speak from experience!
After tucking the car into the shed, I next shuffle through papers on my desk and find my insurance certificate. The agreed value policy would have been woefully inadequate if the worst had eventuated.
I am no fonder of paying higher premiums than anyone else, but underinsurance is endemic in the old car movement and this unsettling incident brings home to me how exposed I suddenly was, having just enjoyed a near miss from both an emotional and financial disaster.
And as I reflect back on the near miss, I am sure Bernie’s spirit was looking out for me!