What’s So Great About a Six-Wheeled Citroën?

It was a classic double-take.

An American student obsessed with cars, on exchange in Berlin, wide-eyed over Europe’s forbidden fruit finds that the Citroën CX he had spotted seemed a bit longer than he had expected. Flooding suddenly into his vision is not only another wheel tucked under those trademark rear wheel spats, but a gleaming gold SM mounted atop the ADAC transporter he’d ignored just a moment ago. Mind reeling, pulse racing, all-the-way-back-home sprinting. With his keys, he’s fumbling, it’s his camera he’s grabbing, and he’s out the door at full chat. What if I don’t make it in time? Have they already driven away? He never think why he’s running, why his whole world just stopped for a couple of parked cars. After all, what’s so great about a six-wheeled Citroën? Panting, sweating, I’d dropped everything to take pictures of what is just some weird car. Looking at the pictures  now, I can’t stop wondering why? What is it about seeing this three-axle car that made me go so crazy?

one man, two Citroëns, five axles - alternate title: one straight-laced mechanic, two unhinged cars

a 1990 Citroën Familiale, extended

To put things is context as succinctly as possible, let me say that I love cars. I have penned innumerable lines, spent countless hours trying to express just what it is about this world-changing, perception-altering mass-produced mechanical design object that makes my head fizz, but at every attempt I fall short of feeling some kind of finality in the words that I put down. Fascinated though I am that we are different people living in a different world at 25, 65, 80 miles an hour, what I am hooked on these days about cars is how they weld memories into their sheetmetal. I see the world in the context of the automobile, and how I think about them in the abstract, as well as how I see them as individual machines is constantly changing.

from here it looks so plain

and yet it has so much to reveal

for this CX's owner, this is the sensible car in the garage - his other car is an SM

This car in specific, certainly deserves some individual scrutiny. What fascinates me about cars, I find most concentrated in Citroëns, and standing before five axles of my favorite marque cast me suddenly into a distillation of my passion. Automobiles are day-to-day machines, produced on a mass scale that still keep an individuality about them and hold tight to personal experience. The balance between specificity and commonality is much of what makes Citroëns grab my attention. They are different and strange, but not so rare or exotic as any other car of equal peculiarity. There are many strange make of cars in this world, but no one set out to produce so much uniqueness as André Citroën.

behind this mirror, a Citroën stretches into the distance

The normalcy of Citroëns’ strangeness, and this six-wheeler especially, is what sets them apart. When I asked the owner of this CX what the story behind the car was, he was very matter-of-fact that there was none. He just wanted a larger, comfortable limousine to transport eight people and whatever they might need to carry. The way he put it, adding that third axle was the most rational course of action. Only a winking smile betrayed his utter acknowledgement of the plain clothes lunacy of his stretched contraption. He certainly did a fine job of building his own limousine; it really did look graceful driving past, the glinting sunlight whiling away an eternity passing all the way down its pulled back panels.

lost in a Citroën CX

There, too, is another wonderful piece of the Citroën mystique: built to traverse any road as comfortably, as easily as possible, Citroëns embody the spirit of transportation so fundamental to automobiles. Cars are built to move people around and no car met such success taking on this challenge with such a mix of technical daring and design flair. Judging on how Citroëns The Citroëns I love all share the same design brief of blurring space and time at a rate unprecedented in the pre-modern world. Citroëns like this one, they are rocket capsules. With a smooth, humming aplomb ther make attainable speeds and distances that have changed our landscapes, our horizons, our perception of the world.

after a certain point, madness set in

While these qualities might explain my interest in Citroëns, they fall short of giving grounds to my mad cap dash for my camera and my fidgeting, rushing excitement. Though there are many wonderful, fascinating aspects to this Citroën, it is how these technical physicalities blend in with memory and experience, with time and place and people that captivates me.  Joachim Radkau, a contemporary German historian of technology wrote in his overview of German technological development of the past 300 years, Technik in Deutschland: vom 18. Jahrhundert bis zur Gegenwart, „The machine is no motor of history; but around certain technologies crystallize economic power structures, social mentalities, technical communities.“ This crystallization sets in on the personal level as well, with memory and feeling springing forth from automobiles. When I look at a car, it is as if my whole mind is splayed out across it, as if its headlamps cast my whole world into light. Hard to say just what it is about this car, or any car that makes my head buzz. Regardless of whatever mystery is bound up between this car’s six wheels, it stirs me like little else in this world.

"Es ist bequem," sagte er; "Sehr bequem," sagte sie.

I think that I ran back for my camera so that I would be assured in having some memento of this particular piece of mass-produced peculiarity to pour over and think about for some time. In the weeks gone by since I’ve seen this six-wheeled CX, it has never rested or kept itself in the same regard to me. It was Herodotus, the founder of historical research who wrote in the late 5th Century B.C. who stated regarding the rationale for his unprecedented recording of as much of the world that he could find:

I … go forward with my history, and speak of small and great cities alike. For many states that were once great have now become small: and those that were great in my time were small formerly. Knowing therefore that human prosperity never continues in one stay, I will make mention of both kinds.

Just as human fortune is ever shifting, so are the workings of the mind. Though my pictures seem to capture a moment in time, what I see in those images, how I see them, is never static. The reflections cast upon this CX still flutter and shift, though the car seems to stand still. Its flanks remind me of my automotive obsession, making me question what goes on in my head, how I tick. So too is this car a reminder of how different an environment I live in, 9,000 miles from where I call home, populated by strange people driving strange cars. Yet, it has been many weeks since I saw this three-axled marvel, and many months since I first set foot in Berlin. I know now that different as the people may be here, different though their surroundings may be, I still relate to them, still think and obsess and draw on the experiences I have here.

there's something about that double chevron

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