Challenger Motors

NEW 4/2021

THE EARLY YEARS

Any stories of Citroën dealerships in the USA really must start with Challenger Motors in Los Angeles.  Challenger began selling Traction Avant Citroëns in early 1938, making them one of the first companies to import Citroëns into the USA. Challenger was not the first importer, but was the first successful importer of Citroëns. 

 

The very first company we can find that tried to import Citroëns into the USA was called, Mutual Auto Credit of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. They ran advertisements in local papers in the fall of 1936 for Traction Avant sales. But it was an unsuccessful venture. By 1937 their ads disappeared and the building went on to be a Studebaker dealership.

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Los Angeles Times, December 1938

The other importer of Citroëns in the 1930’s was a place called, Northwest Light Car, located in Portland, Oregon. Their first Traction Avants went on sale about a year after Challenger, in late 1939. Northwest Light Car managed to sell Tractions for a few years in Oregon, making them moderately successful. Challenger however, went on to last as a Citroën dealer for nearly 6 decades, making them the first truly successful importer. 

 

According to articles published many years ago in various Citroën newsletters, a pair of financial promoters started Challenger Motors in 1938. These two men saw an opportunity to import Citroëns in order to grab part of the French import car market that was sweeping Southern California in the 1930’s. A February, 1939 newspaper article in the L.A. Times identified a man named Pearson Carmean as the president of Challenger Motors and Don U. Billings was listed as the general manager. Don U. Billings' name had been associated with many automotive ventures in the L.A.-area in the 1930’s, including operating a dealership for Willys-Knight, Graham, and Whippet cars. 

 

Citroën was not a recognized manufacturer in the state of California and as such, Challenger had to take out a manufacturing license in order to get the cars registered. As a result, all of their pre-war cars had a “Challenger” serial number plate. The cars were referred to as Challengers, Challenger-Citroëns, or just as Citroëns. 

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Los Angeles Times, February, 1939

Perhaps the most well-known “Challenger” Traction that still exists today is one that showed up on eBay in the year 2000. This car was a heavily modified Challenger cabriolet that turned up in the back lot of an automotive paint shop in the L.A. area. This car was ultimately purchased by Wiljan Cats in Holland and has now been fully restored. The following photo is a before/after composite photo from the Citroënvie website. Notice that when the car was restored, it underwent some changes to improve its appearance, including reshaping the nose to accommodate the correct grille.

 

We are aware that a handful of other Challenger Tractions still exist, but there does not appear to be any organized attempt to count or list the surviving cars. As a result, we will tackle this challenge! If you know of a Challenger-Citroën or Challenger-Renault, please let us know and we will add it to the list that we have started at the end of this article. 

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Citroenvie website

TYPICAL CHALLENGER SERIAL NUMBER PLATE FROM A PRE-WAR TRACTION

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Photo provided by Lincoln Sarmanian

THE CHALLENGER-RENAULT

 

In the late 1930’s, Challenger tried to import one other French car using the Challenger manufacturer’s license; a Renault Juvaquatre. The Juvaquatre was originally conceived in 1936 by Louis Renault as a small, affordable car which went into production in 1937. Production lingered on way too long with the last example rolling off the assembly line in 1960. 

 

The plan to sell Challenger-Renaults was apparently short-lived. After all, how could a frumpy car like this Renault compete with the sleek and modern Citroën?

 

But Challenger did sell a few! There are a handful of classified ads in L.A.-area newspapers for used Challenger-Renaults in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s. Notice from the advertisement (right) that Challenger-Renaults were being marketed in other local showrooms; Darrin Motors and Fred Fudge Motors. There will be more about these two dealers later. 

 

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Los Angeles Times, September, 1939

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A really quite nice body badge from a Challenger Renault Juvaquatre was found by an NWCOC member at a swap meet (right).

 

But not only did a badge turn up, but a Challenger-Renault car surfaced in California in 2002. So we know they sold at least a few! Unfortunately, this car will never run and it is very likely that there are no other survivors.

BODY BADGE FROM A CHALLENGER-RENAULT, MOST LIKELY FROM 1939 OR 1940

Photo provided by Lincoln Sarmanian

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Photo provided by Lincoln Sarmanian

SAD LOOKING CHALLENGER-RENAULT, MOST LIKELY A 1939 OR 1940, SITTING IN THE CALIFORNIA DESERT

THE FRED R. DEAN CONNECTION

 

In 1938, Challenger attempted to supply Traction Avants to another So-Cal dealer, Fred R. Dean, a Nash dealership in Long Beach. However, we suspect this didn’t really amount to much since any connection between Citroën, Challenger Motors, and Fred R. Dean seemed to start and stop with a single (barely legible) newspaper article in the Long Beach Telegraph Press newspaper in June of 1938. The article did note however that Fred R. Dean had several Challenger Citroëns on display in his showroom in mid-1938. Did they sell many? We don’t know. 

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Long  Beach Press Telegraph, June 1938

THE DARRIN MOTORS CONNECTON

 

Several of Challenger’s advertisements from the late 1930’s indicate that Challenger-Citroëns and Challenger-Renaults were being displayed and/or marketed at other dealerships in the Los Angeles area, including one called Howard Darrin or sometimes referred to as Darrin Motors

 

There was a Howard Darrin who was a famous automotive designer who had spent time in the 1920’s and 1930’s with the great coach builders in Paris. He ended up in the late 1930’s with a shop on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles where he built special-bodied cars for Hollywood elite such as Clarke Gable, Errol Flynn, and Greta Garbo. Is the Howard Darrin that Challenger was working with the same as the famous coach builder? It sure seems so! But the relationship was brief. 

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Los Angeles Times, February, 1939

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THE FRED FUDGE MOTORS CONNECTION

 

Fred Fudge Motors was a popular Plymouth and DeSoto dealer of the 1930’s that operated out of several locations in the Los Angeles area, including 5701 Pacific Boulevard. The Fred Fudge name shows up in several Challenger advertisements of the late 1930’s as a seller of Challenger’s cars. Once such example is the Challenger-Renault advertisement above.  

It seems that Challenger had set up agreements with several L.A.-area dealers (Fred R. Dean, Howard Darrin, and Fred Fudge) to help sell Citroëns and Renaults. The connection to these dealers however, was short and seems to have only lasted a year or perhaps two (1939 and 1940).

CHALLENGER AND STOCK CAR RACING

 

A man named Rajo Jack (real name Dewey Gatson, but also known as One-eye Jack or Jack DeSoto) was a popular race car driver in California in the 1930’s.

 

In March of 1939, while driving a Ford, Rajo was defeated in a race at Ascot raceway by a new car to the California racing scene; a Citroën Traction Avant. The Citroën was driven by a rival named Bud Rose. Rajo Jack was clearly impressed with the Citroën since he went on to use them in many subsequent races.

 

Looking through period newspapers, Citroëns were very successful and popular in the California racing scene in the late 1930's and early 1940's.

 

We wondered if the Citroëns that were used by Rajo Jack, Bud Rose, and others had been supplied by Challenger Motors. Sure enough, we found several articles that indicate that Challenger was indeed the company supplying the cars (see example, right). Incidentally, Rajo and his Citroën ended up winning the 250 mile race discussed in the article. 

There is a wonderful short movie clip of L.A.'s Ascot raceway with Challenger-Tractions here. The Traction in the clip was driven by Bud Rose who went on to win the race!

Rajo Jack

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Oakland Tribune, May, 1940

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Screen Grab from YouTube “Car Racing In California (1939)”

TRACTION AVANT (RIGHT) AT ASCOT RACEWAY IN LOS ANGELES IN 1939

THE CHARLIE DIRSCHERL YEARS

 

Articles published in several old Citroën club newsletters provide details of a key event that triggered an important change for Challenger Motors. The story goes like this: In 1942, the Germans sank a freighter that was carrying Challenger’s next shipment of cars. This forced the owners to see the writing on the wall that the war was going to result in a business-crippling interruption of the supply of cars and parts, so they decided to bail out of the enterprise and sold what remained of the business to a man named Charlie Dirscherl

 

Charles Karl Dirscherl was born January 25, 1907 in the small Bavarian town of Furth im Wald, Germany. Charlie, as most knew him, had a dream to come to America and signed up with a shipping company carrying iron in hopes of landing in New York. On his first voyage as a seaman, an article in an old Sacramento Valley Citroën Club (SVCC) newsletter, relates a story that his freighter hit an iceberg and the crew had to abandon ship. He sailed for another two years before docking in Boston where he jumped ship and spent his first night in a bus station with $5.00 to his name. 

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As time moved on, Charlie slowly moved west. He found a job in a tool and die factory in Wisconsin where he became a master at creating almost anything made out of steel. Eventually he ended-up in California and opened a car repair garage in Los Angeles at the intersection of Melrose and Sweetzer Avenues. He aptly named his business, Melrose-Sweetzer Service. Charlie’s repair shop was also a Beacon gas station and Charlie ran the gas station part of the business as well. Charlie’s daughter remembers that Hollywood celebrities such as Bob Hope, Carmen Miranda, John Wayne, and Roy Rogers would come in to have their gas tanks filled by Charlie. 

In these early days, Challenger Motors needed help servicing the cars they were importing and Charlie did some (or all?) of their maintenance and repair. Thus, the relationship between Charlie Dirscherl, Citroën, and Challenger Motors had begun. 

 

Charlie took over Challenger in the early 1940’s, most likely in late 1942 or 1943 when the original owners decided to bail out due to the war’s interruption of cars and parts from France. There was a gradual transition of the business name from Melrose-Sweetzer Service to Challenger Motors as both names were used simultaneously in the 1940’s and even into the early 1950’s. Eventually however, the Melrose-Sweetzer Service name disappeared.

MELROSE-SWEETZER SERVICE AT 8275 MELROSE AVENUE, 1942

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Photo provided by Toni Werk

MELROSE-SWEETZER SERVICE AT 8275 MELROSE AVENUE, 1942

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Photo provided by Toni Werk

Charlie’s daughter Toni remembers that her mom had a prominent role in the business:

 

“…My mom, Lindy (short for Sieglinde), supported dad by bookkeeping, (repairing) wiring in the cars, and repairing upholstery and headliners. She was a "Jackie of all trades" and could fix anything!...”

 

Charlie and Lindy Dirscherl at some point dropped the "r" at the end of their last name, as most people were tripped up at the pronunciation. As a result, Charles’s daughter, Toni grew up as Toni Dirschel. 

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Photo provided by Toni Werk

CHARLIE AND LINDY DIRSCHERL, EARLY 1940'S

During the war years, Charlie maintained the Challenger-Citroëns by whatever means possible since the flow of spare parts from France had been interrupted by the war. Being a machinist by trade, he knew how to get things done. Gearbox breakage was common and long-time Citroën guru Chuck Forward relates a story that Charlie had seven sets of ring and pinion gears manufactured locally with straight teeth. Charlie claimed he could hear the cars coming from a block away by the howl they made. He made other makeshift modifications until the war was over and the flow of factory parts resumed. 

 

The number of pre-war Citroëns that were imported by Challenger is unknown, but it has been estimated to be over 100. Based on vintage photos, newspaper advertisements, the number of surviving Challenger-Citroëns, and other media presence, it is not hard to believe this number, and  perhaps more.

CHARLIE DIRSCHERL SURVEYING ACCIDENT DAMAGE AT MELROSE-SWEETZER (PHOTO EARLY 1940’s)

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Photo provided by Toni Werk

Legend has it that many of the pre-war cars that Challenger imported were Traction cabriolets or coupes (a.k.a. faux cabriolets). Based on newspaper classified advertisements for the Los Angeles area in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s, this seems to be true, at least for cabriolets. We suspect that not many coupes were sold. An example of a used Traction cabriolet that was for sale in L.A. is provided (see below).

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Los Angeles Times, December, 1938

TYPICAL CABRIOLET ADVERTISEMENT, ALMOST CERTAINLY A CHALLENGER CAR

Challenger’s media presence was very quiet between 1944 and 1947. But in 1948 they resumed advertising used cars, parts, and service. Throughout the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, they appeared to have survived on repairs of not only Challenger-Citroëns, but on other orphan makes such as Simca, Peugeot, Renault, Panhard, and Fiat. They also worked on domestic makes. 

 

It wasn’t until 1952 that they started advertising that they were selling new Citroën Traction Avants again. It is not clear if these post-war Tractions were being sold as Challenger-Citroëns or if somehow the problem with the manufacturer’s license had been resolved with the State of California and they were being sold as Citroëns. Below is one of the first post-war advertisements we can find for a new Citroën at Challenger Motors, dating from 1952. 

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Los Angeles Times, August, 1952

POST-WAR CHALLENGER ADVERTISEMENT FOR NEW TRACTION AVANTS

In Richard Bonfond’s 2019 book, What a Ride – Growing up with Citroën in North America, Richard published an interesting letter that Citroën had sent to Charlie Dirscherl in 1954. They were responding to Charlie’s complaint of how hard it was to sell Citroëns in the USA. Citroën management responded by giving Charlie a slightly better price, noting that it was better to have no profit on the cars than having them sitting, unsold, in storage! 

THE DS ERA

 

It was not until the introduction of the DS model in 1955/1956 that the factory decided to formally import cars themselves. When Citroën set up their official presence in the USA, Challenger Motors was made a formal dealership, even though Citroën’s own facility had just been set-up at 8423 Wilshire Boulevard, less than 2 miles from Challenger’s location. 

 

The year 1956 is very early insomuch as DS production is concerned and it was 1956 when Challenger starting advertising the DS. According to most sources, a small number of DS’s, about 62, were manufactured as model year 1955. It is unlikely that any of these 62 cars made it to North America. In 1956, that figure increased to 9868 cars, and it appears that at least one of these 9868 cars made its way to Challenger Motors’ showroom.  Below is the very first advertisement we can find for a DS model at Challenger. The ad dates from April of 1956.

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Los Angeles Times, April, 1956

FIRST CHALLENGER MOTORS NEWSPAPER ADVERTISEMENT FOR A DS 

In the early DS era, the Citroën presence was growing fast in the USA. In 1959, Citroën’s dealer list shows something like 19 authorized dealerships in California. By the time Citroën’s 1960 dealer directory was published, the number of California dealers had ballooned to 33, most located in Southern California. This undoubtedly provided plenty of competition for Challenger Motors; but they not only survived, they outlasted all of the others. 

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Los Angeles Times, March, 1959

1959 ADVERTISEMENT SHOWING THE BLOSSOMING NUMBER OF SO CAL DEALERSHIPS

Challenger went on to sell DS’s in the 1950’s, 1960’s, and early 1970’s. In the earlier days they sold other models (2CV, Ami6, Panhard, etc), though not as successfully. At the same time, Citroën’s own facility was doing the same thing 2 miles away on Wilshire Boulevard.  

 

In 1963, Charlie decided to move the business to what would be its final location: 6065 Melrose Avenue. Challenger remained in this location for over 30 years. 

THE SM ERA

 

Challenger Motors did not offer the SM model at all, as SM sales were left to nearby Irv White Buick, where Jerry Hathaway got his start. We understand that the Citroën factory had very specific ideas about who would sell the SM, causing consternation among some of their existing (and long suffering) dealership network. Charlie went on to disparage the SM model, mainly due to its temperamental engine. 

 

The following photo shows Charlie Dirscherl’s daughter, Toni, standing in front of an SM that was on display at the Los Angeles Auto Show. Notice that the SM is a European model, suggesting that the US model was not yet available for the auto show. We understand that the show was held in November of 1970.

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Photo provided by Toni Werk

SM ON DISPLAY AT THE 1971 LOS ANGELES INTERNATIONAL AUTO SHOW

THE JACQUES LAUDE ERA

 

After Citroën stopped importing DS’s in 1972, Challenger continued to service cars and sell parts.

 

Charlie Dirscherl’s reign at Challenger Motors lasted until about 1981 when a man named Jacques Laude entered the picture. Jacques Laude, a Frenchman living in So-Cal, had received factory training by Maserati and by the mid-1970’s was establishing a name for himself in the world of Italian cars. 

 

Jacques heavily advertised his business in L.A. called, Performance Auto Imports, for Maserati repair. But these ads only lasted for a brief period of time in 1978, when suddenly in 1979, Jacques Laude’s name was associated with an L.A.-area Citroën dealership, Don Runnalls Citroën Sales and Service.  

 

Note that by the time Jacques joined Don Runnalls, the last new Citroën sold in the USA had happened a half-dozen years earlier, so service and parts were now the mainstay.

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Los Angeles Times, December 1979

MASERATI TRAINING CERTIFICATE FOR JACQUES LAUDE

Photo provided by Bibliopticus Alanskii

Life at this time was apparently full of change for Jacques Laude, because two years later in 1981, Jacques Laude was the new owner of Challenger Motors, thus allowing Charlie Dirscherl, now in his mid-70’s, the ability to semi-retire. 

 

Jacques Laude brought in his prior Maserati experience and worked on SM’s with more frequency than what had been done during the Dirscherl years. Charlie’s daughter Toni recalls that her dad remained at Challenger helping Jacques Laude well into the 1990’s. Charlie passed away in early 2000.

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Los Angeles Times, November 1981

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1970’s CHALLENGER ADVERTISEMENT IN THE CALIFORNIA CITROEN CAR CLUB NEWSLETTER

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Jacques Laude ran Challenger Motors repairing the aging Citroëns until it closed for good in 1997, 25 years after the last new Citroën DS had been sold and 60 years after Challenger Motors was first formed.  Two photos taken on Challenger’s last day of operation are provided below.

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Photo provided by Bibliopticus Alanskii

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Photo provided by Bibliopticus Alanskii

CHALLENGER MOTORS’ LAST DAY OF OPERATION, 1997

After Challenger Motors, a man named Tom Pena used the building as an automotive brake shop until 2015 when the building was sold by the Dirscherl heirs. Currently, the building is a pet supply store.

CHALLENGER MOTORS' LOCATIONS

 

Challenger Motors was associated with several locations in L.A. in the early days, but settled in at 8275 Melrose Avenue for 20 years, and then at 6065 Melrose Avenue for 34 years:

 

  • 1355 S. Flower Street (Late 1930’s)

 

  • 1254 S. Figueroa (Late 1930’s)

 

  • 1160 S. Figueroa (Early 1940’s)

 

  • 8275 Melrose Avenue (1943 to 1963, the Dirscherl years) 

 

  • 6065 Melrose Avenue (1963 to the 1997, the Dirscherl and Laude years)

 

Only the last building seems to be still existing.

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THEN AND NOW

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Photo provided by Toni Werk

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Google Street View, 2021

8275 MELROSE AVENUE, 1942 AND 2021

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Photo provided by Bibliopticus Alanskii

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Google Street View, 2021

6065 MELROSE AVENUE, 1997 AND 2021

SOURCES AND CREDITS

 

Northwest Citroën Owners Club (NWCOC) issue #80 contains a history of Challenger Motors that was originally written by long-time Citroën guru Chuck Forward who personally knew many of the players involved with Challenger. We have extracted portions of the NWCOC story for this article. We have also drawn from past articles that were published by the Sacramento Valley Citroën Club (SVCC) and from articles in the Hollywood-based Citroën Car Club (CCC). However, most of the content came from scouring archives of old newspapers and other media which is now available and searchable in digital form. 

 

The following people helped with the preparation of this article (alphabetically): Richard Bonfond, Chris Dubuque, Chuck Forward, Allan Meyer, and Lincoln Sarmanian. 

 

We would like to express a special thank you to Charlie Dirscherl’s daughter, Toni Werk, who provided invaluable stories and photos for this article. 

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Photo provided by Toni Werk

ROSTER OF SURVIVING CHALLENGER CARS

Never before has a list of surviving Challenger-Citroëns or Challenger-Renaults been made. So we are starting one here. PLEASE HELP US COMPLETE THIS LIST. 

1

YEAR: 1938

 

SERIAL NUMBER: 406914

 

LAST KNOWN OWNER: Wiljan Cats

 

LAST KNOWN LOCATION: Holland

 

NOTES: Found in back lot of a body shop in LA. It was advertised on eBay in 2000. Eventually sold to Wiljan and restored in Holland. 

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Photos from Citroenvie website

2

YEAR: 1938 (needs confirmation)

 

SERIAL NUMBER: 200872

 

LAST KNOWN OWNER: Charles Crittenden

 

LAST KNOWN LOCATION: Palm Springs, CA

 

NOTES: 

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Photo provided by Mike Andrews

3

YEAR: 1938 (needs confirmation)

 

SERIAL NUMBER: 382879

 

LAST KNOWN OWNER: Unknown

 

LAST KNOWN LOCATION: Believed to now be in Paris

 

NOTES: Possible "Girard" version. Sold to Erik DeWidt by a collector in Canada. The car is now believed to be owned by a collector in Paris.

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Photos provided by Erik DeWidt

4

YEAR: 1937 (Renault)

 

SERIAL NUMBER: Unknown

 

LAST KNOWN OWNER: Pat McMahon

 

LAST KNOWN LOCATION: Riverside, CA

 

NOTES: Found in Coachella Valley, California by Lincoln Sarmanian in 2002. Same car appears to have been offered on eBay in 2015. Its location in 2015 was listed as Riverside, CA. 

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Photo provided by Lincoln Sarmanian

5

YEAR: 1938

 

SERIAL NUMBER: 417571 (needs verification)

 

LAST KNOWN OWNER: Lincoln Sarmanian

 

LAST KNOWN LOCATION: Vashon Island, WA

NOTES:The original owner was Jack O’Rans’ Uncle Timmy (O’Ran?) who was in the US Navy and had seen Traction Avants when he was in France.  When he was stationed in San Diego he became aware of Challenger Motors and went up to get one.  He modified it for circuit racing, which was popular at that time.  It has a straight pipe exhaust cutout, lots of added instrumentation, but essentially stock other than that. 

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Photos provided by Lincoln Sarmanian

6

YEAR: 1937

 

SERIAL NUMBER: 369084 (needs verification)

 

LAST KNOWN OWNER: Mullin Museum

 

LAST KNOWN LOCATION: Oxnard, CA

NOTES: Was displayed in the Mullin Museum's "Citroën - The Man and the Machine” exhibit. The museum bought it from a lady named Amy Schugar – a musician who lives in Arizona. She had found it for sale in the Southwest (California or Arizona?)

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Photos provided by George Dyke

7

YEAR: 1939

 

SERIAL NUMBER: 433495

 

LAST KNOWN OWNER: Dave Burnham

 

LAST KNOWN LOCATION: Delanson, NY

NOTES: Purchased from Red Dellinger's estate. Not running. No engine/transmission. Awaiting restoration.

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Photo provided by Dave Burnham