THE EARLY YEARS
There were no formal Citroën dealerships in Seattle in the years of the Traction Avant (up to 1956). However, there were several Traction Avants in the Seattle area at that time. These cars were either imported independently or purchased from Challenger Motors in California (Challenger Motors was importing Traction Avants, renaming them as “Challengers”).
The introduction of the fabulous DS in 1955 was a turning point that sparked a campaign by Citroën to sell cars in North America. The Seattle area was no exception. According to most sources, a small number of DS’s, about 62, were manufactured as model year 1955. In 1956, that figure increased to something like 9868 cars, and in 1957 the production numbers increased again to over 26528 cars. (A good listing of DS's manufacturing numbers can be found HERE.) It was 1957 when DS’s started to be imported into the U.S. in any measurable quantity, and this is the year for which our stories in Seattle begin. But for the moment, let’s travel back two years.…
Pick up a copy of the October, 1955, issue of Road and Track magazine and look closely at a truly strange advertisement for Panhard cars (right). After you have “crossed the Rubicon” and finished snickering about the "blast furnace of power" comment, look more closely at the dealer directory listed in the ad (right).
Jack Woods is listed as a Panhard distributor for Seattle. A Panhard dealership in Seattle in 1955? Well…maybe. We traveled to 2225 Eastlake in Seattle, the address shown in the ad, to check out the area where the dealership used to be. Is the building still there? As it turns out, yes. But it is not a commercial building as we were expecting. Instead, it is a small apartment complex, built in the early 1920's. Not much of a “dealership.”
It seems Jack Woods was selling new Panhards out of his apartment. The photo below shows the apartment complex at 2225 Eastlake, as it looks today. We bring up Panhards and Jack Woods for a reason. Read on to see why…
Road and Track 1955
Google Street View 2018
2225 EASTLAKE - A SEATTLE PANHARD DEALERSHIP?
FRENCH CARS INC.
The first business in the Seattle-area to sell new Citroëns was French Cars Inc. located at 1159 Broadway in the Capitol Hill area of Seattle. French Cars Inc. first appears in the 1957 edition of the phone book, then called the Polk City Directory. However, they were advertising Citroën 2CV's in the local papers as early as the fall of 1956 (see ad right).
Seattle Times 1956
OCTOBER 1956 NEWSPAPER AD FOR FRENCH CARS INC.
Business incorporation documents show the names of Jack & Rhoda Woods and Ralph & Betty Gage as the proprietors. Yes, this is the same Jack Woods who was selling Panhards from his Eastlake apartment a year earlier!
City records further indicate a business incorporation date for French Cars Inc. of July 30, 1956, which is actually quite early insomuch as DS production is concerned. We further discovered that the first DS's in French Cars Inc.'s showroom was on January 15, 1957.
We discovered that the co-owner of French Cars Inc., Ralph Gage, drove one of their brand new demonstrator cars to Vancouver, Canada in February of 1957 and entered it into a winter rally called, VAN-MAN-VAN (Vancouver to Manning Park and back). He came in third, out of nearly 200 participants. But the more important thing about this trip is that it probably represents the very first DS to be on Canadian soil. You can read more about the early days of Citroën in Canada HERE.
But by the time the 1958 Polk City Directory was issued, French Cars Inc. seems to have disappeared!
After reading the first release of this article, NWCOC club member Tom Farrell discovered that one of his acquaintances worked at French Cars Inc. That person was Frank Nashland. Many of those who lived or grew up in the Seattle area during the ‘60’s and ‘70’s may have come into contact with Frank as he was the 31-year co-owner of Wheelsport Ltd., an excellent bicycle shop in the city of Bellevue, a suburb of Seattle. Frank opened Wheelsport Ltd. shortly after the demise of French Cars Inc. with French Cars Inc. co-owner, Ralph Gage.
Frank Nashland passed away in 2005, but club member Tom Farrell had a chance to talk about French Cars Inc. with Frank Nashland before he died. Following is a summary of their conversation:
Tom: Did you have any involvement with French cars in general before you worked for French Cars Inc.?
Frank: Well, I had a couple of French cars before working at the dealership. I had an 11B Traction Avant and later, a Renault 4CV, both of which were great cars. Plus of course, during the time I was at French Cars Inc., I drove DS’s, 4CV’s, Panhards, and other weird and wonderful cars.
Tom: So besides Citroën and Panhard, French Cars Inc. also carried Renault?
Frank: Well, we briefly carried Renault. But of course the model they had then was the Dauphine which I won’t go into since we all know what kind of car that was!
Tom: What was your job description there?
Frank: I was a salesman.
Tom: And besides yourself, Ralph Gage and Jack Woods, who else worked there?
Frank: There was only one other person and that was a full time mechanic - a Dutchman by the name of Rolf - I cannot remember his last name - but he was very good at working on Citroëns and Panhards - or any other car you brought him. The guy was a wonder.
Tom: What sort of interest did cars such as the Citroëns and Panhards create amongst the general public?
Frank: Well, it was scant to be kind. The people who were mostly interested in cars of this type were quite often Boeing engineers, as well as some university types. I guess you could call them eccentrics or those that were drawn towards something off of the beaten path. An interesting thing about this dealership is that it was in a little brick building on Broadway and East Union Street which was originally, sometime in the early part of the century, built as a dealership for Stearns-Knight automobiles! (A review of Seattle directories indicates Pierce Arrow cars were sold from this building as early as 1910 - Ed). Another interesting thing was that across the street (across Union) there was a place that for a short period of time sold Tatra and Skoda cars. They sold quite a few Skodas, but not many Tatras (surprisingly, since the Tatra was a much better car). It was quite an interesting era!
Tom: Do you recall selling many DS’s or Panhards?
Frank: No, we maybe sold 2 or 3 DS’s and maybe 1 or 2 Panhards and that was about it really.
Tom: Do you recall selling any 2CV’s?
Frank: Yeah, maybe we sold 1 or 2 in that time period.
Tom: How about Renaults, did you sell any of those?
Frank: No, not at all.
Tom: Did you have a car supplied by the dealership to drive around?
Frank: Yes, I drove a DS19 around and I also drove a Panhard on occasion. Once I went to a party given by Bill Muncy (a famous hydroplane driver at the time) at his house on Mercer Island. Somehow we got into a conversation about cars and anyway he became entranced about driving this Panhard I had brought to the party. So I said, “OK fine,” and we went around Mercer Island. It was an interesting experience. He really enjoyed driving it, but did not buy one.
Tom: When you had the DS demonstrator car to drive around, do you recall having any problems with it?
Frank: Not at all, not for a moment!
Tom: At one time you mentioned that the colors were not the most desirable?
Frank: Yes, at that time the color selections were very scant. I had a drab beige color. It was a real boring color. The last DS we had was a black one with a maroon velour interior and as I recall, it finally sold (after sitting on the showroom floor for months) to a fellow by the name of Bill Wakefield. He had a large Alaskan fishery concern - Wakefield Fisheries - or some such thing. It was a beautiful car!
Tom: Do you recall any problems that people had with these early cars?
Frank: The only problem I can recall was when people would occasionally put in the wrong hydraulic fluid, but mechanically they were durable.
Tom: Was there much in the way of support from the factory or training information?
Frank: Not really, besides the brochures (which we had to pay for) there wasn’t any support, not even for dealer signs or anything like that.
Tom: When a potential customer came in, did they have much knowledge of the DS and its features?
Frank: As a rule, no. They understood it was a French car but most had very little idea of the mechanical features of the car.
Tom: What kind of reaction would you get when you took them on a test drive?
Frank: Well, they were impressed, but that was the extent of it.
Tom: Were people scared of the complexity?
Frank: Not that I was aware of. At least none of them had related that at the time. People often thought it was strange that the brake was a little button on the floor. I have to relate this tale. The distributor for Citroën was in Portland and one year we had an auto show - I think it was 1957. So Ralph and I went down to Portland to pick up a couple of demos; an ID19 and a 2CV. The distributor had a 2CV truckette - I loved the thing. We all climbed in it and went out for lunch. We ended up taking the truckette and the ID back to Seattle. Ralph drove the ID and I drove the truckette. I think we left at about 4:00 in the afternoon. Forty-five miles an hour was about the best I could get out of it with my foot stuffed through the firewall! Back in those days Highway 99 was the main route home (a two lane road most of the way). As we were coming up, every once and a while I would have to pull over and let the traffic (that was bottled up behind me) get past. I didn’t get home ‘til midnight and I think the only time we stopped was once for gas!
Tom: Where was the auto show that year?
Frank: It was in what is now the Seattle Center. It was held in an exhibition hall that was later torn down to make way for the present-day Opera House.
Tom: Were there any other activities that French Cars Inc. did to try and promote the dealership?
Frank: No, we didn’t have any kind of budget for that kind of thing or for much in the way of advertising. We did take on a line of German trucks by the name of Tempo. These trucks were front wheel drive and very well built. They had a Triumph engine* in them and were basically a flatbed with wood sides that folded-up. They were great trucks, but at that time we were going through a bad economic period - essentially a recession - and no one was really buying that type of thing.
( * PCN editor Allan Meyer points out that Tempo trucks had a variety of engines including air-cooled VW, Heinkel or a British Austin engine - Ed).
TEMPO MATADOR TRUCKS
Tom: What sort of memories do you have of the owners Jack Woods and Ralph Gage?
Frank: Well, Jack was an interesting guy. He was not really involved with the business other than funding the operation. He was really a landowner. He had several apartments in the Eastlake area. (Remember the Panhard dealership on Eastlake Avenue that we were talking about earlier? - Ed). Jack was a nice guy but wasn’t around much. Ralph and I had known each other for a long time and of course later on, after Jack had closed the dealership, Ralph and I went to Bellevue and opened up Wheelsport Ltd.
Tom: Did you foresee the end of French Cars Inc.?
Frank: Oh yeah, we could see that there wasn’t anything happening at all and Jack was tired of losing money, so he folded it up.
Seattle Times 1957
Seattle Times 1958
Seattle Times 1957
Today, there is no trace of the French Cars Inc. building at 1159 Broadway, as the entire block was razed to make room for a medical center. However, the building at 1159 Broadway had a grand history: Among other marques, it was a Pierce Arrow dealership in 1910 and a Stutz dealership in 1917. Perhaps its longest single tenant was Forsberg Indian Motorcycles which occupied the building between 1929 and 1948.
THE FENCH CARS INC. BUILDING AT 1159 BROADWAY AS SEEN IN ABOUT 1946 WHEN IT WAS FORSBERG INDIAN MOTORCYCLE CO.
Google Street View 2018
1159 BROADWAY AS SEEN IN 2018
At the same time French Cars Inc. started selling 2CV’s in 1956, a place named Bucke’s was trying to sell new 2CV’s from 8115 Aurora Avenue North. Bucke’s was mainly a used car lot, but they advertised new 2CV’s for a few months in late 1956 and early 1957 (see ad below). We also found one single advertisement for new Citroën station wagons from early 1957 that appears to have been from Bucke's as well (the address in the ad is the same as Bucke's). Were these station wagons 2CV Truckettes? They couldn't be DS's since DS wagons were not introduced until 1960.
Since Bucke's does not show up in any factory literature or dealer listings, it seems that they were importing these cars independently. We don't know for sure. But whatever they were doing, it didn't last long.
The car lot at 8115 Aurora is still there and is still a used car lot, although the Bucke's name is long gone.
8115 AURORA AVE N. AS SEEN IN 2019
Chris Dubuque 2019
NOVEMBER 1956 NEWSPAPER AD
Seattle Times 1956
FEBRUARY 1957 NEWSPAPER AD
Seattle Times 1957
Citroën USA expert Richard Bonfond notes that an established dealership in Yakima (Eastern Washington) was briefly listed as a Citroën dealer in 1958.
Carl Hahn had started as a Chrysler dealership in the 1920's in Yakima and his son Dick Hahn went on to run the Yakima businesses after father Carl moved to Seattle. Dick's children are also in the car business in Yakima and there is still a Hahn dealership there, currently selling VW, Kia, and Mercedes.
We can find absolutely zero evidence that they were dedicated to Citroën and whatever relationship they had with Citroën in 1958, ended as fast as it started.
Dennis Miller, Pinterest
HAHN MOTORS, 1201 S. 1st. YAKIMA