Restoration of a 1954 Big 15 Citroen
Restoration of a 1954 Big 15 Citroen
Author: Hank Ten Tieje
Sitting on the back of my dad’s motorcycle in 1958 or 1959 as he was going to work I spotted what I later discovered was the front half of a DS Citroen going the opposite direction.
Now before you say he’s been on the bottle again, I was 11 or 12 years of age and only saw what I believe to have been half a DS for 2 seconds perhaps. This was the beginning of my love affair with these remarkable cars. My thoughts were boy oh boy, what a car!
I’m assuming that the car must have been repaired and broken onto 2 a second or so before I saw it. The roof was missing and there were sparks flying from underneath the driver’s seat.
It could not have been a cabriolet as they were not in production as yet.
Many years later (try 50) I was to have the opportunity to buy a 1969 ID 19B . After a rust repair roof lining, carpet and upholstery job and then a hydraulic system birthday, it was sort of ready to go on the road. Absolutely thrilled to bits. Now I know why Rolls Royce and Mercedes also used the Citroen suspension under licence.
The next obvious step is to buy another Citroen is it not ? I must admit at this point that I actually imported a Big 15 from NZ in about 1994 and traded it on a Fiat 130 some time later. I had started on this car and put a new roof lining in it and done the door trims from memory.
Not really sure why I traded it but well, it’s history now. We all make mistakes from time to time.
In 2010 whilst showing off the 1969 in Wynyard at the foreshore market, I was approached by an old workmate who worked for a scrap dealer and that was the starting point for the 1954 Big 15 Citroen. After some negotiating, a deal was struck and they sort of delivered the Citroen to my barn. I say that because I had moved the remains of a 1934 Hillman into the paddock to make room for the new acquisition and when the Citroen was allowed to run off the truck it came within 2 inches of hitting the Hillman as the Citroen had no brakes.
After selling a couple of cars in late 2012, I had made enough room to bring it home from the barn to my workshop.
The car whilst complete, well near enough, was relatively rust free and did not appear to have had much work done on it. The gearbox, it’s weakest point, had been removed and the motor had been partially stripped. Inside of the car was original, what was left of the paint was original. I would guess that the car died as it had some teeth missing on the crownwheel and pinion.
As a member of the Citroen Owners Club, I quickly learned that a fellow member of the club was actually the second owner many years ago. He had lost the car as a result of a marriage break up.
So the restoration work began in September 2012. Initially sandblasting the guards, bonnet and boot was a good start. The sandblaster would not do the doors. It appears that he was sued some years ago for damaging some doors. So the task of stripping the main body and doors began. There is a plastic “Strip-it disc” on the market that fits on a 5” angle grinder and this removes paint very effectively without creating too much heat or biting into the metal. One disc is good for about 2 square meters.
Everything was finished with lead including the roof insert where on some cars Citroen would have had a sun roof. No bog was found anywhere and apart from a few minor dents and minor rust around the rear end, the body was in great shape.
The doors opened and shut like a new car. This is a good sign that the body hasn’t sagged as some do due to rust in places that you don’t easily see. This body was designed before 1934 and has no chassis. The bodies do suffer from some stress cracking and I found 3 such places on each side of the car.
The front end of the car comes away relatively easy. Removing the motor/gearbox then became a 20 minute job. Having done this, I made up an A frame with a pivot point to suspend the front and I welded a few pieces of scrap together for the rear of the vehicle and used an engine crane to raise it high enough so that I could turn the vehicle with the help of some ropes.
Would not have passed any safety tests but it was never going to fall very far and then only onto a few tyres.
So cleaning up of the floor began. All covered in tar, some was missing and there was surface rust under some of the tar. Spent a whole day trying to clean this up. There is no easy way unless you use dangerous solvents, so the good old angle grinder with the strip it discs was used. Of course when you hit tar with the angle grinder you immediately begin to soften it and it starts to flow. At the end of the day, my boots had resoled themselves and had a healthy 4-5 mm layer of tar attached. Wive had to jump into the shower with me to clean me up and then on the following day she had to use a solvent to clean the shower. Me thinks that I’ll pay someone next time to do this if I can find someone silly enough. There is no way that I’ll ever get permission from you know who to do this again.
Guess that the next big step was to decide what to do with the differential that needed some dental treatment. After reading and discussing it with other owners, I made the decision to go for a later 4 speed gearbox coupled to a later motor which has a cross flow head and thus a few more ponies. This in theory, makes it a 60 mph car as opposed to a 50 mph car with a very touchy gearbox.
Having made the decision after lots of reading, I then read where someone said “Well you’ve now got more power and what are you now going to do to keep it cool and stop the car? “ I have since decided that I don’t like that person! Perhaps this is why the D’s had disc brakes as early as 1955.
Whilst this conversion has been done by many Traction owners, there are different ways of achieving the same result, all of which create a headache or two and do not come cheap.
Luckily you can still buy liners, pistons, bearings and almost whatever you need for these cars.
The motors in the early D’s were much the same as the Traction except for the head.
Upon checking the motor, I found that it had been repaired before and it must have had an incident as a few of the pushrods were a bit kinky and the timing sprocket was loose.
You learn very quickly that the capital of Citroen parts is Holland followed by England Germany and Belgium, forget France. England has a very active Traction club which I have joined as they also have a good range of parts and an excellent magazine.
These cars have their own odd sized tyres so they have to be imported as well. Michelin actually make these, makes sense I guess as they bought out the Citroen company in the thirties.
So, as time went on I sourced vinyl, carpet, hood lining and leather locally. Made new door panels as well as a new rear armrest.
On 31st July I cut two pistons down to make retaining rings for the new gearbox output shaft oil seal. The output shafts from the Traction were transplanted into the new differential and a few modifications were needed. So the old 78 mm pistons that were scrap came in quite handy. Great when you can make something out of scrap.
Next came the fun with bolts. I needed a dozen say of 30 -38 mm M9 x 1.25 bolts to bolt the machined plates onto the sides of the gearbox. Went to the other side of town to the Nut and Bolt shop, came away very happy, so happy in fact that I purchased a box of rubber grommets as well.
When I got home I realized that he had given me 8 mm bolts. Back the following day only to find out that they did not have 9 mm bolts and the salesman told me that William Adams stocked these. I thus walked into William Adams and told the sales man that a nice man at Nuts and Bolts had referred me. The salesman at William Adams did ask me which particular nut had referred me ! Suffice to say they did not stock these bolts. Onto the net and yes, there are people all over the world looking for these 9 mm bolts and I managed to find some suppliers, all in China and they all wanted to sell me at least 1000 or half a tonne, but they were very cheap. Pity I don’t need thousands of them. Eventually I found some in Germany for about 2 Euros each.
The Tractions were left hand drive and the gear change comes out of the dashboard, through the firewall and then to the front of the car. Yes the gearbox is just behind the grille. When they decided to make a right hand drive, the gear change remained on the dash and towards the passenger side.
A sudden brainwave (don’t get too many) led me to look at changing the gearbox selectors on the D box from right to left which is where the Traction selectors are. I decided that this was not possible but asked an old Citroen expert who told me that he had heard of someone doing this. With this new knowledge and a spare lid to work on, we (a friend and me) set about doing this and after a few frustrating attempts, the actual job was not so big. Basically it involved cutting about a centimeter of the hollow selector shaft and machining a new groove for the circlip to hold it all together. So, this now avoids me having to cross linkages from left to right just in front of the firewall.
The motor and gearbox were reunited again in October 2013. What I thought was the correct exhaust manifold had a small crack which I then had professionally welded which then resulted in warping and thus had to be surfaced at a cost of $90. You can imagine the pain and suffering I had when the thing didn’t fit the head. They do say it happens ! Just as well I had another manifold.
Late October, a grille turned up in the UK on Fleabay. I had just one day to ask a few questions and put in a bid. Another sudden brainwave told me to mail a club member in Hobart who thought that he may have a spare grille. Sure enough, he had a spare grille infinitely better than what I had. This member just happened to be the second owner of the car. I had heard rumours that there was another grille with the car at some stage but I had been unable to verify this until now. A Citroen Car Club Christmas BBQ in late November at Westbury saw the grille find its way from a Southern Citroen club member to a North Western Citroen Club member. This was like winning the lottery to me. After a day cleaning, polishing and minor panel work, the grille was almost good enough to go on the car. If the car body was not getting a paint job, then I would put it on.
So, as we need to go to the plating works, the rusty bumpers need work and re-chroming. Made a crate to fit the bumpers and then lined it with plastic and filled with molasses solution only to find that there is a small hole in the liner and my concrete is now covered in molasses. They do say that it happens. The electroplaters are much better at cleaning the bumpers anyway using hydrochloric acid and reverse plating
After the holiday break, the front end was re-united with the car and the brakes and steering hooked up. This then allowed the final bit of cleaning inside the boot and the foot well, something that has to be done outside, yes I know what you are thinking.
So, it is now February and the exterior body work is about to be attacked whilst I can push the car in and out of the garage and the weather is good. Found 2 more stress cracks at the bottom of the center pillars. The previous owner had attacked the paint job with a very course angle grinder and left some rather deep gauges in the lead wiping around the roof insert which needed filling.
Guess that the paint preparation is the hardest part to get right, lots of rubbing.
Still February and a phone call to inform me that the chrome plating of the grille and bumpers is done, so off to Launceston we went. The grille has to be better than new. So very pleased with this as the grille was my biggest concern. We collected some other Chrome bits on 18th March, our silver wedding anniversary, well, Chrome looks better than silver does it not? A good excuse for a trip to Launceston and a nice meal to keep the wife happy.
As the weather was OK on 19th March, I managed to put a little paint on the body around the doors etc. You do this to clean the gun out I’ve learnt as I had all sorts of coloured bits come out of the gun. Another one of life’s lessons which I do not need at my age. After another go at painting the body, I was happy enough to leave this for a while and get onto other panels and make a start on the wiring. Boot to dash loom made up and fitted on 30th March, a fair days work.
Following this I decided to restore the tail lights which entailed manufacturing a new rubber base, remanufacturing new light bulb fittings and re colouring the lenses with lamp red. The tail lights/parts for this model seem to one of the few parts not available from overseas. Having said that, Austin A40 tail lights are almost the same and are available. The number plate lights needed new rubber, wires and Perspex which seems nothing but still took 2 hours to manufacture.
Headlights are easy as you can still buy 7”sealed beams, not original, but better than what was there.
Putting the fan pulley back onto the water pump needed a slight tap, just enough to break the impellor. Not happy but I did not tell him above as I figured out that he would know. Cost of a new pump is around 295 Euros ex Europe.
It would appear at this stage that an electric water pump and fan could give me change out of the 295 Euros and give me more power, less fuel and better cooling.
Next task just to do something different and take my mind off the water pump was to make up a new main wiring loom. Well, that was until I ran out of wire and being Good Friday, shops are closed.
Not too certain about just where the looms went, so a trip to Ulverstone to have a look at a 1952 revealed that the ‘52 was nothing like I had. Should have known. Ah well, a little outing.
Fast forward to 27th April and the motor gearbox managed to get put into the car. Only issue was the upper gearbox cradle cross piece which was nicely painted and then had to be chopped into 3 pieces and modified to make it all fit. This took almost a whole day which included repairing my MIG welder which decided to have a rest. Thankfully this turned out to be a 30 minute job.
The problem was making a gearbox diablo which then fits into the cradle. Next issue is the radiator which has an indentation which fits over the gearbox mounting which has now been relocated re the 30 mm difference. The radiator can’t be moved 30 mm so has to go up to clear the gearbox mounting. Without putting the car together, I believe that I will not be able to lift the radiator, so we’ll relocate the gearbox diablo.
The decision to remove the water pump was easy and was replaced with a plate and a spigot for the lower radiator hose. It leaves enough room for an electric water pump and fan.
Fast forward a day and there’s a pool of gearbox oil on the floor. Turns out that the passenger side new gearbox seal is not sealing which means motor/gearbox out to find out what went wrong.
Upon removal of motor/gearbox and then laying the whole thing over a bit so I could inspect the seal, I soon discovered that the other side was leaking as well. Another lesson that I do not need.
After ignoring the problem for a few days and a little high temperature silicone the motor and gearbox went back in. If it leaks again the step is 140 oil followed by grease !
Whilst the motor was out I had another go at fitting the original TA exhaust manifold as this points downwards instead of forwards but sadly it did not want to play ball.
Next job was to raise the car by adjusting the torsion bar tension. This allows the front drive shafts to be nice and horizontal. The alternator brackets were not correct so made new ones for that and started to work out just where and how to fit the new electric water pump. Managed to get an electric fan ex a Nissan Patrol I think for a bottle of Scotch. Good deal. The total cost for the pump and fan was thus $300 which is far better than 300+ Euros for a new water pump. The brackets for the alternator were a challenge as there are now only 2 pulleys and not three. Next came the new water pump. After dropping the radiator and doing a fair bit of damage, a 40 mm elbow soldered in the bottom of the radiator and pointing outwards allowed the new pump to sit next to it, nicely out of the way. The new electric fan will fit in front of the radiator. The head inlet diameter is 58 mm and finding a stepped hose took some time. A Case/IH 650 tractor hose came in handy.
To be continued