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Lily James (as Linda Radlett) desperately betrays her Englishness in the BBC’s acclaimed adaptation of The Pursuit of Love.
Because, of course: “French ladies never, never sit crying on their suitcases at the Gare du Nord in the very early morning.” She was supposed to have been coerced into a suitably Parisian carriage to “luncheon” by the suave Fabrice de Sauveterre.
Instead, the line-up on the cobbled street is of somewhat nondescript taxis, awash with flimsy black roofs and bereft of noticeable details.
She should have been coaxed into a Citroën: the capitalising André had spotted the gap in the market and was hastily attempting to fill it with specialised B12s.
All 2000 or so were handmade in Levallois-Perret in northern Paris rather than pressed out of steel like the standard B12.
But the BBC purportedly couldn’t find enough of them to fill the French ranks.
In fact, the production team could find only one Citroën and no other.
They found this car. “There used to be one in Belgium,” says Martin de Little, the man who finished its restoration around five years ago.
“It is no competition for this taxi; it has missed all the nuances.”
The same could not be said of this landaulet.
The detail finish is painstaking, the extra mile stretching far through its thin, letterbox rear window.
This was the final passion project of marque aficionado Maurice Bailey, who died before it first returned to the road completed.
It was quite literally his parting gift to the world.
Bailey was a brilliant restorer with a real enthusiasm when it came to taxis and a penchant for Citroëns.
“He was a single man with no family, no distractions, so he could do whatever he wanted on his cars,” recalls his long-time friend de Little.
“His formative years were spent in the National Health, but at some point he picked up the principles of using an industrial sewing machine.
“That was what he did for a livelihood. It was a modest livelihood because he never made any real money out of it, but it kept body and soul together,” continues de Little.
“He had done several Citroëns, but he wanted a taxi.
“Although he wasn’t a French speaker, he got a copy of La Vie de l’Auto and, with friends, he pieced together that there was allegedly a taxi for sale in a barn just outside Paris and they trailed over there for a look-see.
“It was in a terrible state – as always with French cars it had retired into a chicken shed.”
“It could have been a landau, meaning the same type of car but for private use, and it was at the top of the range,” recalls de Little.
“But what really sealed it for him was the fact that it had the two recesses in the panel behind the front seats for the strapontin, the seats that fold down to give you extra capacity.
“The big Familiale, when used as a taxi, had them set down in the floor.”
De Little goes on: “He was not a computer user, so just by ferreting around in books and journals in English he managed to find out exactly what was what in terms of the vehicles and what should go where.
“He was extremely dogmatic.”
A deal was somehow thrashed out and the car was brought back to the large garage behind his modest bungalow – the former being the bigger of the two.
“The garage is larger than all of the other bungalows in the area,” de Little admonishes, almost. “It had a top floor where the sewing machine was.”
Downstairs it met with a replacement working engine, gearbox and back axle taken from a donor.
“He subbed that work out,” de Little continues. “He was not an engineer per se – he couldn’t use a lathe or a milling machine.
“I think he probably did the gearbox because that’s just a matter of adding new bearings, all of which can be found: it’s quite remarkable, a 100-year-old car and most of the bearings are still available.”
The mechanicals would be the relatively simple part of a model that survives only in photos.
Within the manufacturer’s private Conservatoire near Charles de Gaulle airport is a standard B12, though, and Bailey and his French-speaking accomplice were granted access to take their measurements to be able to properly clothe his car.
Once he put his findings on to paper and sent them to an ash-body builder in Shropshire, what came back was effectively his canvas.
“The 60 years in the chicken shed rather did for the finer points of the car,” de Little points out. The front wings were able to be refurbished, though, and then used along with reference photos to form the rears.
“Thereafter it was all his own work,” stresses de Little.
“He did all the cladding of the body, and he made the roof and worked out the geometry for the way it drops down.”
The result is spectacular, looking as perfect and snug as the day this Citroën B12 first hit the streets of Paris.
The cannage that covers the rear quarters of the bodywork was painstakingly applied by an absurdly tolerant individual.
Not Bailey, because he lost patience with the delicate work, reckons de Little, who likens the transfers to those that came with sweets in his childhood.
“The car was sprayed wet and these were floated into place,” he explains.
“You basically squeeze the water out, and when you have got it absolutely located in position you peel off the paper backing.
“That apparently took 120 hours,” de Little explains.
“Back in the ’60s there was a super-duper version of a Mini with the same faux canework on it.
“It was also done on Hispano-Suizas in the ’20s and considered to be a very, very posh kind of décor.”
“It is an absolute swine to repair in the event of any damage, because the whole thing has been lacquered into place and you’ve somehow got to get a single patch off,” declares de Little.
Another job farmed out was the remarkably original-looking Citroën badge on the door, which was recreated through the practice of repoussé.
“It is a very old technique,” says de Little.
“Typically it’s done in gold or silver, but in this case it was an elliptical piece of copper laid in bitumen, and the pattern is applied in reverse.”
“As the bitumen is warmed the metal is lifted off, and here it was trimmed and painted,” de Little explains.
“It’s just like the real thing.
“Maurice went all the way. All the grace notes: it’s absolutely spot-on.”
Inside, this classic Citroën is far more luxurious than even the highest of French society would have expected.
It took ingenuity, Bailey’s specialist talents and often things that came to hand.
“The interior lining is West of England wool,” de Little says. “He used Bridge of Weir leather for the rear and Connolly in the front. It still had all the original door furniture, which is ivory.”
He continues: “When I was selling the car I put ‘ivory’ into eBay and the whole screen lit up red – it was quite extraordinary; the protection of endangered species means eBay doesn’t touch it.
“Those knobs and pull-rings for the doors are all the original bone or ivory.
“For the mother-of-pearl in the banding, he bought in what you and I might call a rather sophisticated version of Formica, which is used for drum sets.”
Sit on the Citroën’s spongy rear bench and the first thing that will draw your eye is the delicate roof light. The basis of which, frankly, beggars belief.
“The plafonnier was made out of bits and bobs that he found in a brocante shop: an ashtray and an old lamp,” says de Little.
“Maurice cobbled the two together to make what looks like a period lamp. Those sorts of details make it.”
Meanwhile an aged paper sign, copied from an AC4 taxi Bailey also restored, hides in plain sight above the division.
It’s a sordid secret of all Paris taxis, says de Little: “It alludes to runs out to the Hippodrome and Bois de Boulogne in the dead of night.
“I understand that there’s very little horse racing late at night at Longchamps… Basically, at that time a taxi was a mobile brothel.
“It was very plush; he’s done it in very soft leather, but ordinarily there would have been dainty little curtains and quite a lot of crushed velvet.”
“And, yes, a man would take a dame de nuit out for the ride and that notice actually alludes to the cost of the fare,” says de Little.
“I think the ride back was free. Implicitly, the driver had to disappear and would have needed paying off as well.”
Some of the external details, such as the working opera lights and meter, were unearthed at Rétromobile.
The meter, should it be properly connected up, works off the gearbox and is not faithfully fabricated but an original produced on 51 Rue Cardinet in Paris by the Société Nouvelle de Compteurs et Appareils de Précision.
The pièce de résistance for de Little is the petrol gauge standing proud on the scuttle behind the barrel bonnet: “The practice was to have the tank above the carburettor so you just had a simple gravity feed. That was splendid for its simplicity.
“He found it on a stand, in a box, and there was a Frenchman who was after it but he reached out and grabbed it.”
“It is little more than a cork with a little indicator on the top of it, and it just rises and falls with the level of the petrol in the tank,” explains de Little.
“It is gloriously simple, when often with Citroën stuff it can be very clever but not really work.”
More aesthetically pleasing rather than particularly of the period are the stop lights, with double-chevrons laser-cut into them. While in no way original, they don’t look out of place.
Bailey’s choice of colour did for de Little, though, and he’s darkened it via a diligent paintshop with a store of old ICI colour charts.
“Really it should be black,” he admits, “but the problem was the cannage had been overlaid on a Cadbury’s blue.
“He removed as much of the purple from the paint as possible and we got it down to basically a darkish blue with just a hint of red in it.
“You can’t see the point at which the new colour job actually segues into the old colour job where the cannage is.”
Whether it would still carry the same majesty is moot, and there is merit to both Bailey’s belief that it deserves to be more celebrated and outlandish, and also to de Little’s that this car should be remembered as a working vehicle.
It certainly gets attention wherever it goes.
When Citroën marked its centenary at every available opportunity in 2019, the taxi starred on the main stand at the ExCeL centre. And found a new home.
The prospect of a Delage meant de Little had been trying to move the taxi on and it found a new line of work in the wedding-hire business.
Prior to that, de Little was asked by Citroën to take it to a dealer event at the NEC in Birmingham.
“The fact that this was a one-off Citroën going on 100 years old didn’t impact on [the attendees’] consciousness,” he observes.
The manufacturer became so used to the car that it finally came around to idea of buying it, but never progressed much further than a signal of intent.
The next owners found favourable responses from the factory, too, but it eventually found its way into the classifieds instead.
After all, ‘Citroën’ doesn’t really have the same ring to it for a wedding as Rolls-Royce, and nor is piloting a 1920s car simple.
“It’s a standard – of the period – Citroën ’box, so it’s three speeds and arrière [reverse],” says de Little.
“It pulls nicely and the steering is light, but because of the high centre of gravity, being a tall ash body with lots of glass, it rolls a little bit.”
Stopping power is by front brakes and a drum on the gearbox for the handbrake.
Four-wheel brakes and servo assistance would have to wait for the subsequent B14.
Citroën’s independent suspension was still a couple of decades away, so half-elliptics stabilise the front with quarter-elliptics and shock absorbers at the rear.
“A lot of the B12s running around have lost them because they are relatively easy to remove for repair work and people never seem to bother to put them back on,” reckons de Little.
“Or people presume them not to be of any use or purpose.”
Step in and the taxi will lurch towards you, displaying just how soft that suspension is. A valuable commodity on broken 1920s roads, no doubt.
When setting it up, de Little looked to the track: “With all the handbooks of the period, Citroën’s certainly, there are no torque values – you use ‘by God by gum’ – and there’s nothing about setting up the suspension.
“I follow the technique that was used by MG: with the car standing on the flat, back off all the shock absorbers and then do them up tight, lift the car by the chassis near to a wheel and back off the shock absorber slowly and steadily until the axle begins to drop.
“At which point you have movement, albeit not a lot, and that was more or less the way they did it back in the day.”
De Little took on the car to finish Bailey’s vision, and mainly made it roadworthy and driving in a way that did his work justice.
“It’s old technology but it works,” he says, and it’s difficult to hear where his admiration for the car and his late friend melds.
Unlike the car, neither should be in short supply.
Images: John Bradshaw