A few months ago I was engaged in a long comment thread with our Dutch friend Jobjoris when I made some kind of joke about forgotten cars. I can’t remember what it was in reference to, but the joke involved buying a Citroën LNA since that was a car I never think about and is pretty forgotten and unloved. Or, so I thought. It’s maybe Citroën’s least interesting car. Or, so I thought. So, Jobjoris replied with a link to an ad for this one for sale in Belgium and, obviously, I was instantly smitten.
I was familiar with the LNA, but never gave it much thought. Which is weird since I love shitty little cute cars. It’s Citroën’s badge engineered version of the Peugeot 104 which was a handsome and capable little economy car with a small Peugeot 4 cylinder.
In the late 70’s, Citroën was in much better shape than at the beginning of the decade thanks to a merger with Peugeot. However, their economy fleet was badly aging. Both the 2CV and 2CV-based Ami8 were ancient designs. The Visa, a 4 door compact, was still several years away. So, in 1976, Peugeot came up with a quick and dirty solution by having Citroën build its own version of the 104Z, the 2-door “supermini” version of the 104.
Citroën put in the 30 horsepower 602cc flat-twin out of the 2CV and Ami, changed the grille and headlights, and voilà. Of course, when Peugeot took over Citroën, they promised that Citroën would remain independent and wouldn’t just build Peugeots with Citroën badges on them and that’s almost exactly what this car was. But, they explained that they had to rush to give dealers the economy car they had been clamoring for, and it wouldn’t happen again. Which held true for about 20 years.
Sales for the original LN, which was only available in France, were slow at first, but picked up because it was practical, a good value, and didn’t look like it was designed in the 1940’s. It was a little cheaper than the Peugeot version, and the small two cylinder, while being underpowered and designed in the 40’s itself, was extremely thrifty. In 1978, Citroën gave the car an upgrade with the more modern (electronic ignition!) 652cc, 36 horsepower version of the flat twin that also powered the finally on sale Visa.
It was now called the “LNA” with the “A” for “athletique” because why not, it’s got 6 more horses. The new LNA was also now being exported around Europe, but couldn’t really compete with non-French superminis outside France, so got a reputation as something of a flop.
But, it remained in production until 1986 and finally got 4 cylinder variants, the 11E and 11RE, in 1982. It turned out to be a decent success in its home country and actually does have a cult of fans today. It also wasn’t the only 104 clone. The Talbot Samba is the same car as well just with a few more body modifications. Unlike the humble LNA, it got Rallye and Cabrio versions.
Well, laying eyes on pictures of that blue one in Belgium made me want one. I had never really looked at it with any kind of attention before and had forgotten how adorably stubby the thing is. It really looks like they just chopped off half of a bigger car. And, it’s the most basic of basic transportation. No radio, no air conditioning, no nothing. I also love cars with two cylinder engines and the fact that all-new cars were still being introduced with the venerable old flat twin in the late 70’s is pretty incredible when you think about it. So, there is something intriguing about this boring little car. I had been planning a trip with my father to visit WWI battlefields in France and Belgium for this summer, so the timing was perfect. Since I was going to be in Europe, I knew I had to head over to The Netherlands to visit Jobjoris since we’d been talking about a get together forever. And, how cool would it be to drive there in an LNA?
I began scouring Leboncoin, France’s version of Craigslist. I figured my budget for buying and shipping the car to be between $4,000 and $4,500, which actually isn’t very much for importing an old car. When you take into account shipping, taxes, customs fees, transporting to and/or from the port, etc.; things add up. Roll on, roll off transport is a little cheaper than using a container, so I knew I had to get a runner. Plus, I wanted to drive it several hundred kilometers. Fortunately, LNA’s are about the cheapest “classic” Citroën you can find. I kept getting distracted by 2CV’s and Ami8’s and Renaults 4 and 5, but decent ones of those would have pushed the budget which I decided I could deal with, but then I’d come across another LNA and make an inner squee and knew that’s the car my heart and my bank account really wanted. For a cheap, almost disposable car that a lot of people don’t know or remember exists, I was surprised at how many always seemed to be for sale.
A lot get scavenged for their motors which then get put in more valuable and collectible 2CV’s, but I looked at dozens of ads. It seemed like top price for a nice one was 2500-3000 Euros, or around $2900+, which would keep me in my budget, but those really nice ones were, unsurprisingly, few and far between. The bulk of cars I’d find, were rusty and tired and in the sub-1000 Euro range. I wanted something in between which is always the toughest target to hit. I didn’t care about paint, and bumps and bruises as long as the car was mechanically sound and had as little rust as possible. I also didn’t want to drive across the entire country of France, so I was only looking in the north, hopefully not far from Paris which was where my dad and I ended up after the battlefields. A couple weeks before the trip, I came across this guy who seemed just right.
It was located in Lille, near the border with Belgium which was actually where my father and I were staying our first week. It’s also only 200 kilometers from Jobjoris’s house in Holland which would make for a fun drive that wouldn’t kill me or a 35+ year old car. The ad said the car, an ’81, had recently had a 1400 Euro service that included new brakes and tires, and had an up to date registration and inspection which sounded good. It was listed at 1500 Euros, or a little over $1700 (firm since it had apparently been appraised at 1550, so this was a deal) which was a nice price. The body didn’t look to be in bad shape in the pictures and they said no rust. It had some stripes that weren’t supposed to be there, but that added to the charm. I also could just make out some kind of pattern on the seats in one of the photos in the ad (no inside shots, but “perfect interior” was promised). Intrigued, I Googled LNA interiors and came up with this.
Is that a rattan pattern? Holy shit, I had to have this car. I emailed the seller. But, the Leboncoin site apparently warns you when you’re getting an inquiry from outside France, so the guy ignored me since French Craigslist works the same as American Craigslist. So, I tried calling, but they didn’t want to answer a random foreign phone number. Jobjoris was vacationing in France, so he volunteered to call and even go look at it, but they weren’t answering Dutch cell phone numbers, either. Finally I used a proxy to fool Leboncoin that I was in France, and Google Translate to fool the seller into thinking I was a French person with poor grammar and got through. He told me right away that he worked a couple hours from Lille and people had made appointments to look at the car and not shown up which annoyed him, so I held off telling him I was American so as not to spook him. Google Translate you sly devil.
I told him I was going to be in town in a couple weeks and made arrangements to call him then. I had a couple other ads saved as backups, but the white Lille car had struck my fancy right away. So, after the first week of looking at WWI battlefields and cemeteries (which was a lot more awesome than it may sound), I got our tour guide to call the LNA guy for me so as not to use my U.S. cell phone. Also, my French sucks. He explained I was American and arranged for me to go look at the car the next day. LNA guy apparently wasn’t as cranky as his email made him sound. I was psyched. I had always wanted a Citroën. I actually did own a U.S. spec Ami6 once that I rescued from the desert, but I didn’t end up keeping it long and, with a cracked frame and a body that looked like it had lost a battle with a rhinoceros, it wasn’t really a daily driver. So, now I was possibly on the verge of owning a Citroën I could really use and drive the wheels off of. If it was how it was described. And, if I could get a guy who only answers local calls on the phone. I had his address, but not his apartment number. I wouldn’t trust me, either, honestly.
The next day it was raining. My father and I had just picked up our rental car, a Dacia Duster. I was just getting used to driving in France when we set off to find the LNA. First of all, the navigation voice only spoke French. I know my gauche from my droite, but everything else sounded like gobbledygook. And, of course the street name he gave me was slightly different than the one the navigation computer spit up. So, needless to say, we drove around in circles for a while. The road he lived on was a small side street, so the lady at the gas station had never heard of it. My Sprint international service sucked at connecting to the internet, so Google Maps didn’t work. I finally spotted the street sign through the downpour behind a Midas of all places. Then I had to get a random dude who was walking down the street to call because LNA Guy still wouldn’t answer when I used my phone. What the hell? He knew I was coming. Five minutes later a skinny Frenchman in his late 20’s came down to take soaking wet me and my 84 year old father down to the garage underneath the building where the LNA was parked. Florian, that was LNA Guy’s name, turned out to be really nice fellow. He recently graduated from grad school, and had owned the car a couple years. He seemed dumbfounded that an American was interested in his little Citroën. “Why do you want my car?” he kept asking me.
The basement garage was pitch black and it took Florian waving his arms for the lights to come on. As the fluorescents flickered to life, I saw the distinctive petite nose of the LNA peeking out from its parking spot, those round sealed beams looking bright and eager.
Sometimes when you go look at a car, it takes some real inspecting to make sure it’s the one you want. And, sometimes it’s love at first sight and you know that car will be yours no matter what. This was one of those times. The paint was a tad tired and had some minor dents, but it looked good. A real French car shouldn’t be perfectly straight. They drive by touch on occasion. It has these black stripes that were clearly painted on using the most rudimentary technique that give it excellent character. I especially like the ones on the top of the fenders that kind of frame the hood. An unusual, but cool choice. They don’t add fake sportiness, just a little flair. There was no visible rust anywhere which was a relief. France is wet and cheap cars especially turn to dust. It started right up exuding the scent of exhaust and unburned gas as only an old carbureted car can. And the flat twin purred steadily just like it should. Florian, whose English was only slightly better than my French, got out, pointed at his wrist and said, “perfect.” I nodded. “Yeah. Runs like a watch.” I then opened the door and looked inside. Those perfect, mock rattan seats looked back.
They were even more amazing in person. The way the pattern is printed on the material is kind of janky in a charming way. Like this was the cheapest way to keep the interior from being too boring. Any other car maker might have picked something lame like plaid, or some stripes. But, Citroën knows its clientele. They went for rattan because the rest of the car lacked their signature weirdness. And, sitting in them is like sitting on a cloud. They’re squishy and welcoming. A real contrast from most cheap car seats which usually feel like you’re sitting on a shovel. No headrests because you have bigger things to worry about than whiplash.
With my father squeezed in the back seat and Florian next to me, we set off on a test drive. The first thing you notice after the nutty interior is that single spoke steering wheel.
It’s pretty rad and you realize it lets you have a clear view of the gauges even when you’re turning. How clever. Not that you really need to spend much time staring at the speedo in a 36 horsepower car. The shifter gave me that familiar sensation of stirring soup. Still, first gear was easy to find and we set off. One of my first thoughts was, did I leave the hand brake on? I’m used to driving underpowered, little cars. I have a Renault Le Car that I use all the time, but it has 20 whole horsepower more than the LNA which somehow makes it feel like a rocket ship in comparison. But, that’s the deal with the old Citroën flat twin. It’s simple, durable, and it sips gas like a teetotaler. And, once you get it going, it will keep up with traffic. In town, anyway. The LNA weighs around 1500 lbs. so there isn’t a lot of car for that motor to move.
Anyway, this one really did run like a top. The motor ticked away making all the sounds it was supposed to. The brakes felt firm and fresh as did the clutch. Aside from the sloppy shifter which probably was never all that precise to begin with, it was a well sorted little car. And it was a joy to drive right from the start. I certainly knew I wasn’t getting a performance machine. My automobile interests lie with small oddballs. I like old cars with lots of quirks. I want a little bit of comedy in my rides. A weirdly placed turn signal stalk, or an exhaust pipe route that doesn’t quite make sense gives me pleasure. And this car tickled me right from the start. It has a horn stalk on the column that you pull towards you. One speed wipers with a knob that you turn that’s so inset into the dash you can barely get your fingers around it. The suspension is gloriously soft like any good French car. And it understeers with its front wheel drive so much that it really just leans more than change direction. It’s a hoot as long as you don’t want to go fast. And slow car fast is faster than fast car slow anyway.
My father didn’t have much to say because I think my love of cars like this confuses him. His one comment was, “it’s not as nice a design as the Le Car.” He’s right. The Renault 5 was designed as a 3 door, and this is a chopped off 5 door. But, I like the awkward proportions. The stubbiness is what struck me initially because it’s amusing. And, during the drive, the only thing dad said was, “you’re pretty good at driving stick,” which is a nice thing for your father to say only he’s terrible at driving a manual.
I didn’t want to stop driving the thing, but we had a long drive ahead of us that evening to get to our next hotel in Reims, so I headed back to the dark parking lot. After some more arm waving after we parked, I told Florian I’d take it. He again looked dumbfounded. “Really?”
“Yeah, the car’s great. It’s exactly what I was looking for.”
He explained he didn’t want someone who was just going to take the engine. I patted the car and said, “no way. Poor LNA. I’m going to ship it home to America and drive it all over.”
I know it’s not the kind of car that usually gets exported. I’m pretty sure I’m the first one to bother bringing an LNA over. But, I didn’t hunt for his place in the rain just for shits and giggles. I told him I had cash and was ready to take it and he seemed to finally accept that I was going to buy his car. We still had a week of WWI stuff to see, so I asked if I could pick it up the next weekend. He still needed to take it to get a new inspection since that’s the law when you sell a car in France, so the 7 day gap worked out perfect. He wouldn’t take a deposit, which was a little worrying, but we made arrangements for me to come get it the next Saturday morning after my father went back home.
So, after another week of seeing all the spots where General Pershing put the kibosh on the Kaiser, I took a train from Paris back up to Lille to pick up the LNA. It was raining again because France, and this time I was lugging luggage. I had to go through the process of calling Florian again and of course he didn’t answer. My heart sank. This time he definitely should know to expect a call from a California number. Since it was early and there were no random people walking down the street, I tried again. Still no answer. “Aw, fuck.” I immediately redialed and he picked right up. Phew. “I wasn’t sure you were coming,” he said. I had already emailed him to ask for a copy of the title so I could get the shipping process started, so I don’t know what he was talking about. I asked about the inspection and he told me it passed fine. The only thing they pointed out was that the brake lights come on a split second after pressing the pedal instead of right away. That didn’t sound like a problem to me. Probably some kind of safety precaution. This gives you a moment to decide if you really want to brake before letting the whole world know.
After working out the confusing French paperwork, I was ready to be on my way to Holland. Our friend Flavien told me about a place in France that does temporary insurance. All I had to do was call them up, email them pictures of the title and my driver’s license, and, for 65 Euros, I was insured for a week. After that was done, I stuffed my suitcases in the little car. She fired right up, I’m sure knowing it was headed to a new forever home where it wouldn’t be living in a dank basement garage. Florian definitely seemed sad to see it go, which was nice. It was his car during his time in school and he was pretty attached to it. I assured him it was going to a good home and then we headed out into the rain and the crazy streets of Europe. Since my Google maps situation was spotty, I had to write down turn by turn directions all the way to Jobjoris’s house. And, somehow, I did a good job because I managed to find the highway north.
I was a little nervous, both about driving the thing on an expressway and taking a 36 year old French car I wasn’t very familiar with yet on a two and a half hour drive. And, I have to say, after all that, the trip was fairly uneventful. That car was a champ the whole way, cruising at 105 kph (65 mph) like it was born to do it. Which I guess it was. We were passing trucks like nobody’s business. Which was quite hairy at first. The LNA accelerates so leisurely that you have to plan way way ahead when you’re going to make the move into the left lane to go around somebody. If there’s anyone within half a mile coming up in the fast lane, you can forget it. In my early paranoia, I kept thinking it was making weird noises. But, no. It hummed along just fine barely batting an eye.
I had trouble restarting it once at a pitstop because I flooded it, so the only hiccup was my fault. We rolled through Belgium like we owned it. Right on schedule, after two and a half hours, we cruised into the cozy confines of Breda, The Netherlands.
My scrawled directions were suddenly completely useless. Roads didn’t match up with anything I had written down. Where I was supposed to go left, the road only went right. The names of the streets were 75 letters long. The LNA didn’t seem to mind, but I had to urinate like a horse and was getting antsy. Finally after driving around aimlessly, through one of those miracles that defy explanation, when I checked to see what street I had just turned onto randomly, it was Jobjoris’s. We were there.
The next three days were a blur of car museums and pizza. Jobjoris had made the shipping arrangements for me through a guy he knows named Michel who has a forwarding company. Shipping was 1100 Euros, or a little under $1300. That was a couple hundred less than I was expecting. It helps to ship small, light cars. We also took the LNA to a Citroën specialist to check it out.
He pointed out a couple areas of minor rust to keep an eye on, but otherwise gave it a thumbs up. He also had the coolest cars parked around his place.
The port was in Zeebrugge, another 150 kilometers back across Belgium. This time, I knew what the car could handle, and it was 110 kph (68!) the whole way.
Which was like the speed of sound to me, but I know Jobjoris was bored to death in the mighty Volvo wagon (diesel 5 pot).
As we arrived at the port, the skies darkened reflecting my mood. I was going to miss the little Citroën. It had conquered Belgium twice like it was the German army. It was going to my parents’ house in Connecticut to get registered there before coming out to ultra strict California where I live. So, I wasn’t going to see it again for a while.
I had really only driven it for four hours or so, but that was enough to get attached. Everyone who loves an old car knows how that bond feels. The clouds opened as we left Zeebrugge. Europe was going to miss that car, too.
Sixteen days later, it landed in Newark, New Jersey. I was back in L.A., so I hired a customs broker to handle the paperwork. I had imported a few cars before and always found it to be worth the money since there always seems to be some piece of paperwork I wasn’t aware of. Which happened this time. There’s something called an Import Security Filing form that has to be filled out before it leaves the port of origin that didn’t exist the last time I did this. So, that cost me an extra $160 because I did it after the ship had left. And then our friend Michel somehow never sent me the original Bill of Lading which I had to sign and mail to the company that owned the ship so they could release it at the port. He thought he sent it to Jobjoris, but that couldn’t have happened unless Jobjoris ate it in a bitterball. So, Michel had to call the boat people to get it verbally released, or some shit, and then they would tell the customs broker that it was ready to be picked up. Which would happen and then I’d call the customs broker and he’d say they’re waiting for the Bill of Lading and we’d start all over again. After, like, three cycles of this, something finally broke through and my car was out of port jail. I hired a truck to bring it to Connecticut and now it’s there!
My mother sent me pictures of it. It looks just like when I last saw it, no worse for wear from the trip. She said it started right up after coming off the truck, so the change in climate doesn’t seem to have had an effect. Europeans sometimes don’t adjust well to the Land of the Free. I’m going back east for Christmas when I’ll take care of registering it. I can’t wait. And then hopefully after the new year, it’ll be here in sunny California where it’ll spread mirth and frivolity in the Home of the Stars. The first Citroën LNA in the U.S.A. The thing is historic.
So, the car was 1500 Euros.
Shipping: 1100 Euros.
Insurance: 65 Euros.
I got it here for 2665 Euros, or $3095.00
Customs + fees + broker’s fees: $698.00 (The broker charged $335 to do all the paperwork and handle things at the port in Jersey.)
That’s 3,793 bucks, right where I wanted to be. It’s twice what the car is actually worth, but that doesn’t bother me at all.