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Ken Smith Interview


By Julian Marsh


To British CitroŽn enthusiasts of a certain age, the name Ken Smith is well known.  It was therefore with great anticipation that I waited for the September/October 2010 edition of CitroExpert to arrive since Wouter Jansen had told me he would be publishing an interview with him.  Having read the article, it occurred to me that British CitroŽn fans might also like to read Ken’s reminiscences of an era that many view as CitroŽn’s ‘Golden Age’; an era when CitroŽns were built in Britain.
Rather than ask Wouter Jansen for permission to translate his article (since he has indicated that it might appear in a future International Edition of CitroExpert), I contacted Julian Leyton who retired last year from CitroŽn UK Ltd.’s Press Office and asked him if he could put me in contact with Ken.
Julian, out of respect for Ken’s privacy, put me in touch with the HR Department at CitroŽn UK Ltd. who contacted Ken who said he would be delighted to be interviewed again.
Accordingly I ‘phoned him and we agreed to meet at his home in Maidenhead.
For all his 87 years, Ken’s greeting handshake was firm and his mind as sharp as ever.  This, he puts down to his lifelong vegetarianism and his continued exercising of the grey cells.  I asked him whether his vegetarianism was ever a problem when he visited France – the French are so carnivorous that they do not have a word for ‘vegetarian’ – they have to use the English word.  He said that there were a couple of occasions when well-meaning chefs decided to add some meat to his order…

JM:  How did you end up working at CitroŽn?
KS:  I was brought up in London where my mother was a teacher of English and Music and my father was a headmaster.  It was naturally assumed that I too would become a teacher but this was not to be.  I had absolutely no desire to become a teacher and anyway, the war intervened.  Schools in London and other big cities were evacuated to safer areas.  My school was evacuated to Slough in Buckinghamshire.  I was a member of the School Unit of the Air Defence Training Cadets (later renamed the Air Training Corps) from 1938.  When I left school at the end of 1941, I applied to join the RAF but my ‘Grade 1 (Eyes) due to wearing glasses ruled out aircrew membership.  I thought training in a trade could be useful and while the RAF dragged their heels, I needed an income. The Ministry of Labour put me through training as an Instrument Maker and as an Engineering Draughtsman and, while still waiting for a response from the RAF in September 1942, the Ministry of Labour offered me the choice of a job in Newcastle upon Tyne or the somewhat more local Slough.
Never having been north of Northampton I opted for the job in Slough at CitroŽn Cars Ltd.’s factory on the Trading Estate.  This was a reserved occupation and meant I would not be called up.  Since the production of cars had ended, the company made components for the war effort and also assembled 23,480 Ford and GM military trucks for the Canadian army.  I also joined the National Fire Service as a part-time despatch rider and cartographer of water supplies, working in the evenings, weekends and holidays.

JM: In the early sixties, my family went on holiday to Italy in my Dad’s Slough- built DS.  He drove up the Alps in second gear and drove down in third and fourth with his foot on the brake.  After a while, strange things started to happen – movement of the gear lever either led to no change of gear or to a refusal to disengage the clutch; the brakes became spongy, as did the steering.   He called the RAC breakdown service who sent out an Italian mechanic who said my Father had boiled the LHS2 so he bled the system and sent us on our way with the advice “Use the same gear to descend that you used to ascend.” Our return to Britain was plagued by hydraulic leaks.  My Dad took the car to Middleton Motors in Potters Bar who were unable, despite many attempts, to fix it.  Admitting defeat, they recommended he took it to Slough which was where as a gauche adolescent, I first met you.  You arranged for the seals to be replaced in the workshop and all was fine thereafter.  Now I do not wish to single out Middleton Motors for particular criticism but I have often wondered why the expertise was not there at the dealers to fix anything other than the most straightforward of problems.
KS:  This was a problem with the D models for the whole dealer network between 1955 and 1966 when production stopped.  George Hards, the Service Manager, saw no need for dealer training.  Occasionally, a dealer would send a mechanic to Slough in the hope that he might pick up a few tips from the mechanics in our workshop but that was about it.  George Hards was a non-driver and had little idea of the frustrations experienced by DS owners.  When production at Slough ceased, Dominique Raison succeeded Louis Garbe as MD and appointed Mr Rappellini as service manager.  Mr Rappellini took me to an empty area right next to the wall which separated the works from the Mars factory next door and said “This is all yours.  I want you to arrange for dealer training.”  And that’s how it started.  I created the first CitroŽn GB Technical Training Centre from the ground up.  I started as Chief Instructor and recruited colleagues as further instructors.

Click to see large version of images - will open in new window

Left 2CV production line at Slough

Below cars awaiting collection from the factory

JM: Dealer training was but one of many roles you undertook, many of them simultaneously.  In the CitroExpert article, it mentions your responsibility for ensuring that the British-built cars conformed to the various Acts and Orders relating to the manufacture of cars at Slough and also for obtaining National Type Approval for vehicles imported from 1977.
KS: It was Construction & Use which delayed the production of the 2CV at Slough.  The Construction and Use Regulations required that brakes be fitted to the wheels and not inboard on either side of the gearbox and final drive as in the 2CV.  The civil servants at the Ministry of Transport refused to move on this until Rover, who must have had friends in high places, managed to gain Approval for one of their cars in 1951.  This car, which was rear wheel drive, had the rear brakes mounted inboard on either side of the differential.  Once this hurdle was cleared, the Construction & Use regulations were amended and the 2CV entered into production at Slough in 1953.

JM: Slough-built 2CVs differed from the French ones in a number of respects.  The metal bootlid being the most obvious example.  What drove these changes?
KS: Insistence by the Sales Department.  The bootlid was introduced since it was felt that customers would like a lockable boot.  Also, the roof was of a different (and superior) construction, employing a knitted backing rather than being woven and being waterproofed with a substance called Everflex and I was summoned to Javel to justify this.  “A propos de la capote anglaise” said M. Louvet who was in charge of textiles at Javel.  I explained that the British roof was watertight and that the rear screen could be welded directly into the roof.  Paris introduced a plastic-covered roof with the AZL from 1956 onwards.

JM: Slough also provided a number of 2CV pickups to the Royal Navy for use by the Royal Marines on aircraft carriers.
KS: Yes, these were light enough to allow them to be airlifted by Whirlwind helicopters which did not have the capacity that modern helicopters have.  The Royal Marines used them in Aden, Borneo and Malaya.  We built 65 of them to Ministry of Defence specifications and the vehicles were based on board HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark.  The Marines removed all the glasswork since this could cause reflections allowing the enemy to see them.  Removal of the windscreen and doors also allowed the front seat machine gunner a wider range of fire and further reduced the weight.

JM: Do you know if any of these vehicles survive?
KS: I don’t know.

JM: At the recent 2CV GB National, there were a couple of Louis Barbour-based 4x4 replicas.
KS: We never built 4x4s although we did import one Sahara to study the viability of producing it.  We concluded there was not a big enough market for this sort of vehicle so we removed the rear engine and sold it as a regular 2CV.

JM: The 2CV was not a success in Britain at this stage so the company decided to dress it up in a new, more fashionable set of clothes and thus the Bijou was born.
KS: The Bijou was an example of how not to build a car.  The very attractive body was designed by Peter Kirwan-Taylor who had been responsible for the design of the Lotus Elite.   The moulds were designed and built by a local company, James Whitson who had gained expertise in building fibreglass commercial vehicle cabs.  They delivered four sets of moulds and it was quickly discovered that they were all of different dimensions.  Two of the sets of moulds were so bad that they were scrapped.  Eventually, the moulding work was transferred to another supplier.

JM: I am told that the front screen was actually the rear screen of the Safari.

KS:  No, it was made specifically for the Bijou.

JM: Staying with the 2CV, after production ceased in 1964 and before imports started ten years later, I along with many others, imported 2CVs from the Continent.  I had a Belgian-built AZAM6 which suffered major electrical problems and I contacted Slough to ask if they could let me have a wiring diagram.  They sent me a diagram for a Dyane.  I pointed out that this was not very helpful and they said it was the best they could do.  I eventually obtained the wiring diagram from the Belgian factory.  There were similar problems obtaining service parts such as brake shoes and clutches from Slough – to the extent that unofficial CitroŽn specialists such as Lovekyn flourished since they were able to obtain the necessary parts. What was the reason for this reluctance to support privately imported vehicles?
KS:  A simple answer.  Some in the company were not very customer-minded.  “If we didn’t sell the car, why should we support it?”  This was in the days before European guarantees.  There was no reason why components or documents could not be ordered from the company in Paris, Brussels or elsewhere.

JM: Why did it take so long for the company to start re-importing the 2CV once production at Slough ended?
KS: Once again we were up against the Construction and Use Regulations.  The B pillar was not strong enough to be used for the required upper seatbelt mounting and had to be redesigned and strengthened.  This was done eventually to comply with French regulations.  At the time, there were no pan-European regulations and compliance with one country’s rules did not automatically mean it would meet the rules in another country.  Paris considered that as long as France did not require 3-point belts, the small number of sales in Great Britain did not justify the outlay.

JM:  Is there any truth in the story that the Ami 6 was intended for production at Slough?
KS:  No.  In the event sales were too low to justify the investment in presses and assembly tooling although we did not know that at the time. 

JM:  Was the Ami 6 Service ever sold here?
KS: No.

Capote anglaise is what the French call a French letter – or condom - this is a play on words – ‘capote’ is the hood – hence ‘dťcapotable’ for a convertible or drophead.
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