If Citroen ownership is a cult, Robert Chicha is a true believer.
This afternoon, the Sherman Oaks restaurateur will hop into his 1955 Citroen Traction Avant and start out on a monthlong trek from Los Angeles to New York City with about 90 other lovers of the sturdy French cars.
Dubbing their trip the "Thank You America Expedition," the drivers and their families, most of them European, will stop along the way to honor American veterans of World War II who helped liberate the French from the Nazis.
Chicha, 55, who was born in North Africa and grew up in Paris, described the Citroen as "the perfect car." The owner of La Fondue Bourguignonne on Ventura Boulevard, he had a Traction Avant shipped to the United States when he came here 30 years ago.
Last week, he had it repainted black--the first time it has been painted since it left the factory almost a half-century ago.
Bettina Van Curen of Altadena is a convert to the cult.
"I'm an Alfa Romeo person, but I've become a Citroen person," said Van Curen, who has three of the cars, including a 1938 Traction Avant.
Nicknamed Tracbar by the French, the Traction Avant, designed by Andre Citroen, debuted in 1934. It was one of the first cars with front-wheel drive and, for decades, the one that worked best.
"The Traction is the Model A of Europe," Van Curen said.
As ubiquitous in Europe as Chevys once were in the United States, the Traction was produced until 1957. The International Citroen Car Club estimates that 40,000 of the vehicles are still in use.
Van Curen and her husband, Chuck Forward, an engineer, are among several hundred collectors living in Southern California.
Admirers of the Citroen's use of hydraulic suspension and other innovations, the two gathered Thursday night at the Petersen Automotive Museum in West Los Angeles for a send-off party and to honor the first group of veterans. The Petersen has been storing 30 cars shipped from Europe for the event.
Petersen Director Dick Messer said he was happy to board the visitors' Tracbars.
"These cars are built like tanks ... they'll go anywhere," said Messer. "Some of them have 3-, 4-, 500,000 miles on them."
But it can be difficult getting parts for a car that hasn't been produced for 45 years.
"[Citroen enthusiasts] carry spare engines," Messer said. "They carry welding equipment in their own cars. If something breaks down, they make a new part right there by the side of the road.
"There are no dealerships. There's nothing to fall back on. They're like pioneers."
Forty-year-old trip organizer Eric Massiet du Biest of Paris said that ordinary people, not the rich, are making the journey.
Van Curen, who arranged the Petersen event, added: "Citroens don't appeal to the Ferrari and Rolls-Royce set. These are not wealthy people who have nothing to do but ship their cars around the world."
The trip across America is part of Massiet du Biest's grand plan to drive his Traction Avant around the world because, he said, "life is short and the world is wide."
The Allied soldiers who fought in France in World War II would have seen Tracbars everywhere. Massiet du Biest said he first had the idea of honoring American veterans of the European Theater, "before it's too late," while visiting Omaha Beach and other D-Day sites in 1996.
"It was only there that I realized how bad it was," Massiet du Biest said. "When you go into the cemetery, you can feel the sacrifice."
In addition to a few Angelenos and other Americans, the trekkers are from France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Australia.
The $9,000 paid by each couple included the cost of shipping the car, airfare, meals, lodging and insurance.
The convoy of 30-plus Citroens will start by driving north toward San Francisco. They will follow Route 66 for part of their journey, stopping at several national parks and visiting Las Vegas, Santa Fe, St. Louis and Chicago before New York.
In August, participants will also attend the International Citroen Car Club Reunion in Amherst, Mass., which is expected to attract about 1,000 Citroens and their owners.
Veterans will be honored at ceremonies all along the way, receiving certificates acknowledging the role that American troops played in ending the Nazi occupation and wishing them well during this "difficult period of [America's] history," Massiet du Biest said.
The trip is not a race, because he and his fellow drivers want to experience the landscape as more than a blur. "If we drive fast, and we go through villages, we see nothing," he said. "We hope to get no tickets."