From the deserts of Africa and the Northern Territory to workshops across Europe, Ian Steele’s life with Citroens is a proper adventure story.
Of all the places an Aussie mechanic could end up, how does stranded in the Sahara without any petrol sound?
Ian Steele’s passion and expertise for Citroens has seen him wander through the desert hunting for fuel, competing in and helping win gruelling rallies, and working in countries where language barriers were overcome with spannering skills.
Now aged 72, Ian runs his Just Cits business with the panoramic views of Queensland’s Sunshine Coast hinterland for company. He’s the go-to expert for anything Citroen, from the Traction Avants, DS, and 2CV icons through to modern C5s.
With ample space at his property, numerous sheds house rare and collectible classics, while his grounds are littered with younger cars – mainly Xantias – for parts or possible future fix-ups.
Like a fine wine
But why Citroen?
“I started my apprenticeship with Holden in Gympie when I was 15,” Ian explained.
“Dad had a Peugeot, and it was a far superior car to the GM stuff I worked on – Holdens, Pontiacs, Chevs. Then my brother bought a Citroen Light 15 and I remember how well it handled. I wanted one.”
Brisbane’s Citroen dealer was Maxim Motors, run by Jim Reddiex – more on him shortly.
“When I was eventually offered a job there I handed in my notice to my workshop’s boss,” Ian said.
“He told me ‘there’s no future in Citroens’ and if I stayed he’d make me foreman. I told him I didn’t want to stay and work on Holdens, Fords and the Pommie crap.”
That was 1972, and he’s still working on the Citroens today, over half a century later. At this stage Ian had bought a 1927 Citroen, a couple of Light 15s and an ID – the less expensive DS variant. In case you’re not aware of these French executive cars, built from 1955 to 1975, they look like spaceships thanks to a breathtaking Bertoni design, and ride like magic carpets due to their hydropneumatic suspension.
In short, it’s of great benefit to be experienced and expert if working on Citroens. There and back again Ian clearly had the right stuff. Maxim boss Jim Reddiex was to be part of an Australian privateer crew heading to Europe to compete a Citroen DS23 in the 1974 London-Sahara-Munich (UDT) World Cup Rally. One of those mad events that went between the English and German cities via Nigeria (not the most direct route), across the desert and covering a total of 19,300km.
It would snake through Spain, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Turkey and more. Ian was picked for the crew to drive another DS23 – a former Group 2 rally car – as service car. Ahead of the event, Ian, Jim and driver Ken Tubman (winner of the inaugural 1953 Redex Trial) recce’d the course through North Africa. It was here they got stuck in the Sahara when they exhausted fuel supplies.
“Jim and I walked 32km across the desert to Arlit (in Niger) where there was a uranium mine,” Ian said. “We though the walk was only going to be 5km, and we’d left Tubby with the car.”
‘By the time we got back the next day in a Kombi with fuel, Tubby had re-written his will and was in tears he was so glad to see us.”
There’s a happy ending. The Australian team won the rally in a Citroen DS23, the carburettored five-speed giant triumphing by over 28 hours.
The arduous route and navigation dramas saw time penalties galore, and only 19 of the 70 cars that started made the finish line. Stirling Moss, for one, never made it in his Mercedes-Benz. And highlighting French dominance, Citroen DS23s and Peugeot 504s made up five of the top six finishers.
“I do plan to slow down,” he said, “and it’d be nice to have a young bloke that was incredibly keen to work here.
“Not just for a job, but specifically to work on Citroens. There’s a difference.”
What about the future for classic car repair and restoration?
“The average young bloke couldn’t care. They want an electric car and press buttons while they’re driving. It’ll come to the stage where old people die out, there’ll be less mechanics and I wonder will young people want to drive a D model? We can hope.”