Recently we had the pleasure of connecting with Richard Jentner who was a principle in Pioneer Automotive in Edmonton, Alberta when they were still servicing Citroëns after the company left the Canadian market. Richard is still and avid Citroën enthusiast and DS owner to this day. At our request, he took the time to provide the following history about Pioneer. Here it is, in his words:
Pioneer Automotive was known for some time as a place to talk Citroën, to buy needed parts or to take your Citroën in for repairs. It was a significant part of my work history where I spent a good many working hours. Perhaps it would be best to start with some of my history to come to understand how I ended up there.
As a technician who learned and worked on the Citroën DS since I was thirteen years old, I ended up with the Citroën ‘bug’. It was fascinating for a young boy to touch and play with these fantastic machines. I followed the routine apprenticeship, obtaining my French Tech Certificate in 1964 – the equivalent of a journeyman here I suppose. With thoughts of immigrating to Canada, I thought I should widen my horizons and went to work at a Ford Dealer in France, not knowing if there would be Citroëns in Canada.
That was 1967 – time of the Ford Mustang, the GT350, Shelby and Thunderbirds. My vehicle was a 1958 2CV – ‘2 Chevaux’, just 425 ccs of engine displacement and a mere 18 hp. Those V8s were monsters to me.
In May 1968 I came to Canada. Landing in Montreal. That move turned out to be a wise decision as I had no English. On my second day there, I landed my first job at a Citroën dealer in Montreal — Comet Auto. It looked like my Citroën experience was going to pay off, and it did. After two and a half years in Quebec I chose to go west. It would no doubt be helpful to get a better grasp of English and time to discover new frontiers. Go west young man seemed to be a good decision as I wanted to see more of this great country that I was enjoying.
A friend, Daniel, suggested Edmonton, the capital of Alberta. There were two Citroën dealers in this city of about 400,000 people in 1970 – Pioneer Automotive and A & M Motors. My Citroën experience made it easy once again to find a job in this new location. A & M was my first choice at that time, as Pioneer was not hiring.
There was a jaunt back to Montreal for this Frenchman to get back to hear the language I was used to. Citroën’s head office for Canada was there and I took advantage of some ongoing professional development as they offered good courses on the DS and SM.
While there I did some ice racing and worked on a DS 21 (semi-automatic) that was highly modified to be a more competitive race car. This was a great boost to driving with confidence on icy conditions, which I still enjoy doing.
1973 was the year I first went gold mining in the Yukon. The drive to Burwash Landing happened in my reliable 1961 ID 19. I did the trip for several summers.
In 1976 after getting married to my wife Muriel in Niagara Falls, we did choose to settle down in Edmonton. By then, there was a new Citroën Dealer in town – Parthenon Motors and I spent some time working for them.
I came across Bill Chevalier once again. We had met earlier upon my arrival in Edmonton as he was the original founder and owner of Pioneer Automotive who informed me they were not hiring. He was however, now looking to sell his business as he was contemplating retirement. It was he who asked us – “Why do you keep going to the Yukon? – the gold mine is here!” He, of course, meant Pioneer Automotive and the business location.
Bill told me that he was selling Citroëns even before Citroën Canada was established in the mid 1950’s. He was very fond of what Citroën represented – what they made and how they made it. If you had the audacity to put Citroën down in any way, he would be offended and could refuse to sell you a Citroën unless you changed your mind. (He could have been the eponym for the “Soup Nazi” in the Seinfeld TV series.)
Citroën was just a portion of his business. Dragsters and drag racing were the other part of Pioneer’s business and the logo he used was associated with dragster racing.
When that opportunity for ownership was presented by Bill, my friend Daniel and I began discussions on taking possession of this so called “gold mine”. We needed $10,000 as a down payment and the rest would be paid over time as we continued to operate the business.
By all accounts, I had established good credit, which was fine if I wanted to buy a car or whatever else, but not to purchase a business. Having exhausted my avenues, it was now my partner Daniel’s turn to ask for a loan from the bank and he took a shot at getting one figuring that the words “for a business” should not be mentioned. He was right! Twenty minutes later or so, he left the bank with the loan and so began the necessary hoops to establish this dream. I asked him what he told his banker, he said “I want to renovate my basement”. I paused for moment and replied, “but your house does not even have a basement”. – Oh well – we are now on our way.
The business was there immediately and at a good location right on 8640 Yellowhead Trail (which was initially at 125 Avenue — later renamed to Yellowhead Trail and re-numbered as 8640). The place, however, required some improvements and sprucing up after many years without. Citroën repairs were still an ongoing concern but it was now 1979 and with no new ones being imported since 1972, we were looking for new opportunities.
When we started there was one mechanic working there and the 2 new owners entering the mix. In the growing years of the eighties – we had a staff of about 15, with at least 4 mechanics, 2 in the body shop, 2 each in the parts department, the office and sales and a distinguished gentleman as our Service Manager. Muriel did much of the administration work. There was a time some referred to the staff as a United Nations because we had such a mix – folks from France, Belgium, Holland, Tanzania, Portugal, Fiji, Vietnam, and I believe we may have had 1 or 2 native Canadians.
Those were the busier years before a recession slowed things down – which seemed to come later for us than most other establishments. Our motto was always to provide good reliable service and back that work with a guarantee.
I can recall a few memorable Citroën customer stories. Here are three;
- Early in our new gold mine we had just sold a good used DS to a gentleman from British Columbia. All the paperwork was completed and one of our staff was asked to drive the car off the hoist, but he forgot to close the door. The door was knocked off in front of the new ‘owner’. Turns out he did not want that car anymore.
- There was a French chap from Fort St. John, BC that had a Citroën DS semi-automatic. He never locked his car and just left the keys in the ignition. He would come to our place for service and say; “No one up here would even think of stealing my car as they would not know how to drive it.”
- We had a Citroën owner come in with a very nice DS 21 Pallas about 10 years old with only 20,000 Miles. The seats were covered with blankets, etc. – the car was immaculate. We a straight across trade of his Citroën for a brand-new Peugeot 504 (no money exchanged). He left only to return two days later telling us that the Peugeot we had sold him was a factory reject. What?? He had his measuring tape and showed us the left to right fender heights were differing. There was a difference, which I noticed in taking the measuring tape to other new Peugeots as well. Not the Peugeot Representative nor us could convince him that the vehicle fell within normal ranges and nothing had happened to his car specifically. After two or three months we reimbursed him his money as the DS had already been sold.
And here is one Citroën experience I personally had that I remember well;
In January 1989, I flew to Los Angeles and bought a 1972 SM from Toby Halicki. He was a film producer and stunt man who also went by the name Henry Blight – H.B. Halicki, that had a fort right in the middle of LA. He was also a toy collector, — I mean all sorts of toys, a fort full as it were. The SM I purchased from him was used in one of his movies. On my drive home to Edmonton — about 2,000 miles or 3500 KM, I hit some very cold weather, -30 Celsius! Being January and with no block heater in the SM, I did want not stop overnight and wanted to drive straight home. I got a speeding ticket in Utah and was stopped by a sheriff in Montana at 11 PM. After I told him my dilemma, he let me go with a stern warning – “Slow down, damn it. Slow down.” To which I could only respond: “Yes, officer I will.” And I proceeded to the border. Paperwork needed to be filled out, duty paid, and I was on my way home. Canada Customs never even stepped out to look at the car as it was so cold. The SM was better as a summer driver. In 2001, I drove it across Canada and attended the Citroën ICCCR meet in Amherst Massachusetts. Most were surprised that I had driven it the 4,000 KM to the meet rather than trucking it on a flat bed, which many other Citroën owners had done. My Citroëns were always driveable.
Anyway, back to the history of Pioneer…
In 1984 (or maybe it was 85) we petitioned the Motor Dealers Association to allow a used vehicle into their new Edmonton Auto Show. It took some convincing, but the 1972 Citroën SM was allowed to be part of the show. Our Citroëns stole the show that year. The SM, which was blue in color had been totally restored and we would be asking top dollar for it. The second Citroën that was displayed was a new CX GT that was like no other vehicle there either. Any photos taken that year, showed a great number of people hovering around the Citroën display. This was by far the most exciting of all the auto shows we attended.
Peugeot gave us a franchise and things looked up. However, after three years Peugeot moved towards Chrysler and we lost the franchise. We did manage to bring in some Citroën CX’s from an importer in Montreal and sold about five of them. People liked those new Citroën versions, but it was too complicated a process to carry on.
A new opportunity did present itself with Innocenti. Have you heard of it? It was another odd make made in Italy by De Tomaso and was sold in Quebec for four years. We picked up this line and it was quite successful for about two years. A good-looking vehicle, with excellent gas mileage (70 mpg), reliable with a very hot Turbo Model which was great fun to drive. Sales were going well but then we were informed that the importer was in difficulty. We picked up many of the vehicles left in Quebec to resell here in Edmonton as we watched that enterprise wind down within four months or so.
In 1990 there was a short Peugeot renewal with news that they were coming back. I had my doubts about the longevity of this venture and as it turns out I was correct as it did prove to be short lived. With this stop and go with Peugeot, we were concerned with our Citroën parts supply. We established contact with the Citroën factory in Paris so that we would be able to order directly and have supplies available for our customers. The Pioneer doors were always open to those folks who valued their Citroëns and wanted to keep them running or in tip-top shape. I still have a considerable amount of Citroën parts available.
Then came the Russians to Pioneer. We took on LADA vehicles – offering their very inexpensive base models; the Signet, Niva 4X4, and the Samara. This was the last of the franchises that I was a part of. From my perspective major changes were needed but others were content with the status quo. Daniel continued at Pioneer for about two years, then selling the business to our long time salesman, Julio Magalhaes. Later with Julio’s medical condition and decline, the Pioneer name ended up being sold to a wrecker. And so was the demise of Pioneer Automotive in Edmonton.
I ventured out on my own, continuing to work on the Citroëns of past customers but of course those numbers were declining with the years. Subaru’s became my vehicles of choice to drive and work on for many years. Why Subaru, you may ask? They were for me like Citroën – odd cars, defining engineering and people would come from a distance to have their Subaru serviced. These too were special people, and I was proud to service their ‘Subi’ along with being a ‘Citroën specialist’, I became the ‘Subaru Guru’, or so said the T-shirt my daughter made especially for me.
Though I am retired from active work, I never say no to any consultations about people’s vehicles.