Theme: Dashboards – Citroën Visa

Driven to Write uses a Visa to explore the mysteries of the Lunules

Visadrawing
There is a strong risk that this piece will just become a rosy-spectacled trip down memory lane from this contributor, but hey, it’s the festive season, so indulge me …

Given this month’s theme, I wanted to write about Citroën from the days when the company had decided that (almost) everyone else had got it wrong about pretty well everything. Citroën seemed to believe that the essential concept when designing a dashboard was to place every control within finger-tip reach of the driver, assuming that the hands to which they were attached should be kept on the rim of the steering wheel. This resulted in some pretty fantastic creations, with buttons, rocker switches, sliders and knobs extending from a variety of appendages either side of the steering wheel.

Such phenomena were given descriptions like “pods”, “canisters”, and “satellites”, but had the official title of PRN Lunules – PRN standing for Pluie, Route, Nuit. To my recollection, we are talking the 70’s and early 80’s, with the early BX probably being the last of the breed before PSA decided that it was all too weird and had to be expunged in the name of sales volumes. I’ll leave everyone else to argue which car was in the vanguard of this era of ergonomic extremism (CX or SM?), but the GSA was (for me) probably the zenith of the trend.

So, why select the Visa for this offering?  Well, there are two reasons.

First, I love the simplicity, neatness, and evocative, mid-70’s French-ness of this example. This is best shown in the lovely drawing provided of the layout above. It’s a logical development of the 2CV’s ultra-compact and minimalist set-up crossed with the Lunule theme that Citroen was pursuing at the time. It’s utilitarian, and yet lavished with the same, or possibly even greater, degree of thought deployed in the CX, to my mind reflecting France’s socialist leanings of that time.

left satellite

I’ll go into a little detail. The main satellite to the left controlled: the indicators (4. a rocker on the left side of the “can”), windscreen washer (1. button on the top) and wipers (2. twist top of “can” to engage slow or fast speeds), horn (3. not sure how that worked), and lights (6. and 7. twist bottom of “can” for side and main beam) including full beam (8. rocker on the bottom of the can). To the right was the heating and ventilation control. Looking at it now, Citroen’s designers missed a trick, surely, as there was opportunity to mount a ‘flick-ash’ positioned ashtray atop this device.

visadash2

Accessible through the steering wheel, there were a number of subsidiary buttons. This intensification of controls left the rest of the dashboard free of, well, almost anything. There were under-dash storage trays and cubbies, individual air-direction turn-wheel controls for passenger and driver (betraying the car’s link to the Peugeot 104, upon which it was based), and, notably, 4 air-vents – rare in this class at the time (basic Fiesta’s of the era had just a single vent).

The whole thing was set off with different coloured (light blue, mid brown, as well as grey) and textured mouldings (ribbed, or, a very sci-fi like, elongated-hexagonal design) on the upper dash. In overall effect, it was perfectly Gallic, and thus, gloriously conceived and flawed in some of the execution; reaching buttons through a steering wheel always requires contortion, even if said wheel has but a single, skinny spoke.

Visadash

This brings me to my second reason for choosing the Visa’s dash over other Citroëns of the era. In the early 80’s, for some reason my parents set about looking to buy a new car (their first).  This resulted in Mum popping into the local Citroën garage with me to have a look at whatever they had in at the time. There, in prime spot was a rather lovely, silver, limited edition “Platinum” Visa.

This was a “Mk2” shape car, and as such had been made more mainstream (actually, I should have written about this in the “Facelifts” themed month, as I count it as a very successful “lifting”) than the original. The latter was a more modernist effort which sported a plastic, all-in-one, nose/ bumper cone that would have done justice to that adorned by Gerard Depardieu in his rendition of Cyrano. I’d never really paid much attention to the Visa until that moment, and would never have dreamt that my Mum in particular would have given one a second look – in the end, I was not far wrong.

Inside was a deep blue interior, a plush cut of velour covering squidgy seats, and that avant-garde clustering of controls on the dashboard. The car was roomier, better equipped, better to ride in, had 5 doors, and was cheaper than the rival Fiesta (how else do you think I remember the single air-vent?) or Metro. Aged around 11 years, I was smitten. Mum was repelled …. by the strange and complicated dashboard. Step-father was more worried by higher parts and servicing costs. Net result, an Opaline green Metro 1.0 on the drive rather than the exotic Platinum silver Visa.  Pity.

Visa Platinum

But it appears that Mum was not alone and, come subsequent facelift time, the ‘pods’ had gone, replaced by non-self-cancelling indicator stalks (a last piece of resistance from Citroën’s designers), and a repositioning of buttons, knobs and slides across the rest of the dash. I bought one a number of years later, a white GTi with 115ch emblazoned on the bonnet and down the sides – please, stop sniggering at the back. I always felt it suffered for the changes to the dash, as well as a lot of other things; for one, it rattled like a half-full box of Tic-Tacs.

Visa GTi

And so Citroen called a halt to its own Lunule revolution and instead pursued evolution via the column stalk. No doubt this was economically more rational, as such stalks can be re-used in every vehicle down and down the range. My ‘de-luxe’ C6 has democratically been assigned the same devices as those in our family’s plebeian Picasso, whereas every design of Lunule was bespoke to a given Citroen of the time – I think the GSA and Visa shared the one on the left, but that was all.

Perhaps my experience is the reason why I am attracted by cars and manufacturers which, every now and again, try something a little different – hence the Rover 800 with the heating controls separated, high up on the dash, just within reach of the steering wheel, for which I recently argued on this site (and lost, I feel). Also, the original SEAT Ibiza which had peculiar little flimsy-looking paddles protruding from the dash, again, just behind the steering wheel.

Citroën itself attempted an innovation with the button and switch encrusted, fixed steering wheel hub – albeit that this fixed hub remained a supporting act to a pair of column stalks. This novelty was launched on the C4 and survived long enough to feature on the current C5, but now seems doomed, perhaps unsurprisingly as it did not work that well in practice.

And, of course, PSA is claiming a revival of dashboard revisionism on the Cactus, where almost every control that is not on the column stalks is accessed via the single touch-screen, but, actually, this is just extreme re-use of a common PSA component. To be fair, it’s not a bad effort and the dash is the nicest part of the Cactus, but it could have been taken so much further.  With today’s dashboards, c’est la vie, or so it would seem!

Author: S.V. Robinson

Life long interest in cars and the industry

6 thoughts on “Theme: Dashboards – Citroën Visa”

  1. My one and only experience of a Visa took place around 1989, when PSA had begun purging Citroen of it’s more outré characteristics. Therefore it featured column stalks rather than the wonderful sci-fi satellite controls. My outward journey from Cork to Macroom was by CX – a journey etched in memory for several reasons, where I deposited the larger car at our tame chevron technician before receiving the Visa as a courtesy car. A 1.7 diesel model, my heart sank at the prospect. However, by the time I reached the city, by dint of it’s unstressed power delivery, and unburstable loping gait, the little Visa had won me over. It felt sure footed and once at cruising speed, commendably quiet. The ride was superb. The miles simply melted away. It was one of the most impressive cars I have ever driven, perhaps because my initial expectations were so low. For some time afterwards, I quietly coveted a Visa van. Still do, if I’m honest. Pity about the satellites though.

  2. I have a GSA and owned a series 2 CX. GSA satellite design is a nice effort but it contradicts with the PRN goal of having all controls at close and logical proximity. For example. heater controls are way far away and the fan speed control is not at all positive in its feedback. Its silly placement of the handbrake in the middle of dash needs a lot of getting used to and requires the drivers to lean forward to reach it. Right hand satellite has 8 push button switches, which a driver has to memorise their locations as the satellites are partially obscured by the steering wheel rim – they are in close proximity to driver’s finger tips but by no means logical or intuitive. I’ve never been in a Visa, let alone driven one but seems like Citroen has got the simplicity and the logical placement of control about right. I especially like the heater controls opposite LH GSA style satellite. It does present issues with through-steering wheel access for a few switches. Having owned a CX, I wasn’t a big fan of its PRN, things are a bit further away from finger tip control (e.g. horizontal placement of indicator switches). It’d be good to experience BX and Oltcit PRN but Visa comes closest to reaching the ultimate PRN goal. Shame Citroen didn’t quite get there (which they have been guilty of many times).

    1. Thanks for your comment Kirk. It’s disappointing to learn of your experience in practice with the GSA’s PRN layout, it looks so good on paper. My own experience with a series of 1987 CX’s was they worked well enough once learned, although I agree it was necessary to remove one’s hand from the wheel to use the indicators. (I didn’t mind this, although I frequently forgot to cancel them once direction was altered). It helped if you considered such felicities an enriching automotive experience (as I did), but I can see how it would have scared neophytes to death. Citroen’s were for advanced students then.

      I am a little envious on the subject of the GSA. Having travelled as a passenger in a number of them, they were a car I always intended to seek out. I hope you enjoy the site, you’ll find a wealth of chevron-related material here. (We like Citroen at DTW). Maybe a little too much…

    2. I liked the PRN very much on the CX. Having driven both series, I have to say that the facelift wasn’t beneficial for the controls. The switches felt much more substantial and gave clearer feedback on S1. The only improvement of S2 was an intermediate position for the indicator switch where it didn’t lock, but went out when one released it.
      The best thing was the position of horn and headlight flasher on the S1: left and right on the outer edge of the satellites. Thus, they could be flashed simultaneously with the fingertips. It felt a bit like on a game console (but had to be used with moderation, of course).

      After having driven 2 CXs for several years, it appeared very awkward for me to lift the indicator stalk for turning right. It took me quite some time to adopt to it, and this added to my belief that the PRN concept was actually superior to classical approaches, if worked out properly (to which they only came close at Citroën).

    3. I can only comment on the basis of a single inner city drive behind the wheel of an early CX, but I nonetheless feel obliged to state that I found the satellite controls a pleasure to operate. Maybe my fingers are just the right size.

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