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

13 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.

  3. I remember the Visa’s PRN from my father’s when I was a little boy and always loved the controls. The horn was a rocker switch behind the indicator’s that you pulled towards you.

    1. Hi Ricardo:
      Wouldn’t you like to see some more of this originality today?
      Neighbours of mine had a Visa but I was too young to appreciate the strangeness of it.

  4. I think there’s scope and potentially appetite or at least conditions precedent for people to accept change to the current norm of a couple of stalks. I think an alternative solution has to be practical and usable, though, not just a gimmick (I have ‘gesture control’ in my mind as I write this). Touch screens are not the answer either – my experience of these for use whilst driving verges on the hazardous. Candidates have to include something like the ‘lunules’, or a fixed steering hub which appeared for a generation of C4s (I can’t recall whether the C5 enjoyed the same). Voice control is something I would rule out for left/ right indicators as it takes longer to think of and then say the correct words aloud than it does to flick a lever. Perhaps our new Panhard could take a lead on this alternative, intelligent approach.

  5. I thought about this a bit more since my last post – I also had conversations with other Citroen owners (mostly GSA and CX, which are more common here than other models with PRN). Like everything, it is also about personal preference as quite a number of those who I talked to said they prefer CX PRN. However, I still stand by my original statement that Visa series 1 is by far the best of production PRNs as in terms of achieving the primary purpose of PRN: Providing essential driving controls at the finger tips.
    GSA/Visa has its left hand satellite switches positioned so that they are tangential to the steering wheel when you grip the wheel at the classic 10-to-2 position. This means all but one left finger will be on the wheel and wrist angle stays the same (not like CX – but then maybe my fingers are too short, your mileage may vary). The only exception would be the horn switch, which is a bit further down the side of the can. Flashing and blasting a horn is slightly awkward as you’ll have to slide down the left hand on the can to pull the horn switch while pulling the flash switch with the pinky. It still gets the top marks from me as all the most essential and often used controls (indicator, then lights and wiper control) are perfectly positioned in P,R & N grouping. Right hand controls are simple slides which controls interior air flow, temperature and direction.
    Unfortunately there are a few downsides – as mentioned above, horn and flash switches. But the worst part is that lights and indicator tell tales are on the satellite, not on the instrument panel as usual. This is a problem (a big one, actually) because they are pretty much invisible in daylight – and if you have a non-cancelling indicator switch like Visa, you can easily forget about it if not used to it. I now have a habit of checking the indicator switch position by feeling it with fingers every so often. I also think it would have been good if the rotating switches on the satellite had raised strips to allow their position by feel (Ok, there is one but not as prominent as I would like it to be).
    I believe that the Citroen engineers, for some reason, didn’t fully explore the PRN principle. It has to be more than just driving control/switches adjacent to the steering wheel. For example, manual gearbox – what is that all about? If you drive a car in the town environment, where you would have to constantly indicate (and cancel that indication, in this case), half the time the hand is on the gear stick. And the switches that require you to stick your hand through the steering wheel, that’s downright dangerous.
    I think there are other manufacturers who dabbled at PRN principle – I can think of only a couple at the moment. Early-mid 1980’s Mitsubishi Sigma and early 1990’s Nissan Skyline (R32) come to mind. They weren’t as elegantly executed but they had switches clustered around the steering column and the instrument binnacle, with most of the controls easily accessible. And they still sold by boatloads.
    As for the future of PRN, I think there is a scope for its revival – new cars sold these days are so feature packed and the way those features are controlled are all very different, so I don’t think people will be necessarily put off because a car doesn’t have control stalks. Alternatively, if a product is exceptional, stuff like this is a small stuff. Back when I bought my CX, its PRN didn’t bother me one bit, as I knew I wouldn’t be able to buy a car like that (hydropneumatics suspension, Diravi steering etc) from anywhere else.
    While thinking about this topic, it occurred to me that PRN concept has been pretty much universally adopted on motorcycle handlebar controls. Which reminds me, another improvement I’d like to see is a motorcycle type indicator, which is non-cancelling, similar to Citroen PRN solution but with a cancel action by pressing the centre of the switch.
    I’m hoping to experiment PRN principle with my project car – probably based on Visa layout with a few improvements.

  6. My PRN experience comes from a happy (but poor!) two year period of running three Citroens concurrently. A GSA C-Matic, a Visa (11RE from memory) and a DS Borg Warner 3 speed auto (a rare beast). The Visa was the last to join me and was bought to increase my chances of being able to field a functioning vehicle on most occasions. I almost succeeded, but that is a different story.

    The point is that the Visa quickly turned into my vehicle of choice. As Kirk points out the GSA dash layout is functionally flawed compared to the Visa, which just worked so well as a package. Yes, those crazy push button switches that you had to reach through the wheel for were stupid, but other than that it was great. Even the speedo had a certain honesty which made it user friendly. With a sensible top speed marking of something like 100mph the difference between 40, 50 and 60mph was instantly visible by the speedo needle position (roughly 10 o’clock, 12 o’clock and 2 o’clock respectively). There was no need to read your speed, you knew what it was at a glance.

    It was remarkably quick over long distances too, but I digress again.

    1. It’s a pity that so many of them have disappeared. Whenever I will have the opportunity (time, money, and a car available for sale), the Visa might become my object of desire. Series 1, please!
      Unfortunately, many 2-cylinder exemples were slaughtered and their engines abused by 2CV owners wanting to be a tad faster.

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