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 something Citroen from the days when the company had decided that (almost) everyone else had got it wrong about pretty well everything. Citroen 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.
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.
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.
This brings me to my second reason for choosing the Visa’s dash over other Citroens 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 Citroen 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.
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 Citroen’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.
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. Citroen 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!