Theme: Romance! – My First Car

Most people may think that a tiny Citroën from the mid-eighties (which means that it’s entirely a PSA product) is nothing to be very romantic about.

ax3
But as well as it doesn’t take a supermodel for a man to remember with fondness the time spent together, a supercar isn’t needed to create worthwhile memories of roads and places one shared with a vehicle. I liked this car with its tiny, but beautiful alloy wheels and the classy red stripes on the sides. I also discovered how cleverly it was constructed, with a small, but very rectangular boot that could easily be enlarged by locking the rear backrests in a more upright position, folding them down or removing them entirely.

Or take the hatch whose lower part (made of lightweight plastic, by the way) was only held by the rear window, without a frame. The interior I found a bit dull, with a lot of light grey plastic and seats in the same colour. But they were covered in nice velour, and in this trim level, there was no naked metal on the doors, and the glovebox had a lid. The car even had central locking and electric front windows, not very common for small cars at that time.

ax1
You might think that I’m quite a fan of the AX, and I can’t deny it. It’s clever and underrated. But even a much blander car could have occupied an important place in my memory, had it lived through all the things the AX did with me.

A few years after its appearance on our driveway, it was time for me to get my learner’s licence. Twenty years ago, this meant that one was allowed to immediately start driving, either with a driving instructor or with any person older than 23 years and with a valid driver’s licence. The car didn’t have to be special, either. It had to have a hand brake that was in reach of the front passenger, in case an emergency stop was necessary. So as soon I had that little paper in my hands, my dad took me and the AX to an empty road in the countryside. Here we swapped seats…

Three months later, after touring many Sundays with my dad and discovering a lot of nice roads, and also having a few lessons with a proper instructor in my baggage, the great day was here: I passed my driving test. Again it was time to cram the whole family into the small car and head out for a celebrating dessert. Only this time, mother had to take my seat in the back row. And now romance began. For an eighteen-year-old, being able to get anywhere without spending a lot of time and sweat on the bicycle and without reading timetables and waiting for trains is the epitome of freedom and adulthood.

Whenever the car was not used by my mother (she used it seldom anyway) and I had to go somewhere, I asked for the AX. And I often got it, being able to reach my destination quickly – or by any detour I could imagine. Of course, I didn’t always tell her where I went, but I suspect she could have guessed by the odometer that sticking to what would years later become Google Maps’ recommendations was not my primary goal.

As long as a lived at my parents’ house, this more or less continued. I was active in our boy scouts group at that time, so the AX also saw a few camps and other activities where it served to carry groceries to often remote places, reachable only on gravel or dirt roads and paths. It coped well with almost everything and proved unexpectedly robust. Filling it with twenty-five backpacks or nine young people couldn’t harm it, and after ten years and 80’000 kilometres of its life, it had some dents and scratches, but no substantial illnesses. Rust was no topic anyway.

ax4
By this time, I had finished my studies and for the first time earned a proper salary. Time to get my first real own car! It became … exactly this AX. My parents were generous enough to leave it to me for free. The only thing I had to pay for were a few repairs to pass another two years of MFK (the Swiss MOT equivalent). So the next stage of romance took off. For the first time I could use a car without asking or  giving account to anyone. Of course, the benefit of putting it back to mother’s parking space when the needle approached empty was also gone.

In the two years that remained in the AX’s life, it took me to many trips around Switzerland, Germany and Italy. I loved spending time in it and discovering great landscapes. The suspension was rather soft and very comfortable, but thanks to its low weight, the car was still eager to go through corners, even if it lacked the sharpness of its sportier brothers. I also liked improving it, which mostly meant that I added bigger speakers and a CD changer beneath the front seat. When I met my future wife who lived 150 kilometres away, it became even more useful and the romance of visiting her and discovering new favourite places together will be linked with this little car forever.

Alas, age began to show. Bits of brittle plastic started to break off, the radiator leaked slightly, and the brake discs were warping. Despite good rust protection, a few brown spots began to show. When I discovered a CX in driveable condition for little money, I finally parted company with my little AX. With a heavy heart, my brother and me brought it to the scrapyard after trying to sell it without avail. We shouldn’t have…

Recently I saw a white AX GTi in what appeared to be mint condition. It struck me how rare this once ubiquitous car has become. And how much I still miss its sympathetic little face with the asymmetric badge and the sprightly sound of its engine. There are literally none left on the used car market, otherwise I could be tempted to once again buy and own one. What better compliment could be given to a car that may seem so ordinary for anyone who hasn’t shared an important time of his life with it?

21 thoughts on “Theme: Romance! – My First Car”

    1. Thanks Chris. I’d love to read of your experiences, too. And nice find in Pistonheads. The red GTi looks exactly like the car my brother owned for a short time, faded roof paint included. That’s why I don’t like this colour; the white one I saw recently looked much fresher.

  1. Thanks for that. These cars are still hanging around in Denmark. They aren´t common but far from rare. Common enough that I don´t stop to look at them. In fact, there´s one on my street and another a few blocks away. The AX is odd in that the updated one is nicer than the original, inside anyway. The Mk1 interior is just too fragile-looking. I´d be intrigued to know how the 1.4 version of this compares to a 1.4 Peugeot 205. It´s a shade smaller, isn´t it? It´s probably a bit more kart-like though the 205 is hardly a truck by any standards. If you think of the three French offerings in this class, they have quite distinct personalities. You can´t say that today.
    The first car I ever owned myself was a Buick Century which is hardly a charistmatic device. As it happens, in retrospect it seems like it was a decent enough machine and owning it coincided with an interesting time of my life. For that reason I look back on it quite fondly. You can buy a similar car in Europe for about €2000 but unlike the AX, I don´t think I´d want to revisit that territory again. It was the second car I ran, the 205 that´s the one I´d like to have again. Huge fun from t tiny and rather flimsy vehicle. Question is, would I want to drive it the same way?

    1. I have the impression that the Danish keep their vehicles much longer than people around here. No surprise with the taxes they pay on new cars. And they bought a lot of Citroëns too, right?
      My AX actually was a 1.4 litre, but with its catalyst and carburettor only put out 60 hp, compared to the 75 hp of the standard 1.4s or the 80 to 100 of the GT(i) versions. It might have been more torquey than the 1.1 l variants with the same power, and while it was no sports car, with its low weight it still gave adequate performance. How it compares to the 205 I can’t say, as I don’t know the latter at all. It’s smaller, yes, about 10 cm in wheelbase and 20 cm in length. It seems however that a lot of the difference lies before the A-pillar, so the Peugeot could have big engines (up to 1.9 litres as opposed to the AX’s 1.4), but was probably not much roomier inside. The suspensions must have been quite alike, and I suspect that base and top versions of the same car are much more different than similar levels of the two cars compared.

      As much as I agree with you that the AX is one of the few successful facelifts Citroën did, I still like the Mk1 more. The interior may be frail, yes, but it still carries with it an air of rectangular early ’80s style, while the facelifted version is just ubiquitous and has too many spokes on its steering wheel. The front also has lost its charm. On the positive side, the bumpers are much better integrated in the general shape, and the junction of rear bumper and hatch has been resolved nicely without resorting to an additional plastic strip like on my car.

  2. i have so far resisted the lure of revisiting my first car. One question is what was it? Was it the Fiat 124 that I used frequently when before I left home, but wasn’t really ‘mine’? If so, that’s probably one reason for my on-off desire to have an Alfa Giulia Berlina which was the car that inspired the Fiat. Was it the Bedford Utilabrake, the vehicle I bought after I’d moved to London, but which I’d have no desire at all to revisit? Or was it the Citroen Dyane that replaced the Fiat, that I ended up inheriting from my parents, that I asked so much of and have nothing but affection for?

    1. You´d have to define first to suit you and then see what fits the definition. I co-owed a Nissan Sentra with a girlfriend. Was that my first car? Or was it the one I owned outright, the Buick? I´ll go with the Buick. It didn´t leave me high and dry like the Sentra and the girlfriend!

      R

    2. Most people I know have driven their parent’s car before they got their own. So yes, unlike in cases like mine, you have the choice of which one to call your first.

      Your mention of the Utilabrake makes me think of another “first car” of mine. This was again linked to my scouts activities. When organizing camps, there often was a lot of material to be transported – tents, food, kitchen equipment, sometimes also bicycles. For that we often used the Citroën C35 (aka Fiat 242) from my dad’s business. It was a delight to drive, the suspension comfortable and crisp no matter if empty or fully (or more) loaded, and the high pressure hydraulic brakes bringing you to a safe stop in any condition. How advanced it really was I realised when I had to drive a Renault Master as an alternative. It was hard to believe that the design of this van was almost ten years more recent. The ride was harsh and bumpy when empty and soon turned to unsafe with a little more weight. The brakes came to their limit even on the smallest Alpine pass.

      That C35 is another car I’d like to revisit. There are some nice mobile home transformations of it.

    3. Simon. I remember you mentioned the C35 previously. I frequently drive its successors, two generations of Fiat Ducato. These are fine, but not exceptional, so I’d guess that the Sevel venture has more Fiat input and less old school Citroen..

      As for the Bedford CA, this was endearing with its sliding door, but it was a very crude and basic thing with its 3 speed box and bad brakes. Particularly memorable was its behaviour on the inner lane of Italian autostrada where, having a smaller track than a truck, it weaved between the left and right hand furrows made by heavy truck tyres, imperceptible to most drivers, but a constant source of amusement to me. However, it took me and 6 other people all the way to Greece, and almost got us back before a big end failed north of Paris.

      I got it home, fixed it and sold it to two eager looking guys who, when I asked them what they wanted it for they said ‘We’re going to drive it to Greece’. I bit my tongue and took the £150.

    4. The Sevel vans may not have more Fiat in them in the first place, but certainly more Peugeot and more cost saving.

  3. Simon: this could turn into a conversation about first vans. For a job as geologist I got to drive a selection of American pick-up trucks. Those were evil vehicles, nose heavy and unbiddable. Out of the whole lot of commercial vehicles I have sampled the goold old Ford Transit comes out tops but I never tried that C35 so I can´t compare.

    1. My van history is rather short. The C35, Renault’s Master and Trafic from the eighties (the latter with a particularly spirited combination of 1.6 litre engine and three-speed AT), some Sevels from the late nineties generation and a VW T3 were the ones I drove regularly. Oh, and does a Suzuki SuperCarry count as a van? A truly horrible vehicle, feels like tipping over in every curve, and the crumple zone doubles if one drives with thick soles.

      Of that bunch, two stick out: the C35 which is simply astonishing (have I mentioned this already) and the VW with its fun potential. The example I knew was rather powerful (at least compared to the C35’s 60 hp), its boxer engine revved eagerly and was very quiet thanks to its remote position. With some rain, even drifting was possible. Only the gearbox felt a little like stirring in half-molten rubber.

      I never drove a Transit, but your comments make me want to try it. They have become quite rare, though.

  4. Simon: Transits are rare in Helvetia? What´s the most popular type? I assume Mercedes. Transits are all over the place up here in Jutland. Renault/Opel´s bug-headed thing is also in evidence along with Ducatos.

    1. Well, modern Transits aren’t, but I thought it was really the “good old” one you were talking about. That would also be of the appropriate age to compare with the C35.
      This Jutland mix sounds very similar to what we have here. Maybe we have more VWs, especially T5 and Caddy. The Crafter is outsold by the Sprinter by a good margin, according to my perception.

  5. The one I was thinking of is the last model which has been around for a really long time. It had the blacked out area around the doors and the cliff-like dashboard. As a Tourneo it´s especially fetching. They seem to always appear in bordeaux metallic. I may also have driven the predecessor which had a very robust, rubber-boot quality to it. I had a day to move furniture and other junk and I remember thinking the vehicle was easy to drive, tractable, stable and fast enough. I liked the wash-down surfaces and the fact one didn´t have to care too much about it. It´s the opposite of my fancy saloon car.

    1. Ah yes, Citroën’s trim level nomenclature of the eighties – a constant source of amusement and bewilderment. It started simple and logical: E – RE – TRE for smaller engines, S – RS – TRS for the bigger ones. The more letters, the more luxury. Diesels got D – RD – TRD, but the latter was changed to TDR in english speaking countries for obvious reasons. For the sportier end of the palette, GT and GTi were retained.
      Confusion set in when they decided that even more luxury was needed than a TRS could deliver. Thus were born designations like TRS SE (special edition?) or said TZS. Later, even more letters were introduced, and you could have a TGE instead of an RE or a TZI if you had fuel injection. It became a complete mess and finally had to be replaced by a new system: X – SX – VSX. This was a very novel approach in that more letters simply meant more luxury. Clever, isn’t it?

      Now back to that AX 14 TZS: Yes, this was the absolute top level on the comfortable side, with GT marking the sporty end (the GTi was born a few years later). It had basically everything: velour, electrical windows, central locking, tinted glass, you name it. And the red stripes. If the alloys were standard I don’t remember. What exactly set it apart from the 14 TRS I can’t imagine, either. It usually differed by country, by the way. German and Swiss cars had more equipment than their homonymous French counterparts.

  6. Thanks Simon. That system of engine-based trim designations is confounding. You’d think they’d run paralell. Example: 1.4 and 1.6 and 1.8 litre engines could be matched with L, DL, GL and GLE. So you can then have any engine with any trim. What Citroen had was a trim package whose name varied according to the engine so the same trim could have a different name depending on what was under the bonnet.
    The other odd thing is that the system adds prefixes and suffixes: R gets a suffix to become RS and then a prefix to become a TRS.

    At the other end, Peugeot’s 604 had only two models but had codes indicative of hypothetical variants that never existed. There was SL and Ti. Where were SR and RN? Where was the T minus the “i”?

  7. An AX was my second car and first bought “new”! It was a 4 speed, 11RE in White. It was a Mk1 and a very amusing drive. The gearbox was excellent – the last Citroen I think that had a decent shift – and the chassis really well judged, very chuckable, supple riding, and with direct and communicative steering. It was cheap as chips inside, with quite nasty carpet and the most polyester seat material known to man-made. I loved it, and over 4 years it was super reliable and delivered great fuel economy. It was how a small hatch should be: cheap, light, small, fun and not ashamed to be any of the above in character.

    1. it´s easy enough to make a light car. Citroen went the extra mile with the suspension and steering. Such a car fits right into my romantic vision of life in La France Profonde where you might want a light and thrifty little car for small errands, a step up for the bicycle that does some of the daily duties and a step down down from the family car used for holidays and the like, Maybe those cars were seen as a specific tool in a collection of vehicles. Aren´t today´s small cars really very much designed to do jobs the AX was never expected to?

    2. Agree – to over simplify, I think small cars try too hard to be like larger ones and so can lose the essence of “small” so brilliantly espoused by the original Mini, R5, 127 and even the original Polo. I tend to prefer cars like an entry level Up or Panda to their supermini brethren these days as they better fit my rather outdated definition and expectation of “small”.

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