Idée Fixe [1]

The idea of an authentic full-sized Citroën now appears entirely beyond imagination. But some of us still think otherwise. Thought experiment or idle fancy, we make no apology. Citroën matters.

Image: freecarbrochures

Why Citroën matters is a question worth asking, although why it has ceased to matter; both in the minds of its PSA masters and more importantly still, the wider public is perhaps a better one. But how to make Citroën matter again is the question we are here today to address.

Citroëns (all Citroëns worth discussing at least) have always been united by a singularity LJK Setright once defined as a ‘logical imperative’. In a 1994 Car magazine article, LJKS commented upon the chevron’s latterday slide into irrelevance with unequivocal fury.

 “I am just angry that such questions should have arisen, furious with the mean apathetic, timid and normative people who have bought cars that were median, torpid, pusillanimous and conventional, when they could have bought intellectual refreshment, sensual restoration and social distinction – not to mention, a means of travel unique in its match of competence and gratification …”

Image: classic and performance car

But let us lowly scribes return to matters at hand. Perhaps as much through sheer force of character as technical density, or indeed, stylistic vision, Citroën remains shorthand for a Francophile ideal – one which perhaps now only exists in the mind’s eye. Real or imagined however, no other country could have produced vehicles as almost wilfully divorced from convention. Nowhere else would they be sold at a price everyman could reasonably afford, and quite plainly no other motoring collective in the developed World would have purchased, used and cherished these vehicles in the numbers the French did during Citroën’s heyday.

Those halcyon times lie many decades past and in the intervening years the chevron’s diminution of has been upsetting, but above all, illogical. At times it’s appeared as though their PSA masters were simply acting out of spite against a marque that better represented the Republic’s ideals of equality and classlessness than any domestic rival. Certainly the somewhat bourgeois Peugeot nameplate never elicited anything like the same level of devotion. How it has come to this however, matters less than what (if anything) can be done about it. Is there any way back for the double chevron now?

With these thoughts in mind I pursued my case with the best qualified Citroëniste I could locate. Eminent automotive engineer, Steve Randle is no stranger to these pages and even if we put aside his technical qualifications for a moment, as the owner of five examples of the marque’s more compelling output, he’s well placed to comment. Like most of us here in the DTW universe, he expresses exasperation at the current state of affairs.

 “All the glorious efforts Citroen have made in the past is the result of asking the right questions and not being afraid of having an answer that’s different to everybody else’s. Now they’re no longer asking the right questions and their answer is at a push the same as everyone else’s, but in some cases not even that good.”

PSA’s Distinctive Series gets short shrift from Randle, who like most Citroënistes of a sensitive nature, isn’t taken in by judicious applications of cheap looking tinsel to mask the banality beneath.  “It’s such an important part of automotive history – I feel so strongly that the whole thing is being wasted. They’ve basically given away their heritage. They’ve pillaged the DS name but all it appears to stand for is a very dreary platform which bears no relation to its price point and all to do with styling the thing to hell. Frankly a Citroën that doesn’t ride properly – I fail to see the point of it entirely. It’s worth so much more than that.”

In 2015, Citroen CEO, Linda Jackson told the Automotive News World congress that future brand positioning for the double chevron “would be about selling cars that are fun and give people a happy feeling.” Randle is unimpressed. “I don’t know what she’s on about. This isn’t CBBC! This is a piece of France’s identity. There has been a revolving door of people [through PSA] who simply don’t get it.”

But the attitude amid PSA management appears to be what organisations do when they wish to discredit something, immediately before taking some drastic regressive action: the ‘it’s no longer fit for the purpose’ defence. But Steve will have none of this.  “It isn’t broken, it’s simply been allowed to wither on the vine. Yes, they spoiled it a bit with a bunch of rather dreary Peugeots in frocks. But it doesn’t need to be this way and you can have a return to form. A really good big Citroën would still be a wonderful thing.”

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Of course, PSA have never properly understood or nurtured their charge, viewing Citroën more as a vexing problem to be contained rather than the solution they clearly could have become. Randle is philosophical about this, but the disappointment is palpable.  “I expect I will come out the other end of my career and I will never have done anything to advance that heritage, which I’m quite sad about – there is a piece of my heart attached to that.”

So allowing ourselves the indulgence of a sheet as blank as the cheque we’d undoubtedly require, why not allow ourselves to dream out loud. How would Steve Randle go about creating a modern-era haut de gamme Citroën? Leaning back in his chair, he dwells on this for a few moments before offering,  “If I was asked (and I admit it’s unlikely I will ever be), there are not many things I’d be inclined to drop everything and go and help with. In the joyful event that the call came, I would need some time to gather a small team of the right people from both within and outside the company. A core team of around 10 people who would define the product. We would also need a clear definition of what we would want to achieve, but not initially precisely how we would do it.”

Image: 2nd opinion

“We’ve heard the folklore of the 2CV’s basket of eggs game plan, and I’m sure there is some truth in that. The McLaren F1 had a similar constancy of purpose – Gordon [Murray] was very clear about that. We need to be similarly concise and instructive – a written constitution. I hasten to add that the current vogue for puerile straplines is absolutely off limits.”

Read part two

©Driven to Write. All rights reserved.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founding Editor. Content Provider.

25 thoughts on “Idée Fixe [1]”

  1. I’m very much looking forward to this particular experiment! Bring it on, Messieurs Steve et Eoin!

  2. Can one find any definitive statements about Peugeot wanted for Citroen other than to make money? Peugeot – I think – saw Citroen as a conquest and probably viewed it colonially: how can we make these barbarians work for us? Peugeot’s culture viewed non-Peugeots as “wrong” rather than viewing them as valid alternatives.

  3. ” a modern-era haute de gamme Citroën”

    HAUT de gamme. Haute couture is haut de gamme – always.

  4. The new DS SUV is based on PSA’s venerable front drive hatchback platform. Dreary indeed.

    The new C3 is good in lots of ways but also based on a far from cutting edge chassis.

    If PSA won’t invest enough in new technology then the rest is window-dressing, really.

  5. Bloody hell, I enjoyed that! I so fulsomely feel the same as the writer and interviewee here – it’s quite cathartic to read that there are knowledgeable people out there who share the same hypothesis.

    1. SV: Stay tuned – more to follow in due course…

      I have enormous respect for Peugeot (as was) – especially for their engineering ethos. This side of Jaguar, nobody had as much of a handle on suspension dynamics as they once did. I owned and enjoyed two Peugeots of vastly different stripe – one of which still stands as the most capable and enjoyable cars I have ever owned. But their stewardship of Citroen was (and remains) beneath them and I cannot think well of them for it. It served no useful purpose and ultimately debased both marques.

      JT: Good question. Apart from the usual gushing eulogy from Steve Cropley, it’s all gone a bit quiet chez-Linda. Perhaps she’s catching up on re-runs of Shaun the Sheep…

  6. Technical retrenchment is inevitable in a mature industry. Barriers to innovation only multiply with time. The larger an industry grows, the greater the societal impact and the more legislative hurdles it encounters (safety and environmental, in the case of the automotive sphere). The burden of expectation in the end consumer increases (qualitative and quantitative). And as competition increases it becomes difficult to generate a decent margin.

    Against this background, technical differentiation becomes increasingly de-prioritised. Off the shelf solutions are favoured because they offer proven results. At best technical creativity is regarded as an expensive indulgence, or at worst, an outright gamble.

    It is notable that the most profitable car companies are the ones offering the most technically conservative specifications. Everything offered on top of that specification is largely garnish. That is how you end up with Citroens on Macpherson struts and Jaguars that ride like BMWs.

  7. Unlikely, but it’s exactly this kind of taking advantage of modern technology to do previously impossible things that Citroën should be all about. Créative Technologie, indeed.

  8. Thanks for this, Eóin! It’s good to see that there are still some people for whom Citroën matters – author(s) and commenters alike.
    I wonder what Randle’s ideas about a modern-day big Citroën are. And how much these ideas from an industry professional differ from my layman views.

  9. Je me souviens ma Déesse. Elle n’etait pas parfaite.

    Citromatic.

    Remember that? Hydraulically actuated manual transmission. The four forward gears were engaged by opposed hydraulic cylinders. For example, one cylinder to move from 1 to neutral and neutral to 2, an opposed cylinder to move from 2 to neutral and neutral to 1. Reverse was selected by an hydraulic cylinder, disengaged by an opposed spring that butted against a tab, part of the gearbox casing. What could possibly go wrong?

    The tab against which the ‘get out of reverse’ spring butted broke. The clam-faced goddess could only go backwards. Too clever by half.

    1. No, the DS wasn’t perfect. The early cars were rather troublesome and it wasn’t really until they switched to the LHM mineral hydraulic fluid in ’68 that most of the issues were resolved. But the car was built over a twenty year production run with over a million sold. Not cossetted either. Driven hard over what were still pretty poor roads in many parts of rural France, continental Europe and parts of Africa. That says something.

      Lots of contemporary cars had similar (in principle) semi-automatic transmissions and it does appear that Citroen’s version (as fitted to the DS) could be troublesome. But the issue I take here is that the onus is habitually placed upon the trailblazer to be perfect and when their feet are seen to be made of clay, they’re shot down in flames. (I’m not much of a fan myself, but I see a similar thing with Tesla).

      I’m not saying issues like this are excusable. The fundamental prerequisite for a car – any car – is for it to work. But I would contend that there were more ideas packed into a DS than any car made before or since. If some of them didn’t always work, that’s a shame.

      Too clever by half: I’ve heard that said by mechanics from Cahirsiveen to Carlisle since I could form sentences. And now look at where we are. Struts and a twist beam and every one the same. At least Citroen tried.

  10. Eóin, most of what you say is correct. But when I was stuck in reverse with no way out I wasn’t feeling charitable towards trailblazers.

    1. Dan: Indeed and you have my sympathy. Oddly enough, I had a similar problem with my manual transmission Peugeot 304. It too locked itself in reverse, entailing retrieval by trailer. My tame Peugeot specialist managed to extract it, but the direct consequence of forward motion being regained was the total loss of reverse. That was an interesting 6 months…

  11. The DS was indeed a wonderful design, For my young self the hydraulic system was simply unfathomable and thus not far removed from magic. One ride and many people were hooked, besotted with the advanced suspension and single spoke steering wheel. They forked over their cash and drove away proud.

    Thus there were far more DEsses in rural Nova Scotia than one could reasonably expect in the early 1960s. And in farmfields only two or three years later there were lying rotting several DEsses with non-working suspensions and cussing owners. With only a mad Dutchman selling them in the entire province and he, chief bottlewasher, chairman of the board, sole mechanic, chief salesman, janitor, bookkeeper and accountant, it was as well he was possessed of an indomitably sunny disposition because he was for many 150 miles away at the end of an expensive trunk telephone call from outraged owners whose cars had expired. And the roads to his minute establishment in the only city worthy of the name in the province were mere rural two laners at best, gravel at worst.

    A fellow not a mile from our home had one which gave sterling service for two years before expiring to the ground in a gasp of fluid in 1961. Loving the car but not able to diagnose its problem, he spent more money obtaining service manuals, and for whole weeks at a time he managed to resuscitate it into behaving before finally giving up and writing off his loss after the fourth try. I used to look at the construction of it and marvel at how things that looked like half gallon deformed fresh fruit tins could be persuaded to do duty in an automobile, for its detail design was alien to anything else powered by an internal combustion engine and equipped with four wheels I had ever seen. Things that no doubt had meaning in a plumbing supply shop appeared to be repurposed for automotive use. But that was part of the soul of the car and contributed to its undoubted charm.

    My father the pyschiatrist had a genuine adventurous young New York psychologist working for him for a couple of years. Off in the wilds of a foreign country was this guy. He had arrived in a gigantic blue 1960 Plymouth Fury Golden Commando with tail fins second in size only to a ’59 Cadillac, a 318 four barrel 260 bhp V8 and two-speed Powerflite automatic. The steering wheel was oblong and translucent with cast in gold flecks. Easily found on Google if you wish to gorge on details of flashy Americana. No? Simply too much? It wasn’t a bad old bus to drive compared to our Anglia. And it had a fair bit of wick that caused me giggles. But I digress.

    At the end of his two year apprenticeship which began in 1961, a trip to the city and a visit to that Citroen dealer meant that he traded in the Fury on a DS only two weeks prior to departing for Noo Yawk City itself. Back in his local home he drove anyone who wanted to have a go (like me) down rutted gravel roads at great speed and in entire comfort. We giggled as he raised the suspension up and down. Besotted he was with his DS. Impressed I was, my only previous ride having been in the dodgy example mentioned above at low speed. After a week however, the damn thing wouldn’t engage second or fourth gear. Disaster! A desperate phone call brought the sunny Dutchman 150 miles in the old Fury, and the deal was reversed, while that gentleman somehow hobbled home. Our American rode off into the sunset in his old steed really very disappointed only a few days later. Oh well. Years later in 1971 my girlfriend and I backpacking through the Continent thumbed a ride with a salesman who proceeded to cross half of Belgium in about 45 minutes at 160 km/h in a lower spec big Citroen. No hanging about. So my remembrances are strong of this unique car.

    I have heard since that DS doors were not bolted to the body, merely dropped in place with hooks passing through holes. Hanging hinges. Not ever having seen an upturned example with doors missing, I wonder if this is urban legend or just another quirk of the French engineering character.

    And I look forward to Mr Randle’s ideal re-imagining of a big Citroen for today. I must opine that since Randle is obviously a pretty steady bloke, he is highly unlikely to repurpose toilet roll holders or food tins as working parts of a car and thus miss the essentially quirky and unfathomable logic that true Citoen engineers would likely employ if they were given a free hand to do the same for real. The CX has a few unlikely looking bodges in the cutaway above as well. But, who knows? Perhaps Mr Randle can truly rise to the occasion and come up with something nobody would have ever guessed would be appropriate for use in a no-holds-barred state-of-the-art design of a car which to be true to its forebears in spirit and form must be as shocking to the established norms as the Citroen designs undoubtedly were to the mainstream at the time. The Gallic flavour surely must be present for true success.

    So yes indeed, I look forward with bated breath to the next instalment of this saga.

    1. I had to google that ‘Golden Commando’… Glad I did

    2. Among the things to make one stop and think is that that the designers created the Golden Commando interior from a mix of drawing and partial models. There was no CAD to helpl spot problems early on. They winged it to some extent (which explains perhaps why things look the way they did). These 50s interiors are matched today by the wild organic shapes that are in a lot of cars (Zaha Hadid´s influence?)

      Nice story Bill. I experienced DSs as “dad´s cars” because some of my friends´ dads had them. I didn´t know at the time how tricky they were only that the suspension had some novel capabilities. I can´t remember being in one until I took a test drive about 15 years ago. I noticed all characteristics of the CX and XM in the DS but turned up to ten.

    3. The Plymouth Fury in question was a two tone machine – white front and roof with blue body and a fake spare tire well embossed into the boot lid. Classy! It was of the four door hardtop style, meaning no B pillar and had a matching light blue interior from seats to carpet and with blue steering wheel ends, i.e, at 9 and 3 o’clock. Much nicer and more airy, in my opinion, than the one you show, Sam, but of course there are few if any photos extant on the internet.

      It was a cruisin’ machine with low effort power steering, power 11 inch drum brakes – whoa Nelly, a woofly V8 and a rabid thirst. Wanna burn those two ply rayon rear tires? Give her half-throttle from rest and listen to them howl! Same engine they popped into Bristols, well actually, due to favourable Commonwealth tariffs, they used the Canadian version, which for reasons unknown was a 313 rather than 318 cubic inch. Chrysler didn’t want the Canadians to have a better engine than their American cousins. The Fury was also available that year with two more even more powerful engines. Pity I never drove them as no doubt it would have been delightful overkill to a keen teenaged enthusiast. Ahem.

      That instrument panel had the pod speedometer raised above the dash itself and indication by ribbon similar to old Volvos pre 144 days. The rearview mirror sat on the dash rather than being suspended from the headliner, difficult to see here unless you know where to look, and because the dash-mounted pushbuttons are to the left of the steering wheel, they aren’t shown at all here. Lookit dat swaggering double pushbar horn between the spokes! Chromed diecast zinc all the way!

      As to Richard’s points, this 1960 Plymouth was a completely different machine than the 1959 model. The separate chassis was ditched for a unit body unlike Ford and Chevrolet who soldiered on in the old way for decades up until the recent demise of the old Lincoln Continental. Combine that herculanean engineering effort, retooling of factories and the brand new interior design in less than a year, and you can perhaps understand how large the resources of the Chrysler Corporation used to be. And yet it was the midget of the Detroit Big Three.

      Without taking away from the Citroen subject matter, I should perhaps tell you a bit more about this Fury. Stan, the Fury’s owner, used to pop home to NYC every few months, flying from an airport sixty miles away. He used to leave the Fury at our homestead located on a gravel road four miles from town – we called them dirt roads – catching a ride from a work colleague who commuted 40 miles from the airport’s direction to our town each day. When my parents were away I used to wheel the Fury up and down the dirt road as far as the tarred portion and a bit more. As I was only 15, highly illegal, but hey. The only downside was the incredible thirst as the fuel gauge dived each time you merely started it up which I at least had permission to do. After one escapade, I punched the Park button and all the buttons let go and went inside the dash. Disaster! Dad rescued me with a Philips screwdriver and five minutes work, where he discovered the hole at the back of dash where the cables ran through was stuffed with wads of newspaper to keep drafts from the engine bay out of the interior. Now that’s production engineering, folks!

      We went to the airport to pick Stan up that time because he arrived at eight or nine pm, only an hour’s drive. It being November and dark, shortly after we swished by a Citroen 2CV on what’s known as the French Shore, the road surface turned to black ice. My mother was driving, a keen presser-on with amazing reactions and not a bad driver at all. We fishtailed down the road in lurid 90 degree slides between houses all lit up, missed them by sheer providence and leapt off an eight foot bank into a small field, where the rapid sideways deceleration merely dug up grass sods into neat multiple Z formations against each wheel. No injuries to anyone including my two brothers. The 2CV stopped, popping away on idle, and two very cute young Acadian ladies hopped out, assessed the situation and then went about knocking on doors, a tractor was procured and the Fury uncermoniously hauled back up onto the shoulder, graunch, graunch. The colleague who normally took Stan back and forth to the airport lived not two miles away, and came at once. He drove us to the airport, collected Stan who wondered in amazement where his car was. When we got back to it, it started up no problem, had no dents or scratches and was entirely not the worse for wear. Tough brute. My mother was highly relieved. Rescue by 2CV. The Citroen connection! Apart from its fragility, the DS was in another class altogether though, which Stan recognized by buying his ill-fated example.

  12. That Stan seemed to be a fan of dash-mounted mirrors. Both the Fury and the DS have them.

  13. Although somewhat removed from the point of this article, I got such a giggle out my brother’s super-cynical commentary on the LJK Setright quotes, that I ultimately felt compelled to share. (But please note that I’m actually quite a fan of most of Mr. Setright’s writing.)

    In this issue of _Car_, LJK Setright learns that most car buyers are not wealthy enthusiasts! The mediocrity that is the logical imperative of consumer capitalism finally intersects with his hobby and sends a loose clot of blood to his brain. Wait until he finds out that “off the rack” is not a steering gear failure, but the way that most people buy their clothes!

    1. Setright never so much as hinted at the inherent contradiction in his libertarian attitude and the mediocrity of much of capitalism’s output. While it is a commonplace that the state sector can be excellent at delivering mediocrity the same is true for mainstream capitalism.

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