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.
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 …”
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.”
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.”
“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
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