1978 Citroen Visa Road Test

“Citroen’s newest car!” In what very much looks like a verbatim transcript of a period review, Archie Vicar considers Citroen’s 1978 Visa. Does it have what it takes be a proper Peugeot?

1978 Citroen Visa. Image: grumlt.citrina.lt

The article first appeared in the Evening Post-Echo in November 1978. Douglas Land-Windermere provided the accompanying print photos. Due to catastrophic overexposure, stock images have been used.

French car-firm Peugeot’s buy-up of the perennially troubled French car-firm Citroen could not have come soon enough. The new Visa is the last of Citroen’s lunatic inventions, engineered under the former rule of Michelin, surveyors of food and purveyors of tyres. It takes a good six years to devise a new car so the germ of the Visa hatched long before Peugeot could rescue Citroen from itself. That’s why Peugeot find themselves watching Citroen launch the deliberately eccentric and challengingly strange new Visa yet it is still a car with a hint of Peugeots to come.

So, how does one describe the new Visa?

(c) honestjohn

The Visa can be seen as thankfully the last very odd French car. Inside one finds testament to all the aspects of Citroens that have made them so irritating down the years: unusual buttons and controls, a floaty ride and a noisy engine. About the only things going for it are the comparatively conventional appearances (I thought it was a Renault when I saw it first).

Citroen’s marketing people have seen fit to offer two versions of the Visa: slow and a bit less slow. The slowest version gets a 2-cylinder air-cooled engine and the less slow version gets a four-cylinder engine borrowed from Peugeot (which means a rough but durable unit). The Visa has five doors in the modern continental style, so one can view it as French take on the “Golf” which has been on sale for a few years. So much for French originality.

Both engines drive the front wheels. The air-cooled engine differs from the one fitted to the Dyane: another capacity, altered construction and a new kind of electronic ignition system that will be sure to horrify mechanics from North Scotland to Land’s End. It starts very quickly though, as if permanently about to turn over and just waiting to be asked. One doesn’t get the sense of a lot of sluggishness in that regard, almost like turning a switch. Very odd.

(c) citroenorigins

652 cc, that’s the engine capacity or less than a bottle of decent French wine. Speaking of which. The crankshaft has three main bearings. Under the car, the 2CV concept has been banished: McPhersons at the front and coil-sprung trailing arms at the rear. Very Mulhouse.

To test a car like this one must really understand its natural environment. Leyland make British cars to suit England’s traffic and weather (well, the Midlands anyway) and Mercedes make cars to suit Stuttgart. Goodness knows where BMW have in mind as their cars seem ill at ease wherever they are driven. By this token, Citroens very much seem to suggest the countryside of Dijon so I agreed with the editor that this very important new car needed an extensive test to establish if it lived up to the standards set by the Peugeot 204.

[continued on p.17]

[continued from p.16]

I motored from Heathrow to Dijon Airport where a pale petrol blue Visa waited in a secluded corner of the car park. “That’s a Renault!” I said as I approached. Sitting inside though one finds out quickly that Renault’s sense and sensibility stand far away from the driver’s seat. If you were to drive the Citroen from Slough

[continued on p.21]

1978 Citroen Visa interior: source

In the course of the five days’ test I never became accustomed to the unwieldy pillar-like controls jutting to one side of the steering wheel. Very unlike anything from Vauxhall, Ford or Austin: these bunches of buttons, knobs and switches cram together everything imaginable into packed lumps of confusion just beyond your finger tips. To think BL have just learned to put the indicator wand on the steering column. How is it to operate the Visa? To indicate left, one must increase the fan speed and to indicate right one turns off the wipers – to activate the wipers one must indicate left.

Land-Windermere declared the seats acceptable and I must agree, that whatever else might be wrong with the car it is not too uncomfortable (so it can’t be a Renault after all).

Dijon’s not a bad place to test a car four four days. They have awful roads in between their fine hotels, museums and restaurants and Geneva is not too far away either (I drove there and back to assess motorway performance but concluded half way that the Visa preferred A-roads). Which brings me onto the suspension. As I said, it’s not like the 2CV, LNA or Traction Avant of yesteryear. We drove quite smoothly from the airport into the town centre and for a moment I almost thought I was piloting a Rover until I tried to dip the fog lamps when meaning to turn off the radio. I liked the hotel, by the way.

The Hotel du Palais had some charming waitresses, a fine room and a very good cellar indeed: plenty of wine. In the bar I sat and considered the Visa parked just outside, with its unusual wheel arches and rectangular upside-down lamps.

Dinner consisted of the following: andouillette (sausage of some type), a sirloin with shallots, a kind of beef casserole made with wine and also chicken cooked in wine- something like this latter dish is now fairly common in England I suppose, yet our version almost always seems like it has excess flour and fat thrown into the sauce and the mushrooms end up slippery and that’s most disagreeable.

Especial plaudits go to the wine which wasn’t local, for a change. Something from the Medoc I seem to recall. After all that, it seemed like a good idea to tour the area in the fine autumn sunshine and see how the car performed now that the frightful afternoon traffic had subsided (and it was only a Tuesday).

The engine could be summed up as not too slow in its throttle response and, even if one has to stir the gears, the car’s lightness (and vulnerability to rust) means it steps off promptly enough. Citroen have copied Peugeot’s excellence at judging gear ratios: how does 13.6 mph per 1000 rpm sound to you? I say it sounds like a chaffinch in May- I noted that the speeds reached didn’t inspire me too much. I pootled about a bit once we’d reached cruising speed of 56 mph which is enough to get one to the traffic lights in time for them to be red.

It’s not a bad place, Dijon, so stop we did and walked about so as to see the Visa from a few other angles. I found a good cigar shop near the Avenue de Carnot and I took time to stock up on Gauloises and some cheaper Ecuadorian cigars so that after an early dinner (a selection of cheeses and wine) I took the time to meditate on Citroen’s achievement as the tobacco quietly combusted. I can’t decide if the car is a pipe car or cigarette car.

I suppose I could single out the pleasant gearchange and its robust syncromesh which makes not a lot of whine. Four gears – that could be said to be adequate in these increasingly competitive times. You’ll need about half a minute of your life to get from stands still to top speed, somewhere around 75 imperial miles per hour. At that rate of speed, the engine noise sounds fiercely distressed so one tends to want to travel at about 65 mph instead. Of course, in these ever more congested times, a car that can get to 65 mph and stay there is about as effective as a car than can top 110 mph but still only averages 65 mph. The way I see it, a Visa will cross the Continent at more or less the same speed as a Triumph or Alfa Romeo.

The Citroen’s body does roll a bit on cornering yet the car never loses grip. The pavement really must be slippery for the car to lose control and that it can be in some parts of the Dijon countryside at this time of year. Leaves. Normally one simply experiences understeer which for many ordinary drivers will be enough of a safety feature. The car has a quite tight turning circle and, at speeds, it is quite light enough (not very different from smaller Peugeots, really).

And finally, the Visa has a jolly good ashtray not that it got much use. I seemed to spend a lot of the time in Dijon looking at the car rather than driving it – which is to do with the odd question of its appearance. It really is a most conventional-looking car and yet while I am not at all interested in such matters, I felt the lines of the little car demanded extended contemplation. You’d never think Citroen had accommodated four passengers and so much luggage inside the Visa’s frail bodyshell. To stop luggage falling out there is a good high sill which also aids the torsional rigidity too.

The Visa had no trouble slotting into various parking places over the course of the test (as Mr Land-Windermere’s delightful photos show) but the car also slots into a useful gap in the model range, between the Dyane and the dismal GS.

Visa Super. (c) Citroenet

One can see that Peugeot will waste no time in bringing Citroen to heel. There is a lot of Peugeot in the Visa (floorpan, one engine, brakes and sensible suspension). With the Dyane about to be pensioned off, the GS very much yesterday’s car and the boxy CX due for revision soon there will be ample opportunity for PSA to banish Citroen’s odd ways.

And they can sort out the Visa’s bad features and make it as good as the corresponding Peugeot. Now that Peugeot also owns Chrysler, there will be ample chance for that wayward child to be corralled into line too. So, even if the Visa retains vestiges of Citroen’s idealism, it will not be long before Citroen can return to profit and to making sensible cars.

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

17 thoughts on “1978 Citroen Visa Road Test”

  1. I like the Visa. It was like Citroen was trying to stick two fingers up to its new owners by using as many alternative and interesting solutions as possible the platform of the donated 104. It was a very good supermini too – practical, roomy and soft riding with enjoyable handling. As I wrote previously, I particularly admire the dashboard design. Archie’s piece is incredibly evocative of that era when France was still oh-so ‘foreign’ to the average Brit. The Visa lived on for many years in different guises, and was gradually sanitised over a series of facelifts, but I still consider the C15 van something of a French design classic and enjoy every sighting. Thanks for the memories.

    1. Neighbours had a Visa when I was 10 or 12. I had no inkling how strange it was. A rust-proofed version of that car would be great.
      Dijon is a place I have long wanted to visit. Generally, Burgundy has a tremendous allure.

    2. When I was a lad, a neighbour of ours bought two together at the same time – kind of his and hers I suppose. I remember even at that tender age (we are talking pre-teen) thinking ‘strange choice’, but also being intrigued. This intrigue stayed with me … along with regular sight of an early 70’s DS Pallas parked up outside our ‘local shops’ and a primary school acquaintance’s Dad owning a GSA Estate, these were my first experiences of Citroen and all three models stood out from the crowd. My Mum so nearly bought a Visa, which would have been my first experience of buying a new car, but it (OK, the dashboard and controls) was just too left-field for her and my then Step-Father’s tastes and a Metro ended up fulfilling that role instead.

      The centre of Dijon is very nice – old houses, cobbled square, etc. – from memory; I was there 27 year’s ago for a couple of days en route to Turin and then Siena in Italy with a pal. Happy days.

    3. Families’ and friends’ Citroens also stood out for me. Two friends’ families had GSAs, a cousin and uncle had CX Safaris and others had a BX. They were odd but not rare. I wouldn’t notice Citroens now in any particular way like that.
      I have a Visa review which notes that Chrysler would have nothing to fear from
      PSA ownership. Opel, watch out.

    4. In fairness, there is an argument to be made that death was preferable to the way Chrysler ‘managed’ its European operations in the 1970s.

  2. Brought back memories of ownership of not one but two Visas, a basic twin and later the Peugeot engine four door convertible. I don’t remember the performance specs between the 2CV and Visa but seem to recall there wasn’t much difference with the Visa being weightier even thought the engine was improved.
    Neither car remained with me for long but I did buy another 2CV, still my favourite of the light cars along with the Dyane.

  3. ‘PSA ownership. Opel, watch out.’
    Why should they? Compared to a contemporary Corsa, the Visa is an indefinitely better car.

    1. You really don’t like Opel, do you?
      To be fair, there isn’t much that’s as interesting as a Visa. I can say that there isn’t a single Citroen I’d have over a Corsa thought I’d prefer an Adam, Astra, Zafira or Insignia estate.

    2. I didn’t mean Opels or Citroens of today.

      But given the choice between a Corsa A and the Visa, I’d always take the Citroen.
      The Visa has much better engines (the suitcase engine was a pig to work on, but it was smooth, willing
      to rev and had a pleasant engine note – the exact opposite of the GM Family One engines) has excellent comfort and is fun to drive (also something completely unknown to the Opel driver of that era).

    3. Put like that, yes, the Visa trumps Opel’s littlest ones. It’s really about values though. I don’t think Opel or Citroen had a monopoly on The Way much as offered different visions of the car. If only Citroen had worked harder on rust protection and assembly and if only Opel had dialled in a bit more agility. Both brands would still have offered distinctive products only minus the stupid bits.

  4. I learnt to drive in Spain in 1990 in a 1986 Visa II RD. I miss that car. Excellent visibility, very direct steering and little power but lots of torque at low revs. The car also got fantastic mileage and was very durable: In the 1990s I saw Visa II Diesel with 300.000-500.000 Km, and no visible rust.

    I miss the “character” of that car. It was crude but direct and efficient. And suffered with no problem the rainy weather of Norther Spain.

    The van version (the C15) stopped production in…2005!!!!


    1. Thanks for stopping by FUS, I had absolutely no idea the C15 remained in production for so long. My own memories of a Visa 17RE were similar to yours. It felt quite narrow and floaty, but in fact handled neatly and felt totally predictable. The Visa had a lovely long-legged, languid gait, so while it wasn’t particularly fast, it felt unburstable. Because of this quality, I’d imagine those diesel engines well and truly outlived the bodyshells.

      Some years ago now, I knew a chap with a Visa Convertible. I seem to recall there being rather a lot of duct tape on the roof covering, but it was a cheerful little thing and he loved it.

      I’d quite fancy a C15.

  5. If the GS were yesterday’s car, what on earth would any sane person have thought of the then current crop of English cars?

    The C15s seemed quite popular in northern Italy, and seemed to survive quite severe punishment.

    1. Yes, by 1978 the GS had been on sale for an age. I imagine Archie Vicar thought it long in the tooth compared to more modern fare such as the Mk2 Escort (1974), Opel Kadett (1973), VW Golf (1974), Datsun Sunny (1973 – B210) et cetera.

  6. Had a very brief stint with a GS and while it was interesting in its engineering and concept it could be considered a fail in its market segment for being over complicated and a maintenance nightmare. I bought an immaculate top range example for peanuts after its heyday only to find the entire front and engine would have to be removed to solve an exhaust leak in that area to replace a minimum cost part but alas at much labour expense.
    Disregarding all this it was a lovely car to behold with ride quality unmatched in its class or even above and the un-burstable smooth vibration free overhead cam air cooled engine was the “icing on the cake”.

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