The Disappearing Citroën DNA

We notice that some makes have the most enthusiastic followings in lands where they have never been particularly well represented. The excellent AussieFrogs forum covers the full gamut of French manufacturers, who have all remained reasonably left-field choices in Australia. Here, AussieFrogs member Gary Kurzer shows that Citroën retains the ability to inflame opinion worldwide.

Cars and Guitars? Read on. George said: “All things must pass.”  Dylan said: “Do not go gentle into that good night …. rage, rage against the dying of the light.” And Robert and Eric were “standing at the crossroads.”

Methinks that Citroën needs to work out whether their wheels align with George or Dylan whilst parked at that that very prescient intersection, considering their future.

I have owned and operated Citroëns for quite a long time. Ownership has included DS, GS, CX, Xantia (Activa), 2CV, and C5. Quite a few of these were multiple iterations. My present C5 HDi is a wonderful car, and certainly under appreciated here in Australia.

Yes, I have occasionally been unfaithful with strumpets like VW, Honda, Audi, Renault (extended frissons in particular with R4, R16). Many of these are fine cars. Yet like a faithful Pavlovian hound, I return to Citroën.

Let me digress briefly before again merging back into the main lane.

The sunburst classic. My (other) affliction is music, and guitars. Back in the 1950s, guitar manufacturer Gibson made a model, identified as the “1959 Les Paul Standard.”   It sold for less than $300. Not many were made, and sales of this model were so poor that the guitar was dropped from manufacture in 1960, with a slow return commencing in 1968.

Largely due to the aforementioned Eric, and his wizardry during his 1960’s Bluesbreakers and Cream days, eventually this model guitar was “worth” $1m.

It has become one of the most collectible ever, and has spawned a gazillion remakes, reissues and copies, placing it with the Fender Stratocaster as the top two models in the guitar pantheon. Gibson have made many other diverse guitar models, (and some have been very successful), yet the iconic Les Paul has maintained the highest profile, and is the acknowledged backbone of the Gibson DNA.

Unlike Gibson’s Les Paul, in 1959, Citroën exhibited the DS on the 5th October 1955 at the Paris Motor Show to immediate accolades. Over the 10 days of the show, the DS took 80,000 deposits. No “slow burn” here!

As with the DS predecessor, the Traction Avant, these cars were instant successes, for reasons allied with their mechanical and structural innovations, as well aesthetics, roadholding, and comfort. Serviceability of the Traction was a selling point. Another well identified selling feature of both models was *safety.* (Volvo can explain how this works!)

Getting Tractiontraction

It is incontrovertible that the DS was radical and without precedent, and after landing on earth, it became the number one Most Beautiful car ever, fervently and frequently lauded for its technical superiority, Best Collectible car, etc. Best ride/handling.   Cool Cars.

The 2CV was almost as much of a parallel legend (although to my taste, the R4 had more  appeal). It was in comfortable company with stablemates SM, CX, and DS.

2seevee

Citroën have been neither immune, or inured, from the vicissitudes of economics, shifting regulations, competition, and other Reality Bites that leave teeth marks (with the occasional chance of rabies), and thus have been thwarted in some of their innovations and marketing/sales objectives. French taxation systems, US auto regulations, et al. Ironically, Citroën were usually way ahead of these regulations. Many innovations worked their way into mainstream cars years later. Some models were hit by the Ugly Stick (which seems to have endeared them even more). Others were Truly Fab.

Citroën GS  

A super and seminal (smaller) car. I’m a fan, although if you never get one out of the urban environment and onto some Long and Winding Roads (preferably with unlimited speed zones) you may wonder why they are highly lauded. Had this model been graced with a more powerful motor, better (interior) air flow, and an optional auto or 5 speed gearbox, it may have perched higher on the accolades and sales ladders.

Nevertheless, in 1971, the GS was European Car of the Year.                                               Interestingly, the SM took out 3rd place.

In 1975, the Citroën CX took the tile, and scored again in 1990 with the XM. The marque also garnered 8 “runners up,” and are in the top 8 manufacturers, ahead of Mercedes and Porsche. Perhaps these accolades didn’t translate into sales, or maybe good marketing did indeed integrate the successes. But it certainly underscores the marque’s ability to showcase design flair and innovation.

Citroën seemed to discontinue models right at the time when they could have been finessed to being Close to Perfection, and often did so for pragmatic reasons (the DS was too expensive to manufacture).

Returning to the Crossroads.

Gibson are now at the crossroads, facing a bankruptcy situation. Perhaps in a parallel twist of fate with Citroën, they need to balance the books and the DNA .

Has Citroën become just another car manufacturer? Have the prized Citroën genetics been excised or diluted? Largely, I believe so. I do like the conceptual duality of cars like the DS3 as a sporty, sophisticated small car, and the C6; being a big, wonderful, quirky contemporary limo iteration of the DS and CX.

Citroën obviously do their own research and assessments, and have chosen to make cars that I find uncomfortable siblings (yes, including the ride!) to models that are far more genetically aligned, like the C5 and C6. I am warming to the quirky Cactus, and the “new” Citroën suspension system, (albeit that it may be a poor cousin to the oleo-pneumatic).

The Picasso highlights that when Citroën delves more into the mainstream, (people movers, SUVs) they do so with more panache than their competitors.

I do understand that the Great Unwashed might not buy any Citroën model, fearing that the complexity and quirks are not worth the risk, even with the benefits of a sophisticated suspension. Let alone the depreciation spectre.

However, there has never been a more opportune time to “market” anything, so I posit that Citroën could well leverage today’s electronic technology to educate, excite, tantalise, sway opinions, and ultimately sell new models, new innovations, and perhaps different and improved approaches to maintenance and service. There are channels not available back in the day when the light shone brightly over the Citroën stable, albeit that André Citroën did indeed use creative marketing tools that predated the internet.

Almost no person who knows the word Citroën won’t comment about “those cars that go up and down.” If Citroën/PSA feel that they MUST make models that are infinitesimally minor variants to its competitors, then sadly the bean counters rule the roost. Citroën, in the longer run, may be better off positioning themselves as innovators in style and technology, and exploit their DNA rather than burying it. Maybe they are right, by having a foot in both camps. I don’t know the answer.

Back in 1960, Gibson thought the Les Paul was dead. Not only was that not true as the years unfolded, but the genetics of that model have almost wholly sustained Gibson right up to today.

Marques such as Porsche have always had a singular “image positioning” albeit that they now make an array of cars to capture market segments like SUVs. “Porsche-type” SUVs….

*Hoon.*  In Australia, and perhaps elsewhere, this is a slightly derogatory term that refers to loutish bad behaviour, especially with grunty motor cars. I have occasionally hooned and If I Were a Rich Man, I might own a Corvette, a Mustang, or even a Porsche, for those rare times when grunt and fun coalesce.

However, contemporary reality is that driving is 99.793% “commuting” and adhering to Rules and Regulations. A great characteristic of most Citroëns is the quality of being sedate commuters in comfort and style, allied with an ability to get down and dirty on twisty open roads when called for. Even better …. on wet roads, unsealed roads, with two wheels on the tarmac and two in the dirt, foot on the brakes. My tiny engined semi auto GS-1015 once shamed our local champion V8 muscle car racer because the road was wet and twisty with loose edges.

The Xantia Activa can arguably out-handle a Porsche, or be comfortably driven like Grandma on a relaxed Sunday shopping junket. (With no implications or sexism intended. Even a Grandpa.) I loved mine, one of the most reliable and enjoyable cars, with only a mere hint of foibles. Handle with car/e.

activa   There are some great YouTube clips.

Devils and Black Swans

For musicians, being “at the Crossroads” meant selling your soul to the devil to attain legendary musical immortality. Citroën has a wonderful pedigree. But I suspect whilst idling at the Crossroads, eyeing the GPS, and trying to see beyond the horizon down each side road, they may not be making the best long term survival decisions. Selling their soul to the devil to get a shorter term market share? Perhaps.

I’m a believer

Author Nassim Nicholas Taleb wrote of “The Black Swan” phenomena, whereby everyone believed all swans were white … until they discovered a  Black Swan.

• I suspect that many people believe that cars need to be vaguely uncomfortable, and have a firm ride to handle properly. Citroën dispelled such thinking a long time ago.

• Most people think that headlights must point straight ahead.

Wait until you drive a car that sees around corners.

• Most people believe that driving on three wheels can’t be done. Etc.

You can’t really understand the Citroën allure until you own one. Some of the design parameters are probably too subtle to feature in advertising, such as the placement of the A pillar in the driver’s blind spot. When you drive a car that neglects this component, then it becomes, well, um … noticeable… I like how the bonnet angle makes the front of the car disappear, so your forward visibility is the road, not the car. (I guess some drivers prefer aiming the tri-star or the jaguar). Why should a brake pedal be a long throw uphill activation versus a subtle downhill nudge?

Your first drive in a DS is indeed almost a religious epiphany, and challenges your concept of what “a car” actually is. Not all Citroëns do this, mind you, but the ones with the full DNA are very persuasive.

Like discovering a black swan, Citroën can make you rethink your auto expectations.  And, yes, if you’ve owned a bad one, you may well be inoculated for life….

So, PSA/Citroën, can you marry Citroën DNA with contemporary, innovative, and individualistic cars? Can you leverage today’s media opportunities to develop a new love and loyalty for your marque? Get the warranty and servicing right? Reliability?

I hope so. It may not be an overnight thing, but perhaps a recipe for respect, loyalty, and longevity?

Here in Australia, “Citroën” has always been somewhat precarious, largely depending on who the concessionaires are, and their degree of faith and enthusiasm. Some periods had more models available, better promotion, and a bigger following. Australia is a small market, but there is plenty of passion amongst the Citroën diehards.

 

Gary Kurzer. Sydney Australia.  (All images remain the copyright of the original owners).

 

Author: garykurzer

• from a design background, curious, musical, quirky. • in Australia.

14 thoughts on “The Disappearing Citroën DNA”

  1. Lovely piece, Gary. Too early here to say more. Hope to return.
    But the GS — so clever to make it the obvious love-child of the DS series. Few other marques (if any?) have managed to do that. But then they didn’t have such a striking Dad to start with.
    Here in France, of course, Citroëns are not so niche — even Hoi Polloi are quite happy to buzz around in one up to 30 years old.

    1. Vic: so BXs, R18s and 405s? I bet you still don’t see any R14s? I’d be thrilled to see a Series 1 R21. If I was so lucky, I bet it would be white. Pretty much the only Sub-Classics I see are the odd Peugeot 205 and 405 and Xantia (that’s a stretch, I know). The 405 must also have been fairly solidly made after all. I saw a good one only last week – maybe it was a late model so it’d be 22-25 years old. My impression is the Peugeots seem to last better than certain other French brands.

    2. It so happens that the BX is my least favourite car. After a 400km (Press) trip from London to Champagne 20 years ago, the damage to my back in the rear seat took months to recover from. Even now a damp day can remind me all is not well. The car was noisy too, and slowed on autoroute hills!

      205, 405 and Xantia all common here. Xantias in England used to be noticeably well driven, so I often wondered about getting one. I stuck with two enjoyable Dedras though, which would have been about 12-15 years old and no trouble to maintain, even with Bosch’s early ABS.

      Peugeots prob do last better; there are the same no. of old Renaults about, and they had sold in far greater numbers then.

      Yesterday I even saw four Lancias: the big people carrier, a rare Delta 2 (The Unloved), an Ypsilon (several daily, all ages), and a Lybra — the basic 1.9 JTD, scuffed all round!

      But in continental Europe 350,000km is common, unlike Britain.

  2. Also in France depreciation is slight, as if it’s almost illegal. Hence Delta 3s (wrongly omitted from yesterday’s bag) are still expensive. €2,000 is needed for most bangers — but also an excellent 18-year-old Lybra.

    1. On maintenance, it’s always a question of whether there’s a particular garage, or even one known mechanic, who can fix everything, and get the parts. Around my town, Opel is poor, Peugeot expensive, Ford excellent etc. And there are two reasonable body shops too.

      In London, I always used Zagato Lancia — who also service the only known Lybra in England — if Mr Robinson wnats to know!

  3. There are so many little design details of a DS that go unmentioned such as the simplicity of removing either the windscreen or rear window by undoing a couple of small bolts securing two brackets at the lower edge of the glass and then simply pulling the lower edge outwards and pulling the glass out of its upper rubber slot. A simple job any owner could perform if needed with no special tools. Likewise any door can be removed or replaced in sixty seconds or less with one small spanner/wrench and a screwdriver.
    Another trick when changing a wheel is to use the long bar which serves as an extension for the crank enabling it to reach the engine to also act as a lever to lift the somewhat substantial wheel and tyre onto the hub. Simply poke it through the provided centre hole in the wheel and place the tip in the matching recess on the hub and lift the long end of bar upwards while sliding the wheel towards the hub, this added leverage makes light work of lifting and locating the rather heavy wheel tyre onto the hub. The famous suspension already provides self jacking so changing a wheel, a lost art in todays world, becomes a doddle.
    A further use of this bar is to slide it through the crank handle thus extending it while providing enormous leverage for loosening wheel nuts so even a child could break them loose, the Archimedes principle!
    Hydraulic brake bleeding on anything other than the hydraulic Citroen is a messy and time consuming job but on these Citroens its automatic with no waste or spillage plus the famous mineral fluid does not absorb moisture like all other makes which by their fluids very nature encourages moisture absorption , rusting and leakages.
    The 2CV before the DS had much of the same thinking incorporated in its design so its fascinating to find the higher class car with similar self maintenance ideas incorporated, something that is unheard of today.
    This design thinking has all but disappeared from the automotive scene even on basic cars.

    1. Is it possible the easy maintenance philosophy derived from wartime engineering habits. Imagine a GP vehicle designed so a headlamp bulb renewal involved removing the radiator and battery?
      Design is compromise and modern engineers compromise in favour of running functionality and ease of manufacture. And modern cars have far more parts than a 1955 car. That said, I like design for durability and maintenance and wish it was better understood.

    2. Is it possible the easy maintenance philosophy derived from wartime engineering habits. Imagine a GP vehicle designed so a headlamp bulb renewal involved removing the radiator and battery?
      Design is compromise and modern engineers compromise in favour of running functionality and ease of manufacture. And modern cars have far more parts than a 1955 car. That said, I like design for durability and maintenance and wish it was better understood.

  4. The 2 CV like another product the model T were both designed before the war but the designers “were” looking at the use of these products and what it would take to keep them running, just as in the war time Jeep.
    The maintenance tricks of the DS conflicts with the criteria that dictated simple repairs of the other two since it was much more expensive and appealed to more affluent customers who would not be attempting self repairs.
    Was this just cleverness in creating the most advanced car of the time where every aspect was scrutinised or were there other reasons. The DS was so radical in every aspect it almost makes me believe they were given free reign to address every issue down to the most minute detail.

  5. Speaking of Citroen, can anyone recommend any decent comprehensive books?

    Interesting in reading up more about Pierre Bercot who was said to have been responsible for much of Citroen’s issues (as well as screwed over Panhard and sabotaged any attempt to produce cars to fill the gap between the DS and 2CV/related models), along with the Citroen 2CV particularly the 750cc Flat-Twin in the Citroen Project F and other little known 2CV developments as well as the Citroen C-60 prototype.

    Additionally prior to acquiring Maserati did Citoen look at other companies to help with the development of larger engines such as Lancia who already produced a V6 (that was due for an overhaul if not outright replacement)?

  6. You’d think that if any car company had the “right” to a modern iteration of a prior model, that the 2CV had to be a nose ahead of the Mini or the Fiat 500. I suppose that the C3 leaned on the snail image. I’d imagine that in the spirit of Citroen DNA, a radical new kind of 2CV would have a reasonable shot of appeal. I’d imagine that Citroen have not been entirely unaware of the possibilities … and perhaps we have just not seen anything emerge from the R+D department? Perhaps the most important design element would need to be something so endearingly cute that you just had to put it in a basket and take it home, (or at least, to the local cafe to show off to your friends).

    1. The Revolt-e concept car showed how Citroën thought a modern 2cv should look like. It’s a shame it never materialised, apart from the name everything looked good. But then again Citroën explained many times why they’re not keen on retro-design which made the unveiling of the Revolte all the more surprising at the time. It was part of a string of interesting concept cars (survolt, Hypnos, Metropolis, etc…) that seemed to show Citroën finally knew where they were going imagewise and stylewise. I thought the range at the time really showed promise (a relatively successful and endearing C3 II, a quirky and on-trend C3 Picasso, a futuristic-looking C4 I hatch, a massively successful C4 Picasso and a handsome, if a little German-looking C5 II) but then Peugeot seemed to have changed his mind and repositioned Citroen as that (very) cheap and cheerful brand we know now. For years I thought Citroënists’s conspiracy theory that Peugeot was deliberatly undermining the brand was just crazy thoughts but with hindsight and the decisions we keep witnessing I’am now inclined to think that, yes, the Peugeot family, made sure Citroën never rose above Peugeot. I think it’s interesting to note that Peugeot suddenly and completly changed its tactics for the Citroen brand when Citroën, for the 1st time in decades, was closing in on Peugeot’s number 2 spot in France and had a cohesive and well-made range of cars back in the 2000’s. I was hoping that with Tavares arrival and the eviction of a number of Peugeot family members from executive positions things would turn out ok again but so far it still a bit hazy as to what Citroën stands for and Iam not sure Linda Jackson knows too, although I’am willing to give her and Tavares the benefit of the doubt and will wait to see what they come up with for the brand although their current policy of making Citroen’s the poor parent of the lot (ultra cheap plastics on all the range, no sporty versions or range-topping “halo” models, no big engines, a very limited range compared to Peugeot, etc…) is not very encouraging.

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