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.”
I think that Citroën needs to work out whether their wheels align with George or Dylan whilst parked at 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!)
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, best ride/handling, etc…
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.
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.
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 3rd place.
In 1975, the Citroën CX took the title, 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.
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?
Gary Kurzer. Sydney Australia. (All images remain the copyright of the original owners).