With the 2005 C-Airplay, Citroën aimed to re-introduce the notion of frivolity to the urban runabout. It never came to pass, but it just might have inspired something which did.
The problem with writing about cars is the often futile task of establishing and then sifting information with any degree of accuracy. I mention this as preface and by way of cowardly disclaimer. Whether this piece contains anything of merit, or is merely speculative fluff with which to pad out a quiet Sunday I leave for readers to judge.
I’ll begin with a question. Do we imagine PSA sanctioned the Distinctive Series as a direct result of the 2008 financial crisis? It’s certainly a possibility; after all, the whole concept is redolent of the sort of panicked committee decision making one comes to at some ungodly hour, once the coffee has run out and the only rational alternative is self-immolation.
Another reason I suspect as much is because it seemed to appear rather abruptly in 2009, without prior warning or precedent. Of course, we cannot be sure and the opposite may equally be true. So offering no overarching insight, merely a few half-baked notions and a questionable capacity to join dots, I propose a counterfactual, but broadly plausible fossil trace.
The middle of the previous decade was perhaps the swansong for the mainstream European car manufacturers in terms of confidence and (arguably) creativity. Business was good, the sky had yet to fall in and the CUV craze was still a gleam in the product strategist’s eyes.
One of the big growth areas at the time was in stylish, urbane city cars. Patrick le Quément’s Renault Twingo may have set the template to some extent, but Ford’s KA and BMW’s new-MINI grasped the baton with gusto, to say nothing of Daimler-Benz’s impactful (if catastrophically loss-making) Smart.
PSA were unrepresented in this sector and clearly wanted a piece of the hip urban action, with Citroën the chosen brand to provide it. So in 2005, the dustcloth was lifted on C-Airplay at the Bologna motor show. A compact (3.3m in length) supermini sized roadster, C-Airplay combined soft rounded body surfaces with striking graphics and a bold airy glasshouse.
With similarities in form and silhouette both to Citroën’s own Pluriel and to Roberto Giolito’s 2004 Trepiùno concept for Fiat, the rather endearing C-Airplay appeared to be a teaser for a production Citroën city car, as well as serving as possible inspiration for Ford’s 2010 Start concept.
Few production models’ route from concept to production takes place in (a) straight line, or (b) a vacuum, so any potential similarity (if indeed there is one) between C-Airplay and its eventual production equivalent lies more in spirit rather than in any material form.
My suspicion is that when the DS3, which launched four years later was initiated, it was created as an evolution of this concept and as a Citroën -branded product. It’s even more likely to have been subject to a considerable internal debate as to its likely business case – a matter the DS branding undoubtedly aided.
As has been pointed out in the past, the notion of an upmarket Citroën sub-brand, while a slap in the face to the historical classlessness of the double chevron, had some semblance of marketing-led logic, but PSA I think we can agree, got giddy on the DS3’s early sales success, believing they could magic a brand out of fairy dust. But we’re been over this enough times and you’re probably as sick of hearing it as I am writing it.
As to the C-Airplay? It’s a neat looking little thing, and if it’s nothing to get wildly excited over, then or now, it’s a good deal neater and more inventive than Mark Lloyd’s eventual DS3. What it also illustrates, is firstly the distance both PSA and brand-Citroën have travelled in the intervening decade or so, and secondly, how building a brand from the bottom up really isn’t the way to go about things. Managing what they had would have been more in their line, but where’s the fun in that?