Fun and Games for Sunday

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.

c-airplay
Image credit: (c) voiture-de-reve

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.

c-airplay
(c) autoconcept-reviews

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.

c-airplay
No, I have no idea either… (c) voiture-de-reve

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?

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founding Editor. Content Provider.

9 thoughts on “Fun and Games for Sunday”

  1. It’s like every other marketing led move “upmarket” and a sign that corporate elites are so removed from reality that they believe the PR bullshit pedlars that they employ. Rover tried it back in the Honda days by sticking antique chrome radiator grilles and strips of wood laminate on their cars and claiming they were now competing with BMW. Fiat tried it by claiming the Lancia brand would be their Lexus. What they ignored was the hard work and engineering thoroughness that went into those marques along with (in the case of Lexus) the provision of well thought out and dedicated after sales service. People who buy luxury branded cars expect them to work well, be refined and to be able to drive over a few speed bumps without disintegrating. They also expect to be treated with a modicum of respect by service agents. When companies like FCA, PSA, Ford and GM learn these fundamentals they can then start selling their products at a profitable premium. However, I fear that they will continue to be deluded by the marketing tyoes into taking the short cut; which without government bailouts will be a short cut to oblivion.

  2. A concept I really liked, such a shame it didn’t go into production. But it gave us the side profile of the C2 headlamps and it’s bonnet shutlines on the sides of the hood as well as the general shape of its A-pillar and the black plastic base for the rear-view mirrors.
    This design and philosophy fitted nicely in the then successful range and under the brand’s then new ‘creative technology’ tagline.

    It beggars belief that PSA changed the marque’s direction just when Citroën was starting to be relatively successful after decades of underwhelming performances.
    With its handsome, German-inspired C5, the very popular C4 Picasso and Grand Picasso, the funky and futuristic C4 I (the Transformers ad!)), the cute and more robust-looking C3 II and the quirky C2, Citroën had the most coherent range it had in years and it paid: for a little while during the 2000s, and it was unheard of for several decades then, Citroën was very close to the number 2 spot in France in terms of sale, behind eternal leader Renault and seemingly able to take that position away from Peugeot who were, themselves, eternally chasing the number 1 spot from Renault.

    I don’t think it’s too far-fetched to imagine the then very powerful Peugeot family members on the company’s board of directors and management teams worrying about their namesake brand becoming the 3rd and last of the French automakers in France and possibly Europe. The sudden change of Citroen’s brand positioning and the subsequent years where it reverted back to a miserable range (no C5 replacement, no more big MPVs and no SUVs to replace them, a dull and forgetable C4 III with no 3dr, Estate and or coupé/cabriolet derivatives, no bigger engines than 120-130hp, no sporty versions, etc.…) certainly gives that theory some legs.

    1. In fact the C2 came out about a year before the AirPlay so the concept borrowed some details from the C2 rather than the other way round as I mentionned and was inspired by some of Citroen’s city car’s themes.

  3. On another subject I’ve always wondered how those silly and nonsensical English names sound to native English speakers (bad, I would imagine). Citroën is certainly not the only culprit here but Airplay, Airdream, Airscape, Aircross, Airlounge, etc.… must sound fairly odd.

  4. Another thing, these things always lead me in a rabbit-hole of thoughts on cars, and I’am not sure if it was talked about here before but some people think that Carlos Tavares was possibly motivated to create DS as a stand-alone brand, in part, as some sort of revenge or one upmanship over Carlos Ghosn.
    It’s no secret, despite exact details never really coming out, that Tavares’s departure from Renault was acrimonious and that they were no love lost between the two Carloses.
    The Portuguese Carlos was said, you’ll remember, to be livid to hear he won’t be the official heir-apparent to Lebanese-Brazilian Carlos. And because Tavares, while at Renault, was heavily involved with Alpine’s spinning-off as a brand and the then project of making the ‘Initiale Paris’ trim level a sort of premium brand onto itself, he’d have, reportedly, be annoyed to have been ‘evinced’ from Renault in the middle of these 2 projects and DS was his answer to this episode.

    Tavares is known as a real car-guy and I don’t know if it can explain his decision to create DS but he did say in earlier interviews that he grew up with French cars in Portugal and that he really wanted France to have a ‘Premium’ automaker worthy of the accolade because currently they were none. If that really was his ambition in the first place one can imagine he would’ve been annoyed to depart Renault before he could have made ‘Alpine’ and ‘Initiale Paris’ France’s answer to Porsche and Audi.

  5. Apologies, in my original post 𝕚𝕟𝕚𝕋𝕚Λ𝕃ᴱ should have been spelled the way God and Renault intended. I hope we’ll get an -Edit- button here for Xmas.

  6. This is another wasted opportunity from Citroen. They really do succeeed at stymying their designers’ ideas on the way to feasibility.
    It’s not very obvious to me this car was the germ of the DS brand idea. In think that emerged from a realisation that Citroen could … no, I can’t try to dissect or attempt
    to second guess the DS concept. The simplest explanation is that it was a mistake contingent on accidents. I bet PSA are sick of it and the originators retired/fired by now.

  7. The concept of DS as a standalone brand is 100% Carlos Tavares’s idea, it’s well known and he said so himself. He’s still CEO and no one was fired over it.

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