Gilded Snail

Citroën’s 1961 Bijou, as road tested by Autocar.

Image credit: (c) picautos

The UK’s relationship with Citroën has traditionally not been vastly dissimilar to Britain’s somewhat ambivalent relations with the French nation itself. Especially so in the 1950s, when the motorists of Blighty, secure in the assumed and unchallenged superiority of their domestic Gods, snorted derisively at the 2CV’s rational asceticism.

Assembled, like its (equally shocking to British sensibilities) DS sibling by Citroën’s UK concessionaires, the 2CV was offered in the UK market throughout the 1950s, to ever decreasing circles of enthusiasm. UK motorists had shed most residual enthusiasm for automotive hairshirts and while belts remained fastened a few notches tighter than comfort might otherwise have dictated, Citroën’s brand of minimalism was deemed a notch too far.

Hence the design and manufacture of the UK-only Bijou. Introduced at the 1959 Earls Court motor show, and built exclusively at Citroën’s Slough plant to supplant the 2CV, the Bijou is believed to have enjoyed little or no factory input, or one suspects, meaningful support.

In February 1961, Autocar subjected the Bijou to a full road test, informing readers that the Anglophone Deux Chevaux was targeted, “at motorists who wish to add a second Citroën to the family garage”; a statement which even at the time suggested a somewhat rarefied customer-base. Priced at £695, 5 shillings and 3 pence, the Bijou was an expensive proposition against domestic opposition, and even against imported rivals didn’t seem to offer terrific value for money.

Amongst the Bijou’s putative rivals was the Fiat 600 Convertible at £617, or the Goggomobil Royal T offered at £671. NSU fielded the Prinz 30 De Luxe at a reasonable £588, while Renault’s Dauphine offered considerably more car for £690. Alternatively, VW’s eternal Beetle sold in entry level form at £617. Domestically, even the Austin Se7en De Luxe undercut the Bijou at a less than break-even £537 – (all figures including UK purchase tax).

Autocar reported the Peter Kirwan-Taylor (of Lotus Type-14 fame) styled body had “transformed the appearance completely, making it acceptable in British eyes.” Consisting of eleven separate mouldings, the GRP bodyshell was produced by the same concern who supplied the specialist carmaker, Peerless and while it was commendably more aerodynamic than the ‘tin snail’, Autocar noted, “This better equipped body weighs nearly 2cwt more than the standard one.

The sleeker bodyshell may have presented a more contemporary silhouette, but in practicality terms, it offered a considerably less compelling proposition. Autocar characterised it as “a two-seater saloon with a rear seat for children; alternatively, it would be possible for an adult, sitting across the car, to use this seat for short journeys only.” The magazine’s testers highlighted the Bijou’s more sybaritic cabin, noting, “Gone is the starkness of the 2 c.v. saloon. The interior is fully trimmed and there is a conventional instrument panel placed high on the facia.

However, the additional refinements came at a cost, one of them being interior space. “Under the front carpet there was a layer of felt‚ 1in. thick and on the front passenger’s side a double layer of felt at the toeboard, which reduced leg-room by 2in., making the front compartment cramped for a passenger of average height. Sound deadening material on the engine side of the bulkhead would seem to be more practical”, the weekly organ suggested.

The standard 2CV style seats, trimmed here in a PVC-coated cloth, received praise, testers deeming them “very comfortable, being broad and giving good support in the small of the back and at the shoulders. They are adjustable fore and aft by pegging the frames into a series of holes in the floor and they may be lifted out of the car for use when picnicking, or on the beach.” Visibility too was found to be “very good for the driver in all directions”.

Owing to its centrifugal clutch, the clutch pedal was not required to engage either first or reverse gears from rest, with no need to declutch when coming to a halt, although Autocar pointed out that this was not the case with the choke in use or with the engine at a fast idle. Employing an identical layout to that of the 2CV, testers praised the Bijou’s gearchange as being “very pleasant, and although the positions for the gears are rather unconventional they are learned quickly.

The test team did make the following observation however. “As there are, of course, three fore-and-aft planes of movement, there are also three neutral positions; when coming to rest, changing from top to first requires more manipulation of the lever than with the conventional arrangement as a result.” A further note, which perhaps underlines the more deferential attitude of the era, was sounded as they observed, “The clutch is very light and has a short pedal movement; the operating cable failed during the test.

Sharing the 2CV’s 425cc horizontally opposed, air-cooled twin cylinder power unit, the Bijou developed 12 b.h.p. at a maximum of 4,000 r.p.m. and a maximum torque of 17.4lb ft. at 2,500 r.p.m. Laden b.h.p. per tonne proved to be 16.1. “It would be unreasonable to expect a lively performance,” Autocar’s testers opined with considerable understatement. “Nevertheless, if free use is made of the indirect gears, brisk progress can be made.” There was however a proviso: “Hills have a considerable influence on the car’s performance,” they observed.

Nevertheless, the little Citroën power unit’s flexibility shone through. “Once in its stride, the Bijou will cruise on the level in top gear at 40-45 m.p.h. reasonably quietly, and in an effortless fashion. Flexibility of the little engine is so good that if top gear is retained and speed is allowed to fall to 20 m.p.h. it continues to pull smoothly… and it is possible to drive with full throttle indefinitely without jeopardizing reliability.

Despite noting “the tendency is to use a fully open throttle most of the time,” Autocar highlighted the Bijou’s fuel efficiency over a test distance of 1,021 miles, with the magazine recording a fuel consumption of 49.2 m.p.g. “It is therefore quite difficult to bring the figure below 50; this entails much climbing of hills in a low gear or negotiating very heavy city traffic,” they observed.

Ride comfort is undoubtedly the strongest point of the Bijou, for which the unique suspension is responsible”, Autocar rather unsurprisingly observed. “On normal roads, good or bad, ride comfort is superior to that of most other cars, whatever their size or price”.

However, testers felt that the car’s inertia type dampers did not control suspension movements as quickly as normal hydraulic dampers might have. “There are occasions on washboard surfaces when movements of the car on its springs build up abnormally, but not to alarming proportions,” they noted.

Poor surfaces elicited some audible road excited rumble, they found, “but on bad stretches of Belgian pavé, 30 m.p.h. could be sustained in comfort, the car being free from bucking or crabbing. At all times the chassis felt very rigid and there were no creaks or rattles in the body.

Characteristics which would become 2CV folklore, but at the time both front-wheel drive handling characteristics and that uniquely French penchant for acute roll angles remained something which required explanation. “When cornering, resistance to roll is low with this suspension, so that quite large angles are reached. Nevertheless it can be cornered fast when required, although accompanied by considerable tyre squeal, but the car remains very stable provided that the throttle is held open.

In such cornering it understeers fairly strongly – a characteristic of front drive cars – and if the throttle is then closed it steers more tightly into the corner, unless a correction is made at the steering wheel. Tyre adhesion is very good indeed on wet or dry roads,” they continued.

Testers complained of heavy steering, which was sensitive to the degree of lock applied, offering less resistance at large steering angles. This, Autocar observed was on account of “the large change in camber angle of the road wheels as they are steered. This steering is quite high geared, but is not heavy when parking, it being possible to move the wheels from one lock to the other, when the car is stationary, without undue effort.” The weekly also praised the steering response, precision and resistance to the transmission of road shock. Self-centring was found to be strong.

The Bijou’s “smooth progressive brakes” were praised, testers suggesting they “would appear to have sufficient capacity to cope with Alpine passes.” They were found to be sensitive to water ingress, however, “producing roughness and much reduced braking power until they had dried out.” Heavy pedal pressure was also noted.

The Bijou’s boot belied its name, being “of very useful size and when the rear seat squab is folded a platform length of 56in. is provided.” Testers also highlighted the car’s horn, noting “a weak, undignified note”.

In summation, the magazine’s test team considered the Bijou to be “a very practical car, easy to maintain and cheap to run. It provides relaxed motoring in outstanding comfort”, offering “an altogether different, leisurely style of motoring which some find very appealing.

Despite having capacity to produce the car at the rate of 1,000 a week, sales fell alarmingly short of expectations; the public baulking at the high price, poor performance and reading between the lines here, patchy build quality. Even without these demerits, the fibreglass bodied Bijou would have proven a tough sell, but with production totals in the region of just over 200 cars when the axe fell in 1964, Citroën UK’s attempt to entice the British motorist with a less uncompromising offering proved an abject failure.

The irony is that the little Bijou could, with a more powerful engine and a slightly larger body, have offered a plausible template for a baby DS, one which might have proven a less challenging visual assault than Quai de Javel’s contemporary Ami 6.

The eternal 2CV outlived and outpointed many in-house rivals over its lifespan, but the Bijou was the first, and in terms of production and significance, possibly the least of its conquests. Demonstrating once again perhaps, that less truly is more.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

5 thoughts on “Gilded Snail”

  1. I know it sounds crazy, but the Bijou has always been my number one dream car of all time. Is it crazy lusting for a contraption like that over just about any other dream car in the world? I can’t find any rational reasons but rationality got nothing to do with it. I just want one, and that’s that.

  2. I am old enough to remember the arrival of this misguided attempt at anglicising the 2CV (as a car-mad only-just teenager, you understand – I’m not that ancient!). You really have to have known the era and understand who actually bought motorcars, not to mention what they saw as the purpose of their purchase, to be able to put such a vehicle into true perspective.

    For starters it was a time when only a minority could afford to buy new. Most of my peer-group had fathers who had a vehicle which was second-hand and probably even pre-war. Ford 8, Morris 8, Austin 7, Jowett 7 or 8 could all be bought for around £10 (a week’s wages). They would only venture out at weekends because everybody went to work on the bus or bicycle; only the bosses had parking places.

    Ah, the Bosses. Most were conservative (small ‘c’) to a fault. Depending on status and geographical location they ran Fords, Austins, Hillmans, Morrises, Vauxhalls . . . Bank Managers ran Rovers or Humbers – and so on. A small minority, those with an interest in engineering innovation and advancement, would be looking for a replacement for their ageing Alvis, Lea Francis, Riley or Jowett Javelin and bemoaning the fact that very little was coming out of Dagenham, Luton, Longbridge, Coventry that was not “grey porridge”. These are the few who could both afford and choose to buy a DS19. Or a Dyna Z. Others bought Beetles, the occasional DKW and, if they just wanted to be different to the herd but stay conventional, a Simca Aronde or a Borgward Isabella. The influence of a certain W Boddy in their choice should also not be underestimated.

    The Bijou was just completely wrong. It ruined the purity of the tin snail, added nothing positive to it and was directed at a market which did not yet exist. And once uncle Alec gave us the Mini Minor/Se7en, thus changing the motoring world as we in the UK knew it, the game was up.

  3. I think the market existed, it wasn’t just particularely big. The name betrays its function, the Bijou was marketed as an accessory, mostly to women. It was never intended as a first car to anyone, it was a second or even third car. It was intended for well heeled customers who bought it for their wifes or daughters. It was a car you gifted your misstress.

    The competition wasn’t just any small car, it was cars like the Autobianchi Bianchina, the Auto Union 1000SP mini-me Thunderbird, the Austin-Healey Sprite, the Nash Metropolitan, etc. Small fun cars in very utilitarian underpinnings but with a sense of flash and flair.

    These were a step above mere basic transportation, and the buyers could probably easily afford a more expensive car but chose one of these on cute factor alone. The Bijou was intended as a color coded fashion accessory for the wife, like a fashion handbag. Just Imagine the fifties trophy wife strolling around town in a Bijou with a perfectly matching and colour coded outfit.

  4. What a wonderful article! I used to have some of the road test annuals issued by Motor and Autocar from 1959 to 1964 or so. All lost in one of my innumerable moves. My aunt used to post them to Canada for me, along with the occasional Autosport and every single Motoring News until 1968. She stopped when Jim Clark did.

    Funnily enough, I remember most vividly the 1959 De Soto Fireflite, 1963 Pontiac GTO, an Alvis with a 3 litre six and the Armstrong Siddeley Sapphire from 1960 or so. The 1962 Aston Martin DB4GT Zagato was my favourite for performance but it looked lumpy and misshapen to my young eye, far worse than the standard model. Still does.

    Our family left Portsmouth in February 1959, my father going ahead to establish a home in Nova Scotia, while Mum looked after me and my three additional brothers in Oxford at her parents’ home until July 25 when we sailed from Southampton to Halifax. I was 11, nearly 12, the eldest of my siblings. And a car nut already. My mother’s sister, the aforementioned aunt, took me to Silverstone during that period – her friend’s friend’s MGA Twin Cam lasted half a lap before blowing up! I roamed the paddock. How I wanted a Lotus 11. Gorgeous in unpainted polished ally.

    My father had been a pyschiatrist in Portsmouth. We had no car. He made 20 quid a week, having left the RAF in 1953 at Squadron Leader rank due to constant annoying moves. His last post was Box Hill, now a favourite spot for conspiracy theorists. His parents had sent him to England from colonial India – alone at age eight – to attend Kings School Canterbury Prep, then the public school itself, followed by Oxford where he met and married my mother. His parents were well-off, had a giant Buick and Sikh chauffeur in the late ’30s. My grandfather was knighted, having been the chief educator for the Punjab region. The war and subsequent India/Pakistan separation sent my grandparents back to Blighty and my grandfather died in 1949 from malaria complications. Let’s not mention my grandmother’s scrooge-like ways; she hoarded the capital and five bob at birthday time was your lot, mate. No help there.

    My father had a 1938 Riley with a bonnet a mile long and two huge headlamps while in the RAF, but wanted no more family moves – he wanted to be around as his kids grew up, unlike his own experience. So to Portsmouth with him as a civvy shrink we went. I got sent to a prep school just over Portsdown Hill from Cosham. He could not afford to send my next eldest brother, sold off his amazing medical equipment, just to make ends meet. Something had to give, so we emigrated for three times the salary. What would you do? The so-called brain drain was real.

    I give all this background to show how skint ’50s Britain was. As John Cash mentioned above, most people moved by bicycle and bus in the main. Cars were for the wealthy few. Most of my day school pals at prep school arrived by bus, but a few were driven there by rich mothers or dads. One friend’s dad sold insurance – he had an Austin Cambridge and his wife an A35. Made me wonder why anyone would bother to train to be a doctor. My mother had dreams of housemaids having married a doc-to-be during the war, but Beveridge and the NHS put paid to that!

    The five months in Oxford in 1959 were illuminating. I went to the local school, to discover some of my classmates’ dads worked at Morris Cowley and made 30 quid a week on the assembly line. Fifty percent more than my trained psychiatrist father! These kids had American comics like Superman instead of Dandy and Beano, chewing gum, television sets at home, new sneakers and jeans. Oxford itself was full of cars compared to Portsmouth, the streets around my grandparents were full of parked cars. Good for spotting. Unequal income distribution existed then as well, but on lines nobody today would recognize.

    When I returned to the UK for postgrad in 1969, things had dramatically changed. Everyone was far better off and cars were everywhere.

    Mr Hallstrom airily talks of ’50s Britain and trophy wives, but neglects to mention this Bijou arrived in autumn 1959, coincident with the Mini and Anglia 105E. Great suspension aside, the rest was not much cop, in fact pretty darn awful. Air cooled twin with 12 hp and seats made out of PVC-covered fabric like the tablecloths in a downmarket cafe. No trophy wife wanted that! It was a car for an eccentric, no more, no less. An A35 or A40 was far more desirable for the well-off wife. And then the Mini became everyman’s car, rotting subframes and all becoming part of the folklore.

    We were in rural Canada as a family for only a few months when Dad got Mum her first car, a 1960 105E Anglia after he taught her to drive and she passed the test first go. Great hand/eye coordination she had, and a bit of a devil may care attitude. He had already bought a ’59 Consul, tough old bird that proved to be.

    In selecting the Anglia, several dealers lent her cars for the weekend. The Renault Dauphine was a complete laugh and a load of rubbish with no go, the Beetle noisy and German. Our time in the British zone of Occupation with Dad in the RAF had coloured my parents’ thoughts. The Anglia subsequently made my mother’s reputation as a very fast driver, the speed limit being 60 mph, but Mum liked to bounce the speedo off the 80 mph peg given half a chance. She turned out to be a far better driver than Dad, in fact better than most in my experience. Most unusual for a driver getting their licence at age 39 and female – she made up for lost time.

    So to put this Bijou in context, one can only assume that not a soul at Slough did 5 minutes market research. People have aspirations, spoken and secret, and this little GRP-bodied wretch satisfied none of them! Other than being a right wally if you bought one. It is therefore a most interesting car to read about. Thanks.

    More of similar old roadtests would not go amiss with me. The social context of the 1950s times has to be remembered, the stink of coal gas and gasometers, horse droppings in the streets still, National Service, stinky belching diesel lorries, supermarkets just beginning to happen but mostly you were at a counter while a clerk got what you wanted from the shelves behind, sliced bread in packages just beginning to appear, not that it was any good, a packet of greasy crisps a luxury. People born after 1960 have no idea how battered and poor Britain was then. Portsmouth was bombed out and not much rebuilt. Reading a car periodical was escapism for people unable to afford a motor vehicle at all. What I miss is lads cycling to work whistling merrily away. Sticks with me. We’re a dour lot today by comparison, glued to smartphone screens like zombies.

  5. Even though it was a failure on the market, I’d like to point out the Bijou was one of the first cars actively marketed towards women. I don’t know how much of a conscious effort it was, and I don’t know how open they were about it, but it’s all there in the marketing campaign, just look at the top picture and analyze the story.

    The wife is loading up the Bijou with golf clubs while her husband drives off in the DS. This is what they meant when they said the car was targeted at motorists who wish to add a second Citroën to the family garage. In other words, the DS is for you, the Bijou is for your wife. Second picture, husband and wife om visit at friends.

    Third picture, wife drives husband to the railway station, where he takes the 25 ride in to the city and his well paid job as a city stockbroker. Fourth picture, wife drives their two children to school. Fifth picture, wife takes friend to the cinema. Sixth and seventh picture, unknown man with dog looks over his Bijou to oogle over trophy wife across the street when she gets her groceries delivered to her Bijou.

    In almost all the pictures, the woman is the active owner/driver. She lives a well off life, where both she and her husband have their own car, even though he takes the train to the city. She lives a leisurly life after driving the kids to school, and she’s active playing golf, going to the cinemas, meeting friends, shopping, and so on.

    I’d say this car is very actively targeted to the fifties equivalent of a trophy wife. But yes, even if that was the intended target, the market weren’t obviously that big, and yes I’d say the Mini could and would fill that role in a better and more classless way.

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