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