A Letter In Your Writing Doesn’t Mean You’re Not Dead

A yellow Cactus in an underground setting sets your correspondent off into futile reveries of austerity motoring.

Hello Yello. (c) Driven to Write

Towards the latter part of the 1980s, I can recall taking the view that Citroën was missing an opportunity to (in)directly replace the 2CV by introducing a pared-back version of the Visa, powered by the 602cc flat twin and featuring perhaps a full length sunroof. It wouldn’t have been the same as the beloved tin snail of course, but might have extended the life of the concept beyond the point where collision and emissions regulations killed-off the Deuche or any chance of a more sympathetically developed successor.

Now in reality there was probably little real appetite, either within PSA or indeed amongst the buying public at the time to consider such a car, and certainly once the AX model became available, it pretty much mopped up what few French 2CV (and LNA) owners there were left. The AX was thoroughly competent and commendably lightweight, but was, if anything, even more screamingly conventional than the Visa – which at least had the advantage of looking somewhat Citroënesque, not to mention being surprisingly pleasant to drive.

citroen-c15. (c) ranwhenparked

To some extent the Visa-based C15 took on the latter-day deux chevaux mantle, being practical, basic, economical and long lived – production only ceasing in 2005. Citroën’s 1996 Berlingo also could be said to have imbibed a similar spirit, but was perhaps a little too polished and definitely too pricey to truly qualify. Honourable mention as well to Renault’s original Twingo, not to mention the tiny twin-cylinder Aixams and Ligiers, which despite being somewhat more urban-centric in conception, nevertheless developed a loyal following throughout rural France.

And so to the Cactus. It is believed that it was originally intended to be a more basic and simplified car than the version which entered the market in 2014. What necessitated PSA changing tack may have had something to do with PSA’s own highly publicised financial woes earlier this decade, and conceivably a mistaken belief that the post-Eurozone crash market for back-to-basics cars wouldn’t last – a matter Dacia disabused the market of rather comprehensively in the years that followed.

Berlingo. (c) bestcarmag

Certainly, the Cactus had within it the hallmarks of a decent back-to-nature Citroën, even if it, like all putative modern-day 2CVs, was utterly conventional beneath the skin. Nevertheless, shorn of some of the more needless fripperies, there would have been a lot to commend a lightweight, practical and roomy car with only the barest of essentials added.

Manual windows, a single three cylinder petrol engine (and one diesel option perhaps), a large (manually operated?) sunroof, a simplified dash and IP – (no touchscreen or needless electronics) and a cheerful, hard wearing cabin ambience. Within this environment, the fold-out rear passenger windows might have been recognised as prudent cost-cutting measures (the 2CV’s equivalents didn’t open at all), rather than the penny-pinching they were (in my view) over-criticised for.

It is of course unclear as to whether the Cactus would have fared better in this form, but I suspect that it might. As Dacia has illustrated, the market for a decent, well executed, basically specified car is a healthy and vibrant one if executed well and given that the Cactus would have enjoyed the additional benefit of its own unique style, it’s possible see how such a car might have found a sustainable corps of customers without requiring a great deal of regular updates.

Some Cacti (c) Pinterest

What I suspect is that PSA management either realised somewhat belatedly that the Cactus’ business case could only be justified at a more expensive price-point, or that it was felt that this direction provided more profit per-unit, given the risks inherent in an unproven offering whose likely volumes could only really be guessed at. Either way, it paid a commercial price for Citroën’s indecision, entering the market as an ill-defined product – neither upmarket enough to justify the optimistic pricing nor austere enough to take on the Dacias of this world.

Contrast with the original 2CV – a car conceived to a clear, concise and rigorously adhered to mission and creative brief, but against that in retrospect, given its expensive mechanical specification, bespoke engine and platform, one has to wonder just how long it must have taken Citroën to have amortized the development costs.

At one time I might have been horrified by the notion of Citroën producing only basic downmarket vehicles – memories of large patrician saloons dying hard – but upon reflection, I’m not sure I wouldn’t prefer to see the double chevron making honest, intelligent, sensible, well thought-out and inexpensive cars again (assuming they were permitted to do so of course) rather than the part-cooked confections they routinely offer now.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

26 thoughts on “A Letter In Your Writing Doesn’t Mean You’re Not Dead”

  1. Wasn’t a big part of the design spec of the 2CV that it had to be robust and durable enough as well as ride comfortably to cope with the poor rural roads in post WW2 France ?

    It wasn’t just that it was a cheap, simple, air-cooled car (like the Beetle) but the requirement for bad road performance was major feature driving the design ?

    I don’t know France well enough, is that still a major factor ?

    1. Indeed. France’s Routes Nationales were not in good repair following two World Wars fought on much of its landmass. Deeper into the countryside, they were probably little more than dirt tracks. A significant component of the TPV brief was to allow for this state of affairs.

      These days, finding a really poor road surface in France seems (in my experience at least) to be something of a challenge – even in the Alpine regions, the surfaces are very well tended. I suspect that there simply isn’t the perceived necessity for long-travel suspension any more.

      If you really want to understand what a good road surface is, I recommend a few hours spent on a road (racing) bicycle. Yesterday I did a three hour ride out West Cork direction and well, let’s just say that Citroen’s brand of suspension was made for Irish road surfaces – and that I was most assuredly not.

    2. The performance requirements may have diminished in France but, there’s a definite need for them in the UK.

  2. I’ve always thought that the simplicity and utility of the original Cactus was rather contrived, certainly compared with the bottom of the range Dacia models. Those standard* big alloy wheels seemed incongruous on a vehicle intended to be basic transport. Why not plain steel wheels with regular profile tyres? The airbumps, whatever their practicality, seemed an unnecessary garnish: if you want a vehicle purely for transport, are you likely to worry about a parking ding? Entry level Dacias aren’t trying to look utilitarian, they are properly basic, with unpainted bumpers, steel wheels, no air-conditioning or even a radio. They do have (manual) opening rear windows though.

    * I’ve never seen one without alloy wheels, so I assume they’re standard fit.

    1. Parking dings are a big problem in hypermarket car parks, where the marked places have not kept up with wider people and their increasingly wider cars.
      Cuts their s/h value quite a bit.
      Hence Cactus.

    2. And yet, despite their supposed usefulness, the airbumps have been reduced to just a vestigial strip along the bottom of the doors on the updated Cactus. Perhaps potential Cactus buyers were put off by their utilitarian look? In any event, the Cactus has since been repositioned as a more conventional C-segment hatchback, to serve as an interim replacement for the slow selling regular C4, and its more utilitarian features considerably toned down. Maybe the market for the original Cactus’s approach to utilitarianism proved more limited than Citroen had hoped?

  3. Oh dear, you’ve left out Dyane, the successful successor to the Deuch, with similar mechanicals (the 603cc, I think).
    Then there was the ragtop thing, all corrugated panels, and designed to be hosed down inside and out.
    All three need revving hard, and have the bizarre gearbox.

    1. The original Deuch had the “tall” suspension travel so you could drive across your field with a flat container of eggs (64: 8X8) on the seat without it falling off and scrambling them.

  4. Aixams and Ligiers — there’s another, name forgotten — are for drivers who’ve lost their licences, hence called “sans permis”. Mustn’t seat more than two, and with what I call lawnmower engines. As the main reason for licence loss is drunk driving, I treat them warily.
    They’re quite expensive to buy, as makers know you have little choice if you live in the country. So, “popular”? Well… you get my drift.

    1. Micro Car and Aixam were others that were imported into the UK and could driven on a type 1 motorcycle license. These were initially marketed through the dying Reliant dealerships but have since been adopted by other dealers as solutions for towing behind motorhomes and suitable for motability schemes etc.
      Latest info is they are no longer imported due to latest pollution standards.
      Looks another prospect for electric conversion since they are used for limited travel mostly in built up areas plus their low weight would be an advantage for greater efficiency.
      I seem to recall an attempt in North America to convert the Microcar brand to electric and sell them as NEC’s (Neighbourhood Electric Vehicles) but that never happened.
      As always any low production vehicle is going to be expensive compared to the mainstream.

    2. As I understand it the original raison d’etre of the voiture sans permis was to provide basic motoring for those who had never inconvenienced themselves into obtaining a permis in the first place. It was only when the French started to remove the permis of those who had imbibed rather too much and then headed out on the road that the VSP entered into a new career catering for the dispossessed.
      Incidentally judges have the option of imposing an absolute ban on driving so not only can you be punished by having to hire a VSP for the duration (this is quite a big business) you can be more severely punished by not even having this choice.

  5. Dyane was to Deuche as 6 was to 4. Shared oily bits aiming higher. Early niche products or an admittance that a little more comfort is a good thing?

    Following the success of the R16 with its versatile interior, La Regie was bitten by the packaging bug. The VBG programme, of which the Renault Neutral was just one « answer » was the quest to replace a car that was as much a national symbol as Gauloises, un petit rouge et la baguette. the 4L.

    La Programme VBG, Voiture Bas De Gamme or entry level car, was to explore every avenue of small car packaging. Bellini’s Karasutra was undoubtedly an influence, and the way the interior could be used was explored in great depth. The programme spanned the years from 1973 to 1986, running in parallel with pretty much every Renault model from 5 to Supercinq!

    Gandini proposed a number of proposals during these years, the majority of which were propositions verging on the austere, such was the extent of the rationality applied. An exception to this approach was the « Piccola ». Gandini surprised and delighted by arriving from Turin with a large crate containing the component modules of the car that he proceeded to assemble from the platform up in a remarkably short time. The result was a riot of colour and playfulness that, had Renault had the money to set up a dedicated factory for its radical type of construction and produce it, would have redefined small car design.

    The programme did not bear fruit due to Renault being perpetually cash-strapped. Some of the genius made its way into the Matra that was nearly a Peugeot, the Espace.
    A little more found an outlet in Twingo. Equipped with the optional full-length fabric roof, a comfortable ride and the magical sliding rear bench, Twingo arguably replaced La Deuche..

    what a pity we have lost our way.

    If you want to know more, there is a fun little book en Français, « 50 Ans de Petites et Secrètes Renault » by Roger Guyot & Christophe Bonnaud that tells the story of what might have been.

  6. I am surprised that speaking about a car inspired to the 2CV and the R4 in the’80s, nobody has yet mentioned the Fiat Panda.

  7. Basic, or pretty much all you need?

    Had Renault been flush with Francs, perhaps companies would have flocked to him instead of to Giugiaro.

    Giugiaro pretty much dominated important small car design with Alfasud, Golf, Panda and Uno throughout the seventies and eighties. He kept Alfa, VW and Fiat alive. None could stayed the course without him.

    1. The Panda was closest to the Deuch in intention.
      The seats were like those you get for daily hire on beaches. And it felt as if it had an EU crash rating of zero. I had two friends who each had a 2CV and the Fiat, and the Deuch seems, even today, luxurious compared to the Fiat — which was so light even its tiny brakes worked worked well.

  8. I was thinking Panda and also the late 80s/ early nineties Cinquecento – again, perhaps a little small, but in basic forms wasn’t far off fulfilling the bill. Or, staying French, the Mk1 Kangoo?

    1. Kangoo, the game-changer, so quickly followed by Berlingo and Partner there was either corrupt collusion or efficient industrial espionage.

      The sliding rear doors are still with us on so many cars (and vans, of course). In family-loving France it was a whirlaway success for small kids/Isofix etc.

    2. Vic -the market researchers at the firms were looking at the same market. There are also people who move from one firm to the other. And there is the possibility the vans they were based on were working along similar model cycles. I feel the answer is a combination of staff movement and market environment. Spying on competitors cars is a risky business because you are merely entrusting your decision to the other firms´ morons in marketing. If you are going to make mistakes, make your own mistakes. There´s a longer discussion in the logic of industrial espionage regarding IP like cars. Maybe it makes sense to steal a successful formula; it might makes sense to copy once you´ve seen the product in action. For a risky thing like a car, it´s much less clear to me stealing ideas works.

  9. Ah, the Cactus. I was in Paris a couple of years ago and was able to conduct a little market research.
    I saw precisely two Cacti. However, standing outside the Ecole Militaire waiting the cross the road I was passed by an Enzo Ferrari. The only conclusion I could draw from this w2as that the Cactus was only twice as common as the Enzo.

    1. But the Cacti were transporting people, the Ferrari just prancing about the 6th saying “Look at me!).

      The name is odd, though. Cacti don’t need watering, but the car was determinedly waterproof.

    1. If memory serves, the main interior designer was an Irish chap by the name of Coughlan. I have not heard of him since. No relation to the singer, I presume.

  10. A few weeks ago, I saw the rear three-quarters of what looked like a “refreshed” Cactus. Closer inspection showed it wasn’t a Citroen, rather an Audi filling yet another niche in their vast line up – the Q2 (https://www.audi.co.nz/nz/web/en/models/q2/q2.html)

    Did someone down at Ingolstadt have a soft-spot for the Cactus?

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