The proud, if patchy tradition of the French grand tourisme didn’t quite end with the Citroën SM.
The French relationship to automotive luxury is similar to how Germans deal with fine food. Just as those stemming from east of the river Rhine tend to be more willing to spend a fortune on engine lubricants, rather than extra virgin olive oil, their more occidental counterparts usually gain more pleasure from visiting a fine auberge on a regular basis than a car showroom or garage. How he or she gets to said auberge is a secondary concern, too.
Yet, just as there are Germans who care deeply about fine food (Fritz Eichbauer being a particularly striking example of this), the French aren’t totally immune to the charms of decadent motoring either, as the erstwhile success of proud names like Bugatti or Facel proved. It was only some time after the war, and due in large part to stringent domestic luxury taxation, that the French GT found itself on the wane.
Needless to say, the bang with which the grand tourisme eventually went out, in the shape of the inimitable, unforgettable Sa Majesté, was so considerable that it could and should be considered a most appropriate farewell to a special kind of automobile.
And yet the way of the French GT didn’t quite end in 1975, when the last examples of the Citroën SM went off the Quai de Javel factory’s production line. For while the production grand tourisme indeed went the way of the dodo by that point, the concept remained alive for some more time – albeit solely on the show stand.
In 1998, three years after the brand had shown a rather convincing take at a grande berline, Renault unveiled Vel Satis. While by no means sporting the traditional long bonnet/large prestige gap/sloping rear that marked most GTs, Vel Satis translated the grand tourisme ideals into an unusual, contemporary variation on the theme.
Ostensibly front-wheel driven, Vel Satis’s form turns the supposed disadvantage into a virtue. Arrow-like in its profile – despite a very long front overhang and cab-forward architecture, the coupé challenged preconceptions not unlike the SM did in impact terms, almost three decades prior.
While it obviously didn’t enter series production, Vel Satis did leave some traces on cars that did. In terms of its concept, the (in)famous Avantime MPV coupé could be seen as a taller, larger take on Vel Satis. The four-door car of the same name boasted some stylistic details (particularly around the front end) borrowed from its GT progenitor, but none of its grace – despite being penned by the same designer, Florian Thiercelin. The astounding second-generation Mégane (also styled by Thiercelin) also took a few cues from Vel Satis.
However, for four years, Renault’s modernist GT remained without concrete consequence. Until the 2002 Paris Motor Show, when Citroën – possibly spurred by Renault’s grande tour(isme) de force – unveiled the C-Airdream, the brand’s first proper take on a GT since the SM.
Part of Citroën design’s revival under chief designer, Jean-Pierre Ploué, the C-Airdream could be seen as the coupé counterpart to the C6 grande berline. Despite sporting a Kamm tail and shooting brake architecture, C-Airdream’s appearance – penned by Mark Lloyd – is rather more conservative than Vel Satis’ and not aiming to emulate the SM through any overt retro cues.
Again, despite spawning no production model, C-Airdream acted as a precursor to some other production cars, as some of its design details would later on be found on the 2004 C4 coupé and 2007 C5.
With coupés since having lost most of their status as exceptionally prestigious members within a car makers’ hierarchy to various SUV variations – not to mention the French marques having finally given up on trying to enter the ‘premium’ sector, it appears unlikely that we’ll get to see any future takes on the grande tourisme in the foreseeable future, whether in concept or production car form.
Against this backdrop of a distinguished, storied class of automobile’s decent into meaninglessness, to lament the fleeting nature of both Vel Satis and the C-Airdream appears somewhat feeble.
The unrealised dream of the past, it would seem, is an awful lot more worthwhile than the dreams of today turned reality, after all.
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