The future arrived in 1970. It was called GS.
Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1970 Franco-Italian feature film, The Conformist is billed as a cinematic masterpiece. Set during the 1930s fascist-era Italy, its themes of politics, betrayal, and psycho-sexual guilt, framed within Vittorio Storaro’s lavish cinematography remain as provocative today as they were when first screened in cinemas half a century ago.
As the 1960s gave way, France had witnessed a stark moment of unease in the Spring of 1968 when the conformism of French society was violently challenged in the streets of Paris by a younger generation, determined to change society. The Republic entered the new decade having witnessed the retirement of veteran President, Charles de Gaulle the previous year (he passed away suddenly in 1970) and the ascension of the more emollient and progressive Georges Pompidou, coinciding with a burgeoning sense of the new, within both political and technological spheres.
In Paris’ Quai de Javel, Citroën Director General, the urbane and cultured Pierre Bercot had espoused his own brand of high concept non-conformism. Bercot, hardly the average auto executive, believed that the motor car represented a significant step forward for mankind, espousing the notion of it as a liberating force for good. His views were made flesh in 1970 with a product offensive which really could have taken the Soixante-Huitard’s fly-posted slogan, “Do not adjust your mind, there is a fault with reality” as its leitmotif.
Because while one might reasonably expect a luxurious and indulgent GT bearing the double chevron [Citroën’s 1970 SM] to be as otherworldly as it looked, few could have predicted such a similarly advanced recipe to be repeated at the lower end of the market, in what we now would now term the C-segment. Introduced at that year’s Paris motorshow, the advent of the GS left showgoers, journalists and rivals gobsmacked, but while its gestation had been long-anticipated, it was anything but straightforward.
Citroën had made several attempts at bridging the divide between the sylvan 2CV and the patrician ID/DS throughout the 1960s, but the closest production approximation was the 1961 Ami 6 – and while commercially successful, it was hardly the median-class vehicle Citroën so desperately needed. In 1964, Projet F was initiated, a mid-sized five-door hatchback, which would sit above the Ami in entry level form, culminating in a Comotor rotary-Wankel, junior DS version.
There are a variety of opinions as to why Projet F was abruptly cancelled in 1967, when much of the development was complete and the tooling allegedly paid for, but politics is probably the most plausible answer. The following year Bercot would sign the shortlived PARDEVI accord with Fiat, where the Italian car giant would take over the 49% shareholding from Michelin and the two carmakers would (in theory) forge alliances on certain product lines. It’s unclear how much the cancellation of the F programme impacted on Bercot’s decision to pursue a tie-up but with Michelin keen to divest themselves of the carmaker, and the considerable costs Projet F’s axing incurred, the double chevron clearly needed a collaborator.
Especially since Bercot had embarked on an ambitious programme of new models to be developed either solely or in the case of the SM, with Maserati, who Citroën had acquired in 1968. Initiated in the wake of Projet F’s cancellation, Projet G marked a fresh approach.
Sitting broadly within where Panhard’s B/CT models had once resided (they were phased out in 1967) the GS would be powered by an aircooled lightweight alloy flat four engine. With a launch capacity of 1015 cc, it produced 55 bhp at 6,500 rpm (although like the Becchia flat twin it was distantly related to, it was designed to run for extended periods at engine speeds up to 8,000 rpm).
Expense was not spared. The cylinder heads for example, were machined to such tolerances that head gaskets were not required. This compact and lightweight powerplant was mounted longitudinally, driving the front wheels through equal-length driveshafts, which eliminated the risk of wheel fight (a typical FWD bugbear at the time).
Double wishbones located the driven wheels, with an updated version of Citroën’s now thoroughly-proven self-levelling oleopneumatic damping. Owing to lead engineer, Paul Magès’ insistence on true centre point steering (where the steering axis of the steered wheels correlates exactly with the centre of the tyre contact patch with no offset at the road surface), the necessity for power assistance, and potential instability in the event of a front tyre blowout was negated. Citroën had also been making their own brakes since the advent of the DS in 1955, so as a first in-sector, the GS was fitted with discs all round, the fronts mounted inboard to minimise unsprung weight. Needless to say, they too formed part of the oleopneumatic ringmain.
In 1962, Robert Opron was appointed as an assistant to design chief, Flaminio Bertoni, assuming his position in the aftermath of the talented Italian’s sudden death in February 1964. Having inherited the rather homespun looking Projet F design, Opron stated that he was driven by the pursuit of aerodynamics in overseeing the shape of the GS. Less outré than the concurrent SM which he also oversaw, it was however almost as uncompromising.
The GS bodyshape was characterised by a low penetrating nose, a two-volume silhouette, smooth, but defined flanks, semi-enclosed rear wheels and a sharply vertical Kamm-tail – themes which would be reprised and further refined in the full-sized 1974 CX saloon.
In its most wind-cheating form the GS boasted a drag coefficient of just 0.318 – a remarkable figure for a compact saloon in 1970. It has been widely suggested that Opron drew inspiration from the second of Pininfarina’s Aerodynamica studies for BMC in 1967/8, and while it is certainly an possibility, the timelines suggest more a case of designers thinking along broadly similar lines.
After all, the Frenchman had drawn up an even more forward-looking two volume proposal at the Rue de Théâtre styling studios in 1964. Furthermore, in Jacques Charreton, Jean Giret, Henri Dargent, amongst others, (the latter believed to have been heavily involved in refining GS, SM and CX body styles), Opron certainly was hardly short of design talent – the resultant shape more resolved and cohesive than Pininfarina’s BMC proposal. A neat touch of continuity saw faint reflections of the contemporary Ami 8 in the rear three quarter treatment.
The GS’ streamlined shape was partly a means of mitigating the car’s small capacity engine – a product of France’s punitive vehicle taxation regime, which levied against larger swept volumes. The car’s low-drag silhouette, delightfully smooth-running, rev-happy power unit, combined with sprint gearing meant that the one-litre engine GS could keep pace with more powerful rivals – providing one wasn’t too concerned with fuel consumption.
Inspired by Dargent’s design for the SM’s facia, Michel Harmand created a sweeping, modernist dash design, with a characteristic uncompromising instrument cluster, introducing what would become the time-honoured rotating drum speedometer. (This however would be replaced by a neat if rather orthodox set of Veglia guages in certain RHD markets). But even the double chevron had to bow to the conformists sometimes.
Read the concluding part here.