Non-Conformist (Part One)

The future arrived in 1970. It was called GS.

(c) citroenorigins

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.

(c) Citroenorigins

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.

Pininfarina proposal for BMC. (c) allcarindex

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.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

31 thoughts on “Non-Conformist (Part One)”

  1. Good morning Eóin. I hadn’t heard of Citröen’s Projet F before, so googled it after reading your excellent piece. Here’s a rendering of how it might have looked:

    If one searches for images, there is a fascinating range of Citröen prototypes to be seen, including this one:

    With hindsight, it probably was the right decision to cancel it and start again. Whatever the car’s technical merits, it was really beginning to look rather outdated by the late 1960’s, and the 1965 Renault 16 and 1968 Renault 6 pre-empted the style in a rather more contemporary manner (Projet F’s nose treatment excepted). I doubt that Projet F would have been able to bridge the chasm between Citröen’s smaller models and the DS in the way the GS successfully did.

    One decision regarding the GS’s design has always intrigued me, the fact that it had a boot rather than the hatchback it appeared to be designed for. That said, the profile was chosen for aerodynamics rather than utility, and has any car ever had a more easily accessible boot than the GS?

    Looking forward to Part Two.

    1. These are absolutely wonderful machines from the steering to the suspension and on to the design. They are analagous to Teslas today but still much more futuristic. It´s a shame they were so rust-prone and fragile.

    2. I would imagine/guess the GS’ lack of rear hatch was due to issues related to torsional rigidity.

    3. Christopher: Allegedly Pierre Bercot vetoed the adoption of a rear hatch, decreeing it to be too utilitarian. Given that he was content for the SM to have an opening rear hatch, I’m not sure I necessarily buy that explanation, but separate boot compartments were very much the order of play at the time. The Alfasud, the Fiat 127, the Peugeot 104 were all introduced as four-door saloons, with hatch versions following later – in the ‘Sud’s case, almost a decade into its life. But that’s another story.

    4. Given the angle of the G60 prototype’s front door leading-edge shut-line (and implied hinge pivot points) it most have taken a hell of a push to open it from inside!

    5. Thanks, Dave. The upper pivot point must have been well forward of the shutline, with a ‘goose-neck’ of some sort attacking it to the door to allow the door to open ‘horizontally’. I guess they felt it worth the effort to reinforce that ‘swept-back’ stance.

      Incidentally, I believe it’s a C60, not G60.

    6. Read the dimensions of Project F were closer to the Renault 6 then the Renault 16, it is also interesting to note the Giugiaro styling for what became the Alfasud was proposed to Citroen during the development of the GS though could easily see the Alfasud’s styling working on an updated version of Project F.

      As a matter of fact Citroen in a number of respects would have probably been better off collaborating with Alfa Romeo on both common platforms and Flat-4 engines upon thinking about it further (along with possibly the Alfa V6), even NSU could have benefited given a Flat-6 was considered in place of the rotary in the Ro80 via a water-cooled Flat-4/6 equivalent of the PRV engine instead of the costly blind alley that is rotary engines.

      As for the C60 project, the styling could have worked better at the rear had it featured a fastback rear akin to the Citroen Ami 8 or even a fastback hatchback, it even had the benefit of a 1430cc Flat-4 engine unlike rather vexingly the GS that never received a Flat-4 larger then 1300cc (when it needed larger displacements of at least 1500-2000cc).

      A water-cooled 1450cc Flat-4 was belatedly considered at the end of the 1970s as an ultimate GS engine, however it remained no more then an investigation and development was discontinued due to PSA’s preference for transversely-mounted inline engines. Have to wonder though whether a connection exists between the water-cooled 1450cc Flat-4 and the 95 hp 1654cc flat-4 used in the Citroen Project L prototype that later formed the basis of the CX.

    7. A French myth is that the GS’ engine was Panhard’s late revenge on Citroen for having been treated badly after the takeover. How any engineer in his right mind could design a brand new air cooled engine as late as 1970/71 is beyond my recognition. That air cooling was the wrong way to go was long known at least outside Germany (where lots of people never in their life would have bought a water cooled engine because they had seen them freeze up in Stalingrad) where cars like 911, NSU Prinz and VW 411 got new air cooled engines in the late Sixties.
      The engine clearly was the GS’ weakest point. At the beginning the engines were short lived with an average life span of around 20,000 kms because Citroen specified the wrong oil, the engines always had an allergy against damp and cold weather and the whole thing was hopelessly underpowered like many French cars from that time.
      In addition the whole thing was an absolute nightmare to work on. If you wanted to do anything under the bonnet of a GS you needed a second garage to store the parts you had to dismantle. To change the clutch you had to take off the front bumper, front valence, grille, headlights and indicator units and some more – then you could pull the engine forwards because it had no mountings of its own but was just bolted to the gearbox. To change the front brake pads you had to take out the complete heater – a large metal box and umpteen metres of cardboard tubing with an air cooled engine.

    8. I had one in my younger years, a GS 1220. Absolutely loved that car, it was so far ahead of any of its contemporaries (possibly bar the Alfasud). It was seemingly invisible to the local traffic police, much to the annoyance of my friends who were getting pulled over on a regular basis in their Escorts and the likes.

      Now onto part 2!

  2. I’m always slightly sceptical of drag coefficients quoted for older cars. However, given a mere fourteen years later the similarly-shaped Opel Kadett E/Vauxhall Astra had a CD of 0.32, the GS’s figure seems plausible.

    What baffles me is why the CX – whose name means drag coefficient – by comparison has a poor drag coefficient of 0.36. It’s even more perplexing when you consider that it’s more difficult to achieve lower figures for smaller cars.

  3. (Mention of Vittorio Storaro’s outstanding work on Il Conformista urges me to post at least one of the film’s exquisitely composed frames:)

    1. Three door GSs were sold as GS Service (panel van) GS Break Commerciale (with windows).
      They were very popular with ‘Postes’

  4. The GS has been overshadowed by the DS, SM and CX, although, arguably, it was a greater engineering achievement than any of them. It received the horizontally opposed engine which the DS was denied, one of the results of which was better packaging. It was, arguably a greater advance for its class than was the CX. There are touches of the Issigonis in that it’s single-mindedly a car designed by engineers, and even the styling owes more to physics than art.

    Looking forward to part two.

    1. The ‘Issigonis touches’ go far further than the GS’s spirit and philosophy. Just check the rear subframe, trailing arms and Hydropneumatic displacers.

      Sorry Eóin, if I’ve stolen any of your fire for Part Two.

    2. The rear subframe, trailing arms (on taper roller bearings) and hydropneumatic suspension are very similar on all Citroens from DS to BX/XM and are therefore much older than anything from BMC or whatever it was called at that time.

  5. When looking at the C60 prototype above, I came across this early prototype for the CX:

    It looks much more like the GS than the production model, apart from the front end, of course.

  6. The only thing I can say about the GS is that I’ve never driven one, and I regret that I have never driven one – and I’ve driven many (exotic) cars in my life – what a shame.
    What fascinates me about the GS is that he was, for me in a way, the last Panhard – or at least there is something of some kind of spirit.

  7. Lovely little car. I have a soft spot for boxer engines and air cooled engines, so this one ticks both boxes. The GS’s unit was the last air cooled car engine designed from the ground up in Europe. From what I’ve heard the timing belt was hard to replace, which made it a costly bit of maintenance, sometimes more costly than the actual worth of the car at a given time, and apparently the reason why many GS’s ended up on the scrapheap. Another rumor I heard that it’s very easy to put the timing belt the wrong way round. Not sure if there’s any truth to these rumors, but there are few around these days. Could of course just be a rust issue as well.

    1. I had a GSA for 9 months or so; a C-matic Pallas. Great fun, and very rusty. I also had a DS (Borg Warner auto!) and Visa at the same time. I was young, single and obviously had more money than sense, but it was fun!

      Great article Eóin.

    2. Freerk, you are correct about the cambelt change being expensive. It required quite a bit of the front of the car to be removed, as I recall, and I think the interval was 36,000 miles. I never did it on either of the two I had and fortunately neither one went bang, despite some quite provocative driving (I was a bit Carlos Fandango in my youth). And they did rust and the fuel consumption wasn’t great (27-28ish, if memory serves, but the leaden hoof and fondness for the necessary revs can’t have helped), the seats collapsed and the door locks could be opened with a fingernail. But the ride, handing, brakes, style and smooth (and spankable, as we have seen) engine were a million miles from the dismal, porridgey dross of the contemporary Cortina/Marina/Allegro ilk; it was like having a grown-up, sophisticated proper car for people who couldn’t otherwise afford one. And the affording was especially easy secondhand, too, in the UK where most people were frightened off by the “complicated” reputation. I loved them.

    3. The problem with the GS was that everytime you had to do major work on the engine like replacing the clutch or cambelts you first had to get the car in this condition

    4. I haven’t changed any timing belts on other cars, so there is not much I can compare. But I’ve done it on a GS, and it wasn’t too difficult for me as a non-mechanic. The key is to have a good manual and to work carefully in order not to place the two (!) belts the wrong way. And yes, there are some parts to be dismantled, which takes some time if you aren’t doing this every day. But after that it’s very accessible. I can imagine that on a car with transverse engine, there is much less space for your hands. The hardest parts was actually to open the large nut on the crankshaft – two persons and a one-metre lever were required.

  8. In CAR March 1971, Setright’s explanation of Citröen’s reasons for choosing air cooling for the GS are frankly a bit lame; elimination of several points of failure (gaskets, seals, pumps, hoses, belts), weight reduction. He admits that “the provision of hot air to the passenger compartment is erratic and feeble”, which I would have thought would be a bloody big deal in Northern and Alpine Europe.

    Mention is also made that “an oil cooler of a good size is necessary” a reminder that large and complex air-cooled engines also use their lubricating oil as a heat transfer medium.

    SAE bhp for the 1015cc GS engine is quoted as 67bhp at 6750rpm, whereas the DIN figure is 55.5bhp at 6500rpm. LJKS speculates that while some of the difference is down to exhaust arrangements which can vary from the as-installed condition, the major loss is through the big crankshaft-driven fan blowing into complex trunking.

    I had to refer to Julian Marsh’s excellent Citröenet to confirm something I’d heard many years before about an expedient rework made very early in production:

    “At launch, in October 1970, the carburettor hotspot was heated by engine oil, but this gave problems with slow warm-up, so a revised heating arrangement using exhaust gas was used. This lasted throughout the life of the engine, though it made one of the most complicated exhaust systems around – 12 different pipes and 9 clamps of 4 different types.”

    Best laid plans, etc…

    All of which is fuel to the argument that water cooling may have been a better idea. Borgward and Wartburg both thought so with their late ‘50s VW inspired flat-fours. (Wartburg’s never made it to production, Borgward made two different ones without any major parts in common.)

    I’m also put in mind of the near-schism at Honda over the 1969 1300, a near contemporary of the GS. Takeo Fujisawa, co-founder of the company and Soichiro’s “straight man” and future Honda president Tadashi Kume, had a bitter dispute with Soichiro Honda about the continued development of air-cooled automobile engines.

    Quoting from Tetsuo Sadaki’s ‘Honda Motor’ book:

    Fujisawa’s mind was made up “If Mr. Honda refuses a water-cooled engine, this would mean that he is following a path different from mine. If the two of us cannot go in the same direction, our teamwork will not function”. Honda told Fujisawa “The same thing can be achieved with an air cooled engine, bit I guess that’s difficult for a man like you to understand”.

    Fujisawa replied “You can continue to serve as president of our company, or you can join the engineers at Honda Motor. I think you should choose now”. Honda’s reply was “I’m sure I should continue to be president”.

    “Then,”Fujisawa said, “You will permit your engineers to work on water-cooled engines, won’t you?”

    “I will,” Honda agreed.

    I find myself wondering if such stand-offs took place at the Quai de Javel. The air-cooled Honda 1300 was a disaster for Honda. The Citröen GS was a sales success, and an enduring object of reverence for observers of car design, but going down the air-cooled route looks like an act of wilful non-conformity rather than fully-considered pure and progressive engineering.

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