Non-Conformist (Part Two)

Concluding our brief overview of Citroën’s epochal GS.

Image: Citroen UK

In 1970, the European motor press voted the GS its car of the year. The award, Automobiles Citroën’s first ever European Car of the Year award, was formally presented in February 1971 to Pierre Bercot’s successor as Director General, Raymond Ravenel in the Hilton Hotel in Amsterdam.

Hailing 1971 as “the year of the GS”, Ravenel told assembled journalists and dignitaries, “The public was quick to ratify the press’ judgment en masse and in a few weeks [following] the launch of the car, we recorded some forty-five thousand orders.” The GS amassed twice as many votes as the second placed car, the VW K70. Remarkably, Citroën’s flagship SM was placed third.

In August the same year, Motor Sport magazine’s William Boddy spent several weeks in the company of two examples of Rennes-la-Janais’ finest. Boddy, a noted proponent of European cars and consequently the scourge of the domestic industry was rather taken by what he described as a “brilliant, not easily faulted, little car.

There is no need to be verbose, to embellish“, he went on to say. “The absence-of-lean, fast cornering on dry or wet roads, the comfort of the ever-level ride (adjustable to three heights by moving the hydraulics control lever) and the high safety factor which these qualities, together with instant dodgeability from light, quick, taut rack-and-pinion steering embrace, have no equal“.

But while the GS’ ride and road behaviour garnered high praise (“A peasant’s Silver Shadow!“), acceleration made less of an impression. “Top speed is just 90 mph, quick for a one-litre car. It is possible to wind up to over 50 mph in second and more than 70 mph in third gear, but a 0-60 time of 18 seconds is depressing.” Furthermore, while Boddy found the Citroën to be a decidedly pleasant companion, it was a rather noisy one. “The all-indirect gearbox emits an eternal hum, less noticeable, however, on the later car but the engine was still tediously busy“, he noted.

That same year a C-Matic, semi-automatic version was announced. This employed a three speed transmission with a torque converter. This eliminated the clutch pedal, which proved a boon for most drivers, but didn’t do wonders for performance or economy.

Like Motor Sport’s veteran critic, the wider auto press clamoured for more power and in September 1972, Citroën answered the call with a larger capacity 1222 cc version of the existing flat four, delivering an additional 5 bhp and improved driveability. Further expansion had already arrived in January of the same year with the advent of a ‘break’ estate, (as well as a three-door commerciale version).

Non-conformists were out in force it appears; 160,930 GS’ finding new homes in 1971 and ’72, with double chevron sales allegedly moving past Belfort’s lion – in the domestic market at least. At its sales peak, the GS was France’s best selling car, with 20,000 examples leaving Citroën’s Brittany plant every month, but the model sold strongly throughout the ’70s. The GS was also assembled in Spain, Portugal, the former Yugoslavia, South Africa, and Indonesia.

Timing is everything in life, and for the much-heralded rotary engined GS flagship, it could not have been worse. Announced in 1973, the GS Birotor* was forced to contend with not only the negative publicity that had built up around NSU’s failing rotaries, but also that year’s oil embargo, which killed the model’s prospects virtually overnight. The losses incurred from the programme would prove to be ruinous.

A very mild facelift sufficed for mainstream GS models in 1977, which would coincide with the model’s sales peak, where slightly over 248,000 were sold. The most minor of cosmetic changes were accorded to the grille, tail lamps and wheeltrims, while inside, conventional instrumentation was now fitted across all markets. Technically, the 1015 cc entry level engine was substituted for a slightly stronger 1129 cc unit, while trim levels also received a tweak.

A more comprehensive reimagining was prepared however for the 1980 model year, when it gained a fifth door, heavily revised nose and tail styling, a completely new and radically designed dashboard and a new name – GSA*. And there matters largely remained until the G-series was discontinued.

1979 GSA. Image via Pinterest

Probably the most technically advanced C-segment car ever produced in quantity, the GS proved to be the most ambitious manifestation of Quai de Javel’s egalitarian principles. Given that production would amount to something in the region of 2.5 million, it must be considered a success, even if profitability remains an unanswered question given the depth of its engineering, its development and production costs.

Perhaps in retrospect it might have been an error for Citroën to pursue volume instead of pricing the GS in a manner commensurate with its technical sophistication. The model was after all on another planet to anything remotely on speaking terms of rivalry – certainly until the advent of a remarkably similar concept from Arese. Nevertheless, it remains unquestionable that the GS, despite stronger sales than its Neapolitan antagonist, arrived much too late to significantly aid its maker’s bottom line.

Writing in the March 1971 edition of Car, the orotund Leonard Setright confidently predicted that the advent of the GS must result in the wider industry having to re-evaluate the calibre and substance of what it would offer the public over the coming decade, decrying what he considered a “lemming-like rush towards a sea of mediocrity…

A rash hope, as we now know, but in his defence the dawn of the Seventies promised to be a new frontier in design, in sophistication and in technology. Certainly for this brief period Citroën’s ambitions appeared boundless. Perhaps if fate had not dealt its fell hand in 1973, or indeed had their Michelin parent stayed the course, the subsequent reversal may have been less dramatic, but Citroën’s scientific approach to car design was always going to be something of a high-wire act.

In 1970 the future beamed down from Quai de Javel. The world didn’t really want to listen, and the GS, perhaps the most intelligent compact saloon of all, died quietly in 1986 largely un-mourned, its genius dashed against more powerful and seemingly irresistible forces of conformity.

*Both GS Birotor and GSA will be covered at DTW separately.

Credits: Motor Sport magazine/ Car magazine/ Robert Opron: L’Automobile et L’art / Citroengs.nl (production data)/ Marc Stabèl (Author – GS & GSA – Citroën’s Avant-Garde Mid-Range Cars).

The text has been amended to reflect more accurate information in a number of areas.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

25 thoughts on “Non-Conformist (Part Two)”

  1. A great retrospective, thank you Eóin. You make an interesting point regarding pricing. Such a technically dense car could never compete on price with the conventionally engineered cars that were commonplace in the C-segment at the time. To buy a GS, one needed really to value its difference to the mainstream and the people who did might have been willing to pay more for it.

  2. Great stuff. Reminds me of the Car of the Year reprint in my tiny collection, which featured a fascinating interview with some of the engineers involved in the GS – literally in a world of their own!

    Those sales figures in its earliest years seem scarcely believable?

    Looking forward now to the GSA and Birotor follow-ups.

    1. You’re right about the sales figures SV. They were somewhat optimistic. I had queried them in my own head and intended to review them before publishing, but it slipped my mind. I have discovered more accurate data and have amended accordingly.

      The GSA perhaps hit the market a little too late, and while it kept the model line going as the BX slowly engulfed it, it never sold as strongly as the earlier car. And while it was a credible facelift, the visual changes didn’t really improve the car’s appearance.

  3. That was a good read, thanks Eóin. I’m still trying to get my addled brain around true centre point steering. Trying to understand why it isn’t more prevalent and what the disadvantages are.

    1. I found a Setright article on steering geometry recently which might help. I’ll look at it again and see if I can precis the arguments…

    2. If I recall, from a 1970s WV “Rabbit” [Golf Mk1] TV commercial which demonstrated in dramatic fashion how a low scrub radius will reduce a vehicle’s tendency to veer sharply in the case of a catastrophic front tyre blowout (or a single sided brake failure). Crucially, a negative as opposed to a positive scrub radius vastly improves an alert driver’s ability to control the resulting skid.

      Here’s a white paper on the topic (yes I recall that correctly):

      Click to access local_201870.pdf

      I also found the Wikipedia entry on scub radius to be enlightening:

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scrub_radius

      WV of course neglected to mention that negative scrub radius is a mere side effect of MacPherson struts, and was in fact common on FWD cars since the 1930s, ostensibly to reduce torque steer, but VW of America had a legendary ad agency.

      Yes, Michael please do. Facts are boring compared with an LJKS reconnoitering.

    3. As a thought experiment draw a vertical line through the middle of the front tyre’s tread and another through the points around which the wheel is swivelled when the steering is used.
      Look at the points where those lines meet the surface under the tyre.
      http://www.kfzmesstechnik.de/s/cc_images/cache_2411802962.jpg?t=1328197413
      If the line going through the tyre is outboard of the line through the suspension you get a positive scrub radius which means that the tyre is rolling around the steering swivelling axis on a convex arc. The length of the scrub radius is the lever for forces trans mitted through the tyre resulting in torque acting on the steering. Once you apply the brake with one wheel on tarmac and the other on ice the resulting torque action on the steering will turn the steering in the direction of the tarmac when a car has a positive scrub radius.
      Audi gave the 80 B1 a negative scrub radius (the first car to be deliberately designed that way) which would make the car steer in the direction of the ice in the above case, thereby stabilising the car. The price you pay is that with a negative scrub radius the steering feedback is always the wrong way round.
      With a scrub radius of zero there is no lever to use for transmitting any torque to the steering and therefore the car is very stable. The price you pay is that there is no steering feedback of surface conditions and the steering is extraordinarily heavy because the tyre isn’t rolling when the steering is used but it is rotated on its tread. You can feel it in the GS which has very heavy steering for a car of such low weight. Citroen started designing their cars with scrub radius zero with the DS and in addition made PAS designs filtering out any torque effects on the steering anyway – starting with the balance beam mechanism of the DS and culminating in DIRAVI which hydraulically locks the steering rack.

    4. The idea of centre point steering is quite old. I can trace it back to 1922 Voisin C3, but it might be even older then that. André Lefebvre was greatly influenced by Gabriel Voisin and like him also believed that center point steering was of vital importance for safe and good steering characteristics. Back then the centre point solution was achieved by a combination of wheel camber and the inclination of the king pin.

      Mounting the disc brakes inside resulted not only in a reduction of unsprung mass, but also allowed for the upper and lower ball joints of the front suspension to be placed in such a way that they acted as a kingpin with perfect centre point alignment. This is the solution used in the DS. I’ve never really seen the front suspension in a DS, but I’m guessing they’re similar.

      Know that I’m typing this I’m wondering if the GS has the half shafts angled backward, like in a DS, so that the inner wheel can turn more in order to achieve a smaller turning radius.

    5. In a kingpin steering the wheels have to turn so that lines drawn through each wheel’s hub all meet in one point. This automatically leads to the need for the inner front wheel to turn much more than the outer wheel because otherwise the tyre would scrub instead of roll through a corner. As room for thus movement is limited most manufacturers go for a mix of scrub and roll for the benefit of a tighter turning circle. This can be seen at big BMWs whoch tilt the inner wheel on its edge to reduce friction from this scrub effect. Alfa went for a clean ‘Ackermann’ geometry with lots of movement of the inner wheel and an excessively large turning circle with their 156/166 whìch give perfectly clean steering feel as a result.

    6. Having spent most of the 1980s with an early Chrysler Alpine , I can confirm that centre-point steering gives you little feedback and big arm muscles ( but great stability). Later Alpines had power steering.

  4. Interesting article – thank you.

    I came across this 1972 GS Camargue study by Gandini – Bertone pitching for future work, I guess.

    I also found a very 1970s ad for the GS. ‘The ride is so smooth, you won’t lose the ash from your cigar’.

  5. I’d say Citroën GS was ‘Car of 20th Century’. ‘Car of Year 1971’ is unfair, derogatory.
    There is still room for improvement in Wankel RCE, the Citroën M-35 single rotor, liquid and oil cooled, 495 cc per chamber, 50 HP engine was intended having lower production costs than their existing Flat-Twin air cooled 602 cc engine. Any company producing Reciprocating engines can produce Wankel rotaries. Blessings +

    1. Producing a rotary engine is fundamentally different from producing reciprocating engines.
      On piston engines you need machine tools just rotating around a fixed axis to drill, grind and hone the bores. You can create tolerance classes where ranges of bore diameter and piston size are matched.
      For a rotary engine you need machine tools moving in very compley patterns to grind the trochoid surface. You also have to grind the trochoid and rotor to exactly the designed dimensions or y0u throw them away because the form of troichoid and rotor are immediately linked to the movement of the rotor – there are no tolerance classes (this also is the reason why there is no way of reboring a Wankel to an oversize trochoid).
      The only Wankel design coming anything like close to piston engine costs is the Wieland ‘sheet metal’ design where the engine ‘block’ and rotor are stamped and welded up from stainless steel sheets and tubings and the trochoid is bent from a strip of steel laser welded to a seamless surface.

  6. 2.5 million is an incredible sales number for that car. It is almost exactly the same number as for the DS and CX combined, with ID/DS production tallying 1.4 million units, and CX production tallying 1.2 million units. I’m actually stunned.

    1. I tried to find more detailed numbers, but without much success.

      Here are some comparisons, possibly neither clever nor clean:

      GS/GSA (1970-86): 2.5 millon
      BX (1982-94): 2,315,739
      ZX (1990-98*): 2.7 million

      For comparison, the BMC/BLMC 1100-1300 (1961-73) achieved 2,365,420 units in its 12 year life. I think comparison with the GS is valid. Both cars were so advanced that customer resistance might have been expected, yet they were hugely successful, and were regular best-sellers in their home markets. Regrettably both were flawed designs, and most of the wrongs remained unrighted for their entire production life. Both manufacturers preferred to gloss over the failings while making occasional superficial updates, but at least both cars got much-needed mid-life power upgrades. At least Citröen offered everyone the five-door when it arrived; only the Antipodeans got the 5 door BLMC ADO16, for which they were less than grateful.

      The BX numbers confirm what a success it was – one of the cars which saved PSA. The UK liked it far more than it did the GS, helped by it being the cheapest way to buy five seats, a state-of-the-art diesel, and power steering. It deserved the title of “The Englishman’s Citröen” previously conferred on the Slough-built Traction Avant.

      *It’s not clear if this includes later Chinese ZX production.

    2. The GS was, despite its flaws, a success not only in France. True, it never reached Opel or VW levels of sales in Switzerland, but it was ubiquitous, especially as an estate. You got five doors, a square boot with a very low floor and no loading sill, and safe handling and braking also under full load. Competitors were sparse and often flawed by only being available with three doors, and having restricted boot space by high floors (RWD) and intrusive wheelarches.

      One of the funniest things when I acquired my GS some 15 years ago was the following: when I described what car it was, most people knew about the DS, but were not aware of the GS. But when shown the photos, many of them remembered it – “oh, we had one of those” or “my uncle drove one”…

  7. Thanks for this delightful little series, Eóin! It’s nice to see something written about my favourite car of all.
    It makes me want to go to my garage, see all the dismantled bits assembled again, get on board and drive a curvy tour with open windows. I’ve never had such a delightful drive in any other car, despite the noises and not too powerful engine.

    1. A considerable number of Citroenistes rate the GS as the hydropneumatic Citroen with the best comfort, better even than SM and CX. Taking into account the competition like Kadett, Escort, VW Typ 3 the GS was from another universe, matched only by the Alfasud which was in the same league technically but a completely different (and very Italian) interpretation.

    2. If the GS has the best comfort depends a little on the definition of the latter. The combination of all-effacing softness and light-footed cornering ability is indeed unmatched. The steering is a special delight as well, once the car is moving at road speeds. The CX is much more nose-heavy and a bit more unwieldy. And it suffered from harder suspensions and thicker anti-roll bars over the years (due as well to higher power outputs), something the GS was spared over its whole lifetime. The CX also feels more planted and has excellent stability due to its longer wheelbase.
      Its strongest points over the GS are certainly noise comfort, heating and better seats. Taken these into account, the GS’s advantage is not so clear. I can’t comment on the SM, though, which I’ve never driven.

  8. A rather fine book has been written on the G-Series. Authored by Marc Stabèl, it covers both GS and GSA models, their development and subsequent career. Following the above articles going live, Marc kindly got in touch and put me straight on a number of points of fact, his researches being far in advance of mine. You will therefore find that the text has been modified in places to reflect this.

    His insights illuminated a number of aspects I would never have otherwise discerned. For instance, as related by Robert Opron, Ital Design offered Pierre Bercot and his board a proposal for Projet-G. This concept, favourably received by Raymond Ravenel, was rejected by Bercot in favour of Opron’s proposal. This Giugiaro proposal was subsequently and successfully offered to Alfa Romeo, evolving into the Alfasud model of 1971.

    The GS press launch took place in Rosapenna Co. Donegal. This, for those without local knowledge is a historic golf resort on the Irish North Western coast. Ideal terrain to demonstrate the GS’ supple suspension and peerless roadabilty. But it screams ‘Archie Vicar’. He must have been invited…

    Marc’s book is available – translated into English. “GS & GSA – Citroën’s Avant-Garde Mid-Range Cars” is available from https://www.citrovisie.nl/ I’d call it essential reading for Citroenistes.

    My thanks to Marc for getting in touch and for his generous assistance.

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