Concluding our brief overview of Citroën’s epochal GS.
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.
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.