Blues for Ceaușescu

Quai de Javel’s final act, or simply its slightly underpolished Craiovian cousin? We examine the Oltcit. 

Oltcit Club. (c)

Given its geographical location, it probably wasn’t all that surprising that once-independent Romania would end up as part of Russia’s collection of Warsaw Pact satellites once the post world war II dust settled.

By the early 1970s, Romania’s communist government was led by Nicolae Ceaușescu. Outwardly an internationalist, acting with considerable independence from Moscow, the Romanian leader seemed intent on building up the country’s soft power, influence and economic strength on the international stage. However, for those inside the country, he was simply another self-obsessed, exploitative and repressive dictator.

As part of Ceaușescu’s plan to strengthen the economy, Romania joined the IMF, GATT and sought trade agreements with Europe. This led to talks with Citroën around 1974 regarding a joint-venture for an affordable car to be built in Romania, not just for domestic and COMECON consumption, but to be exported to Europe as well. By coincidence, Quai de Javel was working on a similar programme at the time, one which had already, in characteristic fashion, enjoyed a fairly convoluted development.

Having signed the PARDEVI accord with Fiat Auto in 1968, Citroën embarked on a number of collaborations, one of which was termed Projet Y, a supermini-sized five-door hatch based on a modified Fiat 127 platform. However, as the brief accord with Fiat unravelled, this programme was abandoned.

Final Citroen TA prototype. (c) Citroenet

Citroën’s bureau d’etudes began again around 1974 with Projet TA, a similarly sized car now on its own unique platform, employing powertrains and suspension designs inspired by existing Citroën models. TA, it seems, was intended to be a range of three and five-door hatchbacks, with development progressing to several fully engineered prototypes.

However, the collapse of the Comotor rotary engine programme, the costs associated with several new and refurbished car plants, and the succession of expensively developed new models (SM, GS and CX), in conjunction with the 1973 oil embargo led to catastrophic cash-flow difficulties, and with the French government of Valery Giscard d’Estaing unwilling to provide a fiscal lifeline, a forced marriage with Peugeot was hastily arranged, and with it a whole new set of priorities.

Projet TA was stopped, pending a thorough review, morphing into a new programme, now termed VD. Under this revised scheme, a restyled TA body was re-engineered onto the pre-existing Peugeot 104 platform, reaching fruition with the rationalised 1978 Visa model.

Meanwhile, talks with the Romanians continued, culminating in 1976 with the creation of Oltcit, an agreement for Citroën to build a new turnkey car plant in Craiova, closely based upon its own Rennes-La Janais plant in Brittany. The Oltenia-sited factory covered a total surface area of 350,000 m – over 114 hectares of land, and included a foundry and a body-stamping plant.

The Romanians stipulated a high degree of local content – but by turn, the French carmaker forbade the Romanians to sell the cars outside the Eastern bloc – all such efforts to be branded as and sold by Citroën themselves. Further benefit to Quai de Javel was the utilisation of their engineering and manufacturing teams at a time of weak domestic demand, a matter which may have contributed to Citroën’s return to profitability in the years following the Peugeot takeover – one which some observers still believe was politically motivated.

The car itself was essentially the dusted-down the TA prototype – Citroën engineers completing the development process and production engineering, and while visually it closely resembled the Europe-market Visa, it was an entirely different motor car.

(c) citroenet

Technically, the Oltcit was pure TA, powered by either the 652 cc flat twin shared with the Visa, or the 1130 cc horizontally opposed four from the GS, mounted in line with a GS-derived gearbox with either four or five speeds. Brakes were discs all round. Suspension was unusual, featuring a wishbone arrangement at the front, with longitudinal torsion bars and a transverse flexion blade. The rear suspension was comprised of trailing arms under tension with transverse torsion bars instead of oleo pneumatic springs, a similar layout in principle to that of a number of existing Citroën models.

Given the timelines, the body styling would have been created at Citroën’s bureau de style under the supervision of Robert Opron, and has been credited to Jean Giret. The style itself carried elements of both GS and CX, and in three door form was cleaner and to some eyes, more cohesive than that of the later Visa.

Dimensionally, the TA/Oltcit was longer overall (by 4.2 cm), a matter explained by its longer frontal overhang. In wheelbase however, the Visa was longer by a surprising 1.25 cm. In width, height and unladen weight, there were fractions between them, yet of the pair, the Oltcit always seemed the larger car. Virtually identical in silhouette, albeit without a single panel in common, a similar assertion could be made for the interior, the Oltcit’s cabin adhering to a broadly similar theme to that of the Visa, but with an entirely different execution.

(c) citroenet

Citroën’s PRN Lanules have already been well covered in a previous DTW article, but were a noble adventure in ergonomic and haptic theory by the bureau ‘d etudes’ Michel Harmand to group all important controls close to the driver’s reach, to minimise driver distraction, and improve both convenience and safety. Unlike those of the Visa, (or indeed the GSA which followed) which were mounted vertically, the Oltcit’s Lanules were horizontal, and if anything, were of a more logical shape and orientation. Otherwise, the Oltcit’s interior was a mix of Visa and GSA themes, and seemingly none the worse for it.

Progress at the Romanian end proved sluggish, with the Craiova plant only starting production around 1980/1. But owing to issues of bureaucracy, an inexperienced workforce, and the inevitable teething troubles associated with any large-scale start-up, production (a projected 130,000 cars per annum) never really got into its stride, with numbers falling hopelessly short of projections – not to mention reports of woeful build quality.

It wasn’t until 1984 that Citroën finally introduced its version, marketed as the Axel in France – more in resignation than ambition. After all, the Visa was already approaching the end of its life. The Oltcit gained a mild facelift, an improved specification, and the option of the 1.3 litre GSA power unit, but it was far too late.

Despite giveaway prices, sales were derisory, largely because not only was it poorly finished (even by contemporary double chevron standards), but customers couldn’t understand where it fitted in the range. Once the AX model arrived in the Autumn of 1986, it was all over. Three years later, the same could be said for Ceaușescu, his repressive and economically disastrous reign brought to an ignominious close amid the falling dominoes of the collapsing Soviet Union.

PSA abandoned its interest in Octcit shortly after, and while production struggled on in very small scale for a few more years, the business was bought out and later subsumed into the Korean Daewoo carmaking conglomerate in 1994. For PSA, who never received the cars from Romania it needed to recoup its investment, the Oltcit programme could not have been considered anything approaching a success.

Laterly dismissed as a minor footnote in double chevron history, many would prefer to sweep the Oltcit/Axel under the carpet. But in essence it was a thoroughly pleasant car, and in larger engined form, a rather sprightly one. Stylistically too, it was an attractive, clean limbed design, certainly a more Citroënesque one than what was introduced in European markets in 1978.

Some questions remain: why did Peugeot axe the TA, only to sell it to the Romanians? Would it not have been more expedient to have simply produced the already completed TA design (with its economies of scale with the GS programme) for both European and COMECON markets (appropriately differentiated), rather than develop two entirely different, if outwardly similar programmes?

(c) autoevolution

Maybe it was a case of conflicting interests, given the acquisition of the Chrysler Europe business later that decade? Perhaps it was internal politics? It cannot have been speed to market – after all the Visa didn’t arrive until 1978. Is it possible that Citroën’s last independently developed car, for all its foibles, might have been a better overall package than the one they actually went to market with?

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

23 thoughts on “Blues for Ceaușescu”

  1. Eoin and I might be the last remaining people familiar with this:

    In my case, I followed the Fatima Mansions having learned about the lead singer Cathal Coughlan in his previous band, Microdisney. Their 1986 album The Clock Comes Down The Stairs is one of the most wonderful records made; if it was a product of the US or the UK it´d be world famous. As it is, it remains a secret among musos and a few ageing Irish blokes.

    To the cars. It´s exciting to see the TA concept. What is good about it is the clarity of the aesthetic. It manages to look like its own car and also draws from the CX. That means the CX look has been successfully transposed to the smaller package in a creative way. What is depressing about it is that it reminds me how bullshitty almost all contemporary small cars are now. The TA is light and lithe; I can imagine it dancing over rough roads and being a delight to conduct. In contrast a B-C class car has all the joy of the worst of Mercedes inertia (I am thinking of the brilliant 1980s cars).

    The interior image pretty much drives a stake through the heart of modern interior design thinking. All you have to do with the shape is to rework it so it´s properly screwed together and maybe more robust plastics.

    All the things I like about cars are now not features of cars. The designs don´t have any intellectual content and no aesthetic magic in the way this cheap little Citroen and its Romanian relative do. There´s no progress in design now; we are treading water. If car companies really wanted to stay alive they would not be serving up the uninvolving porridge they provide us with now.

  2. Good morning Eóin. The development of the Oltcit/Axel was, in typically Citröen-esque fashion, a really convoluted process, so thanks for unravelling it for us. Like most casual observers, I had assumed much more commonality with the Visa, given their similarity in appearance. I’m also surprised the Oltcit was built as a three-door, rather than a more practical five-door, like the green prototype above.

    I’m strangely taken with the car featured in your last photograph, where the wheel covers are colour matched to the lower bodyside cladding, a nice detail.

    1. From my understanding, the Romanian side of the equation stipulated a three-door layout, as against a five-door, for reasons that are perhaps lost to time. By contrast, what is striking is that in Europe at the time, the three door layout was the more popular in the ‘supermini’ sector, yet the Visa was only offered with five doors. This can be understood to some extent in that the car was intended to replace the Ami, but I would contend that the addition of a three-door model would have bolstered the Visa’s prospects considerably. However, there was the 104 Z to consider, and of course its double chevron derivative, sad to relate.

      There is, as Richard eloquently relates above, a charm to the TA/ Axel that is entirely missing from small cars cars now. What was the last truly charming small hatchback, I wonder? Any thoughts?

    2. The last charming small hatchback? That’s a very good question. ‘Charming’ would exclude anything German, Japanese* or South Korean, so I suppose we’re looking at French or Italian. The living fossil that is the Lancia Ypsilon deserves consideration. The Peugeot 106 was a very perky and pretty thing. The original Renault Twingo is also a contender.

      * Ignoring some of the quirky JDM models.

    1. Hi Richard. I’ve taken a look and one of your long comments has been automatically directed into the spam folder for some reason. Is your second comment you mention the one below?

      Do you want me to approve the one in spam? It seems to be roughly the same content as the one below, albeit more expansive.

  3. Fabulous Lunules on that dash – so accessible, so tactile. As Richard says – so much better than a bloody touch-screen.

  4. I wonder if Citroën thought this might become their Fiat 124, and show their new owners a thing or two. That said, if quality was below what they were routinely producing at the time, then the mind boggles, and I speak from experience.

    For people wanting a family car, this would have struggled against the Dacia / Renault 12, with its 4 doors, usefully larger size, and variety of body styles, I’m afraid.

  5. It would have been interesting to see how an earlier approved Project TA aka Oltcit/Axel (in place of the Fiat 127-derived Project Y), which managed to appear prior to the fuel-crisis would have fared against the supermini opposition of the period compared to the Peugeot 104-derived Citroen Visa.

    While this period was around the fuel-crisis and the tail end of the Trente Glorieuses for France, would a Mitterrand or even a Chaban-Delmas win in the 1974 French Presidential Elections have been made the French government more willing to provide a fiscal lifeline to Citroen instead of a hastily arranged forced marriage with Peugeot?

    Though there is much Citroen could have done to improve its situation from the post-war period up to its bankruptcy (e.g. no Wankel / Comotor, 750cc Flat-Twin mentioned in Project F but for other models like 2CV Super / Hatchback prototypes, approved Citroen C60 project with Ami 8-like fastback / hatchback rear, etc) and possibly even pre-war as well, felt they missed a trick in not collaborating with Alfa Romeo with the water-cooled Alfasud Flat-4 and possible commonization between the TA / GS (or precursor) and the Alfasud at the lower-end, along with Alfa Romeo’s later projects from late-70s to early-80s from Alfa’s Project 156/Surace (pre-Type Four) paired with Citroen’s Projet E as well as Alfa’s Project 433-434 or 33 paired with Citroen’s Projet XA/GXA or Projet G23.

    While in turn selling Maserati to Fiat (possibly receiving Lancia or the Lancia Flat-4 engine at the upper range in exchange) and possibly becoming involved with the Alfa Romeo V6 (that was intended to appear in the Alfa 6 which was delayed by some 6 or so years due to the fuel-crisis) to replace the Maserati V6.

  6. Giugiaro’s design for the Alfasud was proposed to Citroen at one point during the GS project who rejected it, while Citroen themselves looked at water-cooled 1450cc and 95 hp 1654cc Flat-4 engines though for whatever reason stuck with air-cooled engines.

  7. Re charming small hatchbacks, I’d don’t think that they’ve entirely disappeared; I think that the current Fiat 500 would qualify. I’d also say each generation of the Panda has done pretty well, in the past (the latest is now a bit overwrought).

    I’d further nominate the Renault Zoe – a nice design that’s needed little work to keep it fresh. Good interiors, too.

    1. From the experience of owning one, I concur that the Panda is a charming car.

      Somewhat to my own surprise, having quite regularly driven one recently, I would argue that the VW Up also qualifies. It’s a rational sort of charm, but it has charmed me nonetheless.

    2. Hello Chris – definitely agree re the up! – refreshingly minimalist and modern.

  8. Charming small hatchbacks: I had some ideas about this and went walking in the ´hood to get inspiration. First off is the Opel Adam because it´s a lush and rich interpretation of the city car, a Renault 5 Baccara for our times. Second, Lancia Ypsilon in its second iteration that looked like a mini-Thesis.

    1. The Suzuki Ignis and Suzuki Swift also demand affection and respect. What we are missing is a charismatic and approachable car of the likes of the Peugeot 205 1.6 (or perhaps the full-on GTi.).
      The current ranger of superminis are pretty fine cars. I especially like Ford´s gorgeously surfaced Fiesta and Renault´s amazingly modern Clio. They are, however, getting a bit large and ought really to be considered as successors to the Focus and Megane of yesteryear. That´s why I didn´t include them but want to salute their design and engineering.
      The poor old Corsa is not a Corsa and the 208 is way too aggressive. What´s Citroen offering now we come to think of it? There´s the badge engineered C1 and the rather contrived Cactus which does come near the delightfulness of the Visa we started out with.

    2. I’m amazed that Suzuki manage to keep going, but I sincerely hope they survive / prosper. They only sell 3,000 Ignis models throughout Europe, each month. I never see any advertising from them and I worry that they are just going to sell rebadged Toyotas (RAV4 / Suzuki Across, Corolla)

      The Ignis is no 205 (a very high benchmark), but it’s still rather nice:

      I bet you’d get spectacularly good treatment from the dealer (and you could get your lawnmower serviced at the same time).

      My hope is that electric vehicles will allow manufacturers to try something new.

  9. We should regret that Citroën never had the opportunity to deliver an air-cooled, horizontally opposed, longitudinal engined, torsion bar sprung supermini in the mid-’70s. Everything was becoming very Giacosa-orthodox long before the end of that decade. It had started with such promising diversity of ideas: Renault 5 (Citroën TA), Prince/Datsun Cherry (Greek Al without oil leaks), Peugeot 104 (Greek Al improved). After that it was just the abominable Alfa Arna, flat-four powered only through expediency, and various two cylinder Fiats and PSA-era Citroëns.

    Looking into Citroënet, it’s said that the rear suspension intended for Projet TA became standard issue for PSA’s small and medium sized cars for the next two decades. That seems plausible. The 204, 304 and 104s’ rear suspension was a (non-MacPherson) strut and fully trailing arm arrangement which worked well but consumed space needlessly.

  10. Charles: I believe Suzuki is not dependent on really large volumes to prosper in the EU and also I am prepared to bet a bottle of Lillet Rouge that they sell at or near list price rather than discounting. Suzuki are more like Porsche than Toyota (just not so fast and a lot more comfortable and cheery).

    1. Hello Richard – that makes sense, and I bet it’s pretty much all retail, too.

    2. I´d rather be in the business of selling Suzuki than Fords or Peugeots or the like; you get to know your customers and they probably treat you like family if you are halfway personal in your dealings. I get a bit soppy about Suzuki.

  11. Hi Richard,
    I wouldn’t be so sure about being a Suzuki dealer – a friend of mine had one of the current range (can’t recall which one) as a loaner when his 407 was having a clutch swap. He really enjoyed it and said as much to the dealer when he dropped it back. The dealer agreed, but added: the only problem is, we can’t sell ’em! Apparently they’d only manage to flog a few, to friends and relations. Although there again, maybe that proves your point about treating ’em like family!

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