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