Time to put down that chisel.
It’s probably sentimentality, but despite decades of disappointment I still maintain a vague attachment to what is by now only a platonic ideal of Automobiles Citroën. At least that’s the only reasonable rationale for why my interest is invariably piqued by the announcement of any freshly minted car bearing the double chevron. Equally without variance however is what I feel about what is routinely presented.
The newly fashioned Citroen C4 is only the very latest of a long and wobbly line of underwhelming visions from Vélizy; a car which replaces without doubt one of the dreariest vehicles ever to bear that fabled emblem, although in the latter case, it was probably the other way round – the emblem (just about) bearing the car.
This being so, it was either a case of overcompensation on the part of Citroen’s design team, or more likely a misguided directive to push for an element of visual drama hitherto lacking, but either way, the 2020 C4 is not only a very different proposition to either of its predecessors, it is also quite an exhausting one to behold.
There’s an awful lot of surface activity going on here and only so many hours in the day – even now, when so many of us have far more time on their hands than we reasonably know what to do with. Far too many aspects of this car’s design irritate to list them out here (although lazy references to the 1970 GS Series ranks high), but amid the creases, bulges, bumps and indentions, the pressing on the leading edge of the front door, abutting the wheelarch is perhaps what most causes your correspondent’s molars to grind.
According to Marc Pinson, seasoned (and senior) Citroën designer, who was wheeled out to present the design rationale for the C4, the indent is there to lend an illusion of length to the flanks, to draw one’s eye away from the virtually non-existent scuttle to axle ratio, and more than likely, to annoy the likes of me. But despite becoming somewhat desensitised to the excesses of latter day car styling, it struck me that I had seen this treatment somewhere before, and because there genuinely is nothing new in the world, it turns out that I had.
In 1958, Ford’s Lincoln division introduced its latest line of cars, the pinnacle of which was the Continental Mark III. The largest production car of the entire US land yacht era, the 1958 Lincoln range was a colossal statement of (over)confidence. Also one which failed to resonate with the buying public, partly owing to its appearance, which was every American inch a binary proposition, and also owing to some teething problems the Lincoln production engineers experienced with such a gargantuan platform.
It too was rather exhausting to behold, because, quite obviously there was just so much of it, but what I really want to direct your attention to today is the indented scallop which runs from the leading edge of the front bumper to the trailing edge of the front wing. Whatever Lincoln designer, John Najjar was aiming for, it seems unlikely he was attempting to accentuate a sense of visual length, because there was plainly no need. Striking it most certainly was, even if the end result was a matter of taste.
Nevertheless, on the Lincoln’s vast canvas, there was some mad logic to these stylistic flourishes and certainly the surfaces could take it. In the case of the Citroën however, it smacks of conceit. Good design is honest design, but to these eyes the C4 not only lacks integrity, I’m afraid to say it lacks sincerity. And if Citroëns of blessed memory used to be anything, they were at least sincere. Worse still, the manner in which Citroën’s designers have executed this stylistic device lacks conviction, a characteristic that could never be levelled against Mr. Najjar et al.
But leaving the C4 to one side for a moment (all day if you’d prefer), there does appear to be something of a fin de siècle sensation to a lot of the more expressive car designs these days – a feeling that we are witnessing a final fling, the last giddy burp before a new aesthetic washes all this overwrought nonsense away.
Some sixty years on, we can perhaps see the Lincoln more clearly as an aesthetic object, a marvellous artefact of an era few of us lived through, much less recall. 2020 might have been a year to remember, but this French debutant isn’t likely to linger long in the memory.
 John Najjar, working alongside Elwood Engel is generally credited with the styling scheme for the 1958 Lincolns. Najjar appears to have been scapegoated for the commercial failure of the ’58 cars, while Engel on the other hand managed to avoid the purgatory of the Agricultural division, leading the team who created the design for the seminal 1961 Continental – a form of redemption, if you’ll forgive the religious metaphor.