F is for Failure

There’s little new in the world.

An artist’s render of the upper-level version of Projet F. (c) citroenet.org.uk

The news earlier this week that JLR cancelled its Jaguar XJ programme, believed to have been close to production-readiness was greeted with varying degrees of dismay by the commentator and enthusiast community. Many questioned the financial logic of taking such drastic action so late in the developmental programme, suggesting that such profligacy was madness.

Whether folly or expediency, it was certainly not unique, BLMC rather notably electing to cancel the Rover P8 programme at huge expense in 1971, for example. However, perhaps the most glaring and possibly the most financially damaging instance was that of Citroën, when in April 1967, President, Pierre Bercot took the decision to cancel the mid-size car programme his research and development team were in the process of completing – the fateful Projet F.

If one required evidence of the chaotic mindset which pervaded within Citroën’s Bureau d’Études during this period, it can be read with stark frankness in the succession of stillborn designs proposed to fulfil this brief throughout the Sixties. Having already foundered with the mini-DS C60 model, Projet F was initiated. Envisaged in two distinct widths, two wheelbase lengths and with two or four-cylinder engines, with top of the line versions employing the Comotor Wankel unit and hydro-pneumatic suspension, the F was nothing if not ambitious.

As outlined in author, Marc Stabèl’s meticulously researched history of the GS model, the prototype F used a double wishbone arrangement at the front, with an anti-roll bar. At the rear, a trailing arm arrangement was combined with transverse equal-length torsion bars In addition to  telescopic shock absorbers, both front and rear suspension used 2 CV-style inertial shock absorbers (batteurs) and both were mounted within steel subframes.

According to Marc Stabèl’s account, Citroën engineers had intended to employ a similar rear layout to that of Renault, using unequal length arms and torsion bars, but Billancourt had already patented it, meaning Citroën was forced to develop a technically inferior layout. It appears that the F was not a particularly well resolved chassis, prototypes suffering from handling and body rigidity issues..

Of course there was also the well documented issue of the body structure, in particular the manner in which the bodysides were attached to the roof panel. This novel solution was developed in-house amid great secrecy, Citroën electing not to patent it for fear of their rivals getting wind. Meanwhile however, Renault were working on a similar layout for their nascent R16 model, and promptly beat Quai de Javel to the (trade)mark. Apparently, Renault were prepared to licence Citroën for its use, but the fees were too onerous.

Then there was the shape of the car itself, which was a rather uneasy amalgam of what would become Ami 8 and Dyane styling cues, not to mention a strong resemblance to both Renaults 6 and 16 – the F sitting somewhere between those two Billancourt models in overall dimensions. Styled by Flaminio Bertoni and his small team of Rue de Théàtre modellers, it was, to put it kindly, and notwithstanding the fact that it was a late-stage prototype, rather rudimentary looking.

And while some have latterly suggested an element of skulduggery in the Renault 16’s design similarities, not only do the timelines bear out Billancourt’s creative primacy in this matter, there can be no question as to which of the two was the superior design. Indeed, referring to the admittedly poor quality photos of the prototype F, while the upmarket version of looks somewhat homespun by late Sixties standards, the entry level version with its stark single headlamp and gaping grille really was something of an embarrassment.

Clearly, the Bureau d’Etudes had lost the run of itself, and Citroën management it would seem, failed to intervene until far too late. By 1967, with the fully realised Renault 16 already established in the market, Pierre Bercot finally saw the starkness of the situation he was presented with. Not only had tooling been ordered and paid for from Budd in the United States, but lines had been installed at Citroën’s Rennes plant to build the car.

Despite this, it was clear that the F was not only hopelessly compromised in multiple areas, its business case had fled in panic and it became clear to Bercot that the losses incurred producing it in volume far outweighed the financial pain of axing it. Furthermore, he is said to have hated the design, in particular its rear tailgate – a particular bugbear of his.

There can be no doubt that the F (it’s unknown what it was to have been called) was a shocking indictment of Citroën’s research and development function, and indeed stands as a shameful chapter both in the marque’s history and Pierre Bercot’s tenure as President. Equally clear is the fact that the decision to cancel the car was wholly correct. That the GS emerged so quickly and so well from the wreckage is the truly miraculous element to what is otherwise a pretty sordid tale.

Nobody cancels a € multi-million model programme on a whim, whether in Paris, London or Gaydon. Here’s hoping lessons learned in this most recent case can lead to better outcomes in the future.

Author’s note: All Projet F prototypes were broken up and very little documentation remains.

Source: Marc Stabèl – GS & GSA – Citroën’s Avant-Garde Mid-Range Cars
ISBN 978-90-828147-2-9

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

26 thoughts on “F is for Failure”

  1. I would say the Roger 75 was cancelled on arrival, with management showing doubts even on the launch. I still to thisxday can not fathom what it was in that whole operation that made it an unviable business proposition. It’s absolutely ludicrous BMW couldn’t keep Rover considering they’re filling every niche in the market with BMW models nobody has even asked for.

    1. The Rover 75 launch was the end of the company. Rover suffered from the strong Pound, which turbocharged BMW’s losses. The launch was seen as a way of putting pressure on the UK government to intervene on the currency; that move backfired, undermining confidence in Rover at a critical time.

  2. But, nice rendering on the Project F. It has some nice Citroen Dyane meets Renault 14 vibes going for it. Looking at the car, it looks quintessentially French, like a cartoonist version of what ordinary people think French cars looks like, it could positively never have been made anywhere else in the world but France.

  3. Good morning Eóin. I think I can imagine what the designers were trying to achieve with that extremely sharp-edged geometric styling, but the realisation was just awful:

    Even the artist’s rendering at the head of your piece (which flatters the design somewhat) indicates that, proportionally, there’s an intractable problem: the front end looks too big and heavy for the rest of the car, which appears to diminish in scale as your eye moves from the A-pillar rearward.

    It puts me in mind of the discussion we had about the SM, where the car was clearly ‘pulled’ by a visually dominant front end. That treatment worked very well on the SM, but not at all here.

    1. Heathe Le Robinson architect. Ask in shed found towards end of garden. Also performing financial advice. Cash only.

    2. yep – the design is just amateurish all around – it has none of the playfulness or good proportions the rest of the classic citroens have.
      it looks like a throwaway GTA version of an old french car, made by some radom 3d modeller without any care.

  4. The Citroen Visa has something of the same profile, but with a less pronounced drop in the roof line, don’t you think?

    1. Hi Adrian, you’re right, and that is what makes it a much better balanced design than the misbegotten Projet F:

      We have a mini-series coming up shortly on the Peugeot 104 and its various derivatives (including the Visa) shortly.

    2. Ooh, lovely Daniel, I will look forward to that. I had a Visa 11RE which was ridiculously quick cross country and great fun in its own way.

    3. There were some pretty neat aspects to the stillborn Project F such as the plans for the base model to be powered by a bored out to 750cc version of the 2CV flat twin, with another version to be equipped with a 1600cc transverse mounted water cooled unit derived from the DS engine. That said however both engines would have been better suited for the 2CV as well as probably the DS and H-Type respectively.

      In retrospect Citroen would have probably been better off going for the earlier C60 prototype that was said to be considerably more refined compared to the later Project F though not before the C60 prototype’s rear was updated to resemble the Ami 8 fastback (later hatchback).

      Michel Harmand’s proposal for Project F meanwhile looks like it could have been easily repurposed, although interested in seeing the proposal from other angles. http://www.citroenet.org.uk/prototypes/projet-f/images/f-21.jpg

      The C60 prototype like Project F and the later GS also featured a Flat-Four, which despite being insufficiently developed (leading to the new 947-1015cc+ GS engine being built) did a more useful 1430cc displacement alongside a 1100cc version.

      Jean Dupin at the end of the 1970s later developed a water-cooled 1450cc version of the GS engine, yet while being a vast improvement over the air-cooled GS engine remained no more than an investigation before it was discontinued at the behest of PSA’s preference towards transversely mounted inline engines.

      More interested uncovering any link the water-cooled 1450cc GS engine has with the water-cooled 94 hp 1654cc engine in Project L for what became the Citroen CX, however unlikely Project L’s ties to what became the Gamma would appear to suggest a Flavia/Gamma derived Flat-Four though very much doubt it. The only place so far that provides some detail on the 1654cc engine would be the following Portuguese link. http://citroencx.pt/projetl.htm

      Did not immediately see the similarities between Project F and the Visa in terms of profile though Stabèl’s book approximately places the dimensions of Project F as being more Renault 6 sized, maybe even almost Renault 14 sized with the latter itself seemingly being an upscaled relation to both the Peugeot 104 and Citroen Visa.

      Speaking of the Alfasud styling originally being a Italdesign proposal rejected by Citroen, would both companies have been better off collaborating with each other on a few joint-ventures beginning with the GS / Alfasud and Prototype Y / Axel (possibly early B-Segment sized Arna) in a similar manner to what was happening between Peugeot and Renault?

  5. Poor aerodynamics can be added to the charge sheet, as well, apparently, which isn’t good for a Citroën. It’s another design that suffered from having multiple lead designers and not enough management review.

    Although the production line had been set up, the cost of that, it seems, was overshadowed by the money expended on the rotary engines – the mind boggles.

    By the way, what were they thinking with the horizontally-sliding rear window?

    1. Hi Charles, yes, sliding rear windows were completely inappropriate. In the same area, what’s that weird bit of bright trim running rearwards from the centre of the rear door all about? It clashes horribly with the rising waistline. Is it an attempt to give the impression of a DS-like falling tail?

      Projet F also reminds me of our recent discussion on the Mk1 C5 and its weirdly and unnecessarily compromised styling.

    2. Yes – I don’t get the ‘half trim’. I too thought of the C5 – it’s amazing it did so well, but a waste that it wasn’t better.

      Actually, Projet F probably suffered from too little oversight, while the C5 should have gone in one direction and stuck to it.

      Robert Opron won the design competition for the GS and Alfa Romeo got the rejected design from Italdesign, the Alfasud, so it worked out well. I can’t imagine the Alfasud with Citroën badges on it.

    3. I also can’t imagine the ‘Sud as a Citroen.
      The ‘Sud is as typically Italian as the GS is typically French.

    4. This is an early sketch of the Alfasud, although have no idea if it was this drawing or an earlier one by Giugiaro that was rejected by Citroen.

      Seems Henri Chapron looked at a 4-door three-box GS Berlinette

      http://lignesauto.fr/?p=10898

    5. Would a designer create a proposal for a French customer with Italian number plates on it? This Giugiaro drawing has square Italian number plates from Milan and not French oblong ones with ’75’ denoting a Paris origin.

  6. Bob stoked my curiosity by mentioning Citroën’s Projet C60 above and I found this great photo of it from the rear three-quarter angle:

    I think it’s bonkers, but brilliant! Only Citroën could get away with it, so it really is a shame it didn’t make production

    1. yeah, thats the definition of a guilty pleasure right there – its ugly, but in a good way.

    2. It would interesting to see if an Ami 8/Super or M35 Coupe like fastback rear treatment would work well on the C60 prototype to further accentuate the resemblance of the C60 to the larger DS.


  7. I don‘t think the F is that bad, but then I‘m a dedicated Citroënist.

    I think its problem – much like the C60s and the GS‘s – was Citroën chasing volume. Trying to compete on price while having an engineering ethos not allowing for cheap solutions. This approach was *very* in line with french techno-culture of the time, but doomed from the start. You can only spend so much from little income – and when you want to have a complex and expensive to build hydropneumatic system in your „Grand Serie“, then you have to cut down somewhere. Citroën‘s line up in the early/mid 70ies was world-beatingly competitive (less the engines, OK), but just too expensive to make for cheap in decent quality. The ensuing quality issues ruined the reputation and – most importantly – resale values of the cars.

    As we all noted on DTW covering the story of DS Automobiles, Citroën as a brand has forever been in limbo. They should have made a push upmarket – being technological leaders and all. The SM was very much the right move. Hindsight being 20/20, the Wankel certainly wasn‘t, nor the F. And – as brilliant a car as it was – I’m afraid the GS wasn‘t either.

  8. Bercot pulling the plug on the F last minute was probably a case
    of multiple weaknesses discovered too late. I recall stories that
    it was problematic to drive, hinting at a poor adaptation of its CoG/weight distr./susp.pickup points to its rather varied drivetrain-layout options (major dynamic flaws that would perhaps be borderline acceptable on a mainstream car, but not on a Citroen).

    This was coupled with a disastrous styling detail – namely the lack
    of any curvature of the windshield, combined with weirdly angled A-pillars and a bizarre lack of tumblehome – that the core design badly needs. This sole detail (cabin’s forefront shape/angle) destroys what is a rather credible profile & beltline to my eyes.
    The vorderwagen’s vertical convergence, and the wedgy beltline simply ‘beg’ for a rounded, spherical windshield with a smooth windshield-to-roof transition, and someone blighted it with
    just the opposite thereof.

    Combination of above two factors was apparently too much to swallow. A typical ‘Asleep at the wheel’ corporate scenario.

    As pointed out above, the ‘severity of the subsequent corporate impact’ probably waked them up a bit, thus the GS ended up
    being a very credible, cohesive effort in most aspects.

    1. Hi Alex. Your comment about the windscreen caused me to look again, and the F appears also to have flat side glasses, which exacerbates its lack of tumblehome on the bodysides and general oddness. The Visa was so much more sophisticated looking by comparison and had the windscreen you rightly say the F desperately needed.

  9. Daniel,
    thank you for pointing this out. It is similar,
    in a way, to your ‘diagnostics’ about the
    C5 flaw in the same area.
    Strange.

    As for the Visa, the more time passes, the more it becomes clear how deeply cohesive its design is. I find particularly striking
    the way its C-pillar geometry ‘clicks’ perfectly with the shape of the flank/ “wheelarch” beneath it.

    In that area alone, the Visa might be better executed than even the Alfasud or the Supercinq.

    Giving a bottom-heavy visual ‘CoG’ to that area seems to be a vital ingredient in every memorable hatchback profile.

    1. Hi Alex. I absolutely agree with you about the Visa. Having recently studied it in detail for a DTW piece coming up in the next few days, I have a whole new appreciation for its excellent design and now regard it very much as a ‘proper’ Citroën.

  10. Citroën F vs Renault 16 or “where the battle began”.

    Because the industry is one of the most highly competitive, it’s virtually impossible to find a design studio that doesn’t operate under a veil of secrecy. The whole sector is shrouded in mystery.

    One of the most gripping mysteries in France is that of the conflict between Citroën and Renault, and their respective studies developed almost half a century ago; the F-project put forward by Citroën, and Renault’s R16 proposal. It was a conflict exacerbated by the enmity and jealousy of Citroën’s president Pierre Bercot towards the Régie due in no small part to the launch of the R4.

    Let’s have a quick recap:
    To create its mid-range model for 1964, Citroën took another look at its aborted upgrade to the 2CV – the AP project – and put together the specification for a new model. For the F-project, the company wanted to stay ahead of the game and, in true Citroën fashion, incorporated several innovative features. The one that interests us here is a new technique of welding braces between the sides of the car and the roof. In addition to the financial savings this system provided, there was also an appreciable gain in productivity. This process also left its mark on the design of the car: twin ridges running the length of the roof.

    Roger Brioult in his book “Citroën; Histoires et Secrets du bureau d’études” (now out of print and virtually impossible to find) reveals that, to avoid possible leaks, the firm decided against patenting this innovative method of construction.

    While this was going on at Citroën, Renault was in the process of developing a similar system for its ‘115’ project, the future R16. There was one major difference however; René Lavaud, Renault’s head of bodywork, went ahead and registered the patent for the invention. Consequently, Citroën’s hands were tied. Pierre Bercot deemed it out of the question to pay royalties to a competitor, particularly for a forthcoming mass-market model. For Bercot, the fact that Renault was a state-subsidised manufacturer merely rubbed salt into the wound.
    Problems around its technical development, uncertain profitability, and cash flow put paid to the ‘F’. Even though the presses had been ordered from Budd, the project was abandoned in 1967. According to Bercot in his memoirs however, the presses would later be put into service (for the GS [Ed.]).

    Over the years many column inches have been devoted to speculation around the true origins of the innovation. Had an engineer gone to work for a competitor and revealed his inside knowledge? Was it simply a matter of industrial espionage? And above all who, between Citroën and Renault, was really behind this invention? It has even been suggested that Bertoni or even unsung hero Henriquès-Raba was the brains behind it.

    Like many of us, I’ve had my own suspicions over the years. Fellow enthusiast Christophe Bonnaud of Lignes/auto and I came to the same conclusion: what if Renault stylist Luc Louis was at the centre of it all? In 1962/63, the man who was still calling himself Lucien Louis had presented his portfolio to Flaminio Bertoni and Robert Opron, hoping to join Citroën’s styling team. What if, among his work, there were revealing sketches of a future R16? What if Opron had been unconsciously influenced by them?

    Everything suddenly became clear in January during an exchange with designer Robert Broyer, who worked at Style Renault from 1961 to 1973. He is now 82 years old, but his memory is as sharp as ever. While we were talking about the prototype H (> http://bit.ly/CDA1784), he returned to the subject of these famous “seams” as he calls them (the ‘roof ridges’ mentioned above). What he revealed to me was almost disappointing:
    “This idea was conceived at Simca in the late 1950s, at a time when Robert Opron and Luc Louis (sculptor, Grand Prix de Rome) worked together. They had developed it on a fastback model fitted with a tailgate. Besides that, Jean Thoprieux, who had also worked at Simca before arriving at Renault, (subsequently at Matra where he would co-design the Bagheera) was also aware of this development.”
    It is true to say that the Simca styling studio, headed at the time by Claude Genest after the departure of Mario Revelli di Beaumont, was one of the most modern and innovative in Europe. Using methods imported from the United States, this design center was, among other things, one of the very first to use clay for 1:1 scale models. Along with Raymond Loewy’s Compagnie de L’Esthétique Industrielle (CEI), many from among France’s future design talent crossed paths at Simca.

    It’s hardly surprising that after Simca Style was wound up and the two stylists arrived at Citroën and Renault respectively, the two continued their journey, each working away on essentially the same idea. Little did they know it would become such a source of conflict!
    Robert Broyer continues, “During the development of the R16, I also remember that Michel Béligond – who also served his time with Simca – relentlessly teased Luc Louis about this idea “borrowed” from his former employer.

    Recently, author Gilles Colboc divulged details of an interview he carried out with Citroën designer Jean Giret in September 2001. He told me that Giret in turn told him that this story had come from Robert Opron. Except for one tiny detail: Opron not only confirmed that this welding technique had indeed been developed at Simca, but that the overall style concept of the R16 had been as well! Poor Luc Louis appears to have been airbrushed out of Opron’s version of the story!

    In short then… this part of the whole debacle stemmed from a conflict of paternity and perhaps even ego within Simca – a conflict that cost Citroën dear. Very dear.

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