There’s little new in the world.
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