The Citroën Visa might have offended some Quai de Javel purists, but it still espoused enough of the marque’s unique character to be well regarded and fondly remembered.
The 1976 Citroën LN was unambiguously a stop-gap car, engineered quickly and expediently to give beleaguered Citroën dealers something new to sell. But Peugeot realised that Citroën also needed a proper supermini-sized contender to replace the ageing Dyane and Ami, and again looked to the 104 platform, this time the five-door version. Prior to their takeover, Citroën had been working on its own replacement (initially in conjunction with Fiat), codenamed Model Y (1). The Peugeot takeover ended that programme however, and the project, renamed Model VD, would now become 104-based.
Working within the constraints of the 104 platform hard-points and component set, Vélizy designers managed to style a distinctively Citroën-esque car with smooth unadorned bodysides and semi-enclosed rear wheels. Series I models had an unusual so-called pig’s snout combined front bumper and grille in unpainted grey plastic, with a matching rear bumper. One unique feature for a car in its class was a single front wiper, facilitated by the Visa’s unusually deep and curved windscreen. This provided at least a subliminal link to Citroën’s large CX saloon.
Inside, the car had a unique dashboard, with the instruments contained in a rectangular pod directly above the steering column. Instead of conventional column stalks, Lanules (or satellites) either side of the column contained the secondary controls. The left-hand satellite, nicknamed the beer can by Visa aficionados, contained controls for the lights, indicators, horn and wipers.
The right-hand satellite, nicknamed the cheese slicer, contained the sliding heating and ventilation controls. A row of buttons below the instruments were most easily operated by placing one’s hand through the single-spoke steering wheel, which was less than ideal from an ergonomic and safety perspective.
The Visa was launched in September 1978 with entry level versions powered by the air-cooled flat-twin engine from the 2CV, enlarged to 652cc. The changes required to the 104’s front end to accommodate the flat-twin had already been undertaken for the LN, so were simply carried over to the Visa. The smaller engine, having to work rather harder in the Visa, was barely more economical in everyday use, although it did offer taxation savings in certain countries. An 1,124cc inline-four engine from the 104 was offered in the top of the range Visa Super.
The 104’s fully independent suspension, with coil springs, McPherson struts up front and semi-trailing arms at the rear was also carried over, but retuned for a slightly softer, more compliant ride.
The front-end styling, while practical and resistant to parking bumps, was not widely liked and the 1981 Series II facelift, undertaken by French coachbuilder Heuliez, introduced a rather more conventional look. This had a separate grille above a black plastic bumper, while the leading edges of the bonnet and front wings gained matching black plastic trim pieces.
At the rear, the reversing and fog lamps were relocated from the bumper into the main tail light units. The B-pillar and door window frames were painted satin black, as was part of the scuttle panel below the windscreen. The Visa’s unusual dashboard and minor controls were replaced in 1984 by a more conventional arrangement. These revisions, although robbing the Visa of some of its character, had a positive effect on sales.
In 1983, Citroën commissioned Heuliez to build the Visa Décapotable, a rather unlikely conversion to a cabriolet that retained the standard car’s B-pillars and door window frames, now closing into stout longitudinal rails linked by a transverse bar between the B-pillars. This arrangement was designed to restore some of the rigidity lost in the decapitation.
A bottom-hinged shallow boot lid replaced the hatchback. The hood was manually raised and lowered and, when in the latter position, sat atop the rear deck and was covered by a clip-on tonneau cover. The Décapotable was heavy and cost 50% more than the standard car. It was powered by the 1,124cc engine, which struggled with its weight. The Décopotable was offered for two years, during which time a total of just 2,633 found buyers.
1983 also saw the introduction of another slightly improbable Visa model, the GT, which was fitted with a further enlargement of the Douvrin engine to 1,360 cc. This produced 80 bhp (60 kW) and gave the GT a 0 to 100 km/h (62 mph) time of 10.9 seconds and a top speed of 168 km/h (104 mph). The GT was followed a year later by the even more implausible GTi model. This was fitted with the 1,580cc, 104 bhp (77 kW) engine from the Peugeot 205GTi and was distinguished externally by twin round headlamps, alloy wheels, wheel arch extensions (exposing the rear wheels) and side skirts. The GTi had a 0 to 100 km/h (62 mph) time of 9.1 seconds and a top speed of 188 km/h (117 mph).
Of much greater commercial significance, however, was the C15 van variant of the Visa, launched in 1984. This was a standard Visa ahead of and below the B-pillar, but behind which was a large and practical cubic box on an extended wheelbase, utilising the stronger rear axle from the Peugeot 305 estate. The payload was initially 500 kg, but this was later increased to a maximum of 800 kg. The C15 was powered mainly by PSA’s well regarded 1,769 cc XUD diesel engine, which was also offered in the Visa from that point. Early versions had a large single rear door, but this was replaced with conventional (for a van) twin rear doors with protruding hinges that allow the doors to swing back against the bodysides when open.
The C15 was a practical and economical small van that sold well over its long 21-year lifespan. It also provided a popular platform for specialist builders of motorhomes, including a model produced by French coachbuilder Chausson, which had twin rear axles.
The Peugeot 104 would provide the basis for one more stop-gap model, this time following Peugeot’s 1979 takeover of Chrysler’s European business. Once again, the new acquisition, renamed Talbot, lacked a credible competitor in the supermini segment, so again the 104 coupé was pressed into service. Unlike the Citroën LN however, rather more effort was devoted to making the Talbot Samba visibly and substantively different to the donor car, with a lengthened wheelbase and largely new panelwork.
|Peugeot 104||1972 to 1988||1,624,992|
|Citroën LN/LNA||1976 to 1986||353,383|
|Citroën Visa||1978 to 1988||1,254,390|
|Citroën C15||1984 to 2005||1,181,471|
|Talbot Samba||1981 to 1986||270,555|
As can be seen from the table above, the Peugeot 104 and its various siblings together accounted for almost 4.7 million sales over 33 years, making it an extraordinarily successful platform and mechanical package for Groupe PSA. The Peugeot 104 might still languish in the shadow of its acclaimed successor, the 1983 205, but it deserves to be remembered for its own success.
(1) The jointly developed Project Y platform would be later used to underpin the Romanian built Citroën Olcit, briefly marketed in Western Europe as the Citroën Axel.