Family Breadwinner (Part Two)

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.

1978 Visa Club. Image: parts-specs.nl

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.

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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.

1978 Citroën Visa dashboard (c) petrolblog.com

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 Citroën Visa Décapotable by Heuliez (c) citroenet.org.uk

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.

1984 Citroën C15 van (c) ranwhenparked

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.

Model: Dates: Production:
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
Total: 4,684,791

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.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

48 thoughts on “Family Breadwinner (Part Two)”

  1. Another splendid article about a car I have had the fortune to have owned; in this case the Décopotable which was hastily pressed into service during my last year of Sixth Form having unexpectedly parked my MG Midget in a tree.

    For that last term of school it proved remarkably popular being a convertible with the benefit of seating at least six teenaged hooligans in some sort of style while pub-hopping across the Norfolk countryside. It was also remarkably quick, fitted with a carburetor (Stromberg?) with an accelerator pump which, after a regular un-plugging session, meant a spirited start away from the lights.

    It was its remarkable turn of speed that leads me to be a little confused as to the statement that this was only available with the 1124cc motor, as I am quite certain mine was based on the 1360cc. It was a 1985 “C” registered car and was almost certainly not a “Super E”. This was in the days before digital photography and I did not wish to waste one of my precious 24 shots on what was then just a daily run-around so I have no proof.

    I have of course scoured the internet to try and find evidence for this and I suspect all the sources I have found are closely related. If we are to believe Wikipedia then I am wrong, however if we are to believe Wikipedia Phil Collins maintains a holiday home in my home village…

    I’m beginning to doubt myself now.

    1. Good morning Jeff. “Having unexpectedly parked my MG Midget in a tree” made me laugh out loud, so well done! Regarding the performance of your Décopotable, it’s a known fact that teenage drivers are able to extract extraordinary levels of performance from poverty-spec supermini engines. In any event, your Décopotable was a great left-field choice and must have been an unusual sight in rural Norfolk back in the day.

    2. Freerk, I am coming round to the idea that I was very much imagining it having the larger engine or, as I did buy the car from a retired Citroen salesman, it may have had the 1360 installed at a later date. I do remember it being quick though and hanging on like a rabid dog in the corners despite prodigious body roll.

      Charles, I think one of those wheels may still reside in a shed in Norfolk. I remember it coming with an extra one. Used on numerous models in the range I think.

      Daniel, the sequence of events leading up to, and following on from, my impromptu liaison with a Scots Pine were a perfect little comedy in themselves. I thoroughly enjoyed the Visa, parting with it only as I went to a university with limited parking. I sold it to an enthusiast so it’s moderately likely it might still be plying the byways of Britain’s most backward county to this very day.

    3. Careful now, Jeff. I may live in Suffolk, but Norfolk is just across the river…

      North and West Norfolk, though, that’s another country entirely. 😁

    1. Good morning Freerk. Great photo. I notice the motorhome is UK registered, but the setting looks Southern European? There was not much effort expended in integrating the motorhome body with that of the C15. It looks as though the latter was simply reversed at speed into a touring caravan. 😁

    2. Good morning Daniel. That’s an accurate way to describe this Venture Junior. The photo was taken in the Netherlands on a vacant lot next to a mixed use building. There are shops in the front (invisible on the photo), a ramp that leads to the parking area and apartments above. The earth tones and morning light give it indeed a southern European flavour.

      The small motor home was here for about two weeks or so in August, but has since disappeared.

    3. Prompted by my comment above, JTC has sent me this brilliant photo, taken in Australia, of a motor caravan built on the chassis of a Jowett Bradford commercial vehicle:

      You have to admire the ingenuity!

    1. Always nice to be reminded of an entry in that precious archive. The review of the Visa raised once more for me the question of how a man with that diet survived into (let alone beyond) his 40s…

  2. Ah the Visa.

    As you can see from my little profile picture, I am a big fan of the dashboard set up with the brilliantly ergonomic and eccentric lunules which I have written about here before. (https://driventowrite.com/2014/12/28/theme-dashboards-citroen-visa/). I was the proud owner of a GTi (the 115ch version, no less) in the early 90’s, a car I loved for its verve, idiosyncrasy, and ‘don’t care what you think’ looks. I learned to like it less for its total lack of refinement, rattling dash and poor reliability. It was replaced by a Honda Integra which was kind of a polar opposite.

    And Van Rouge/ Van Blanc remains one of my favourite special editions.

    Thanks for the memories, Daniel.

  3. I’ve just spent ten minutes gazing at the picture of the dashboard, which, apart from being LHD, is identical to the one in my mother’s 1983 11RE, even unto the econoscope (the red and yellow lights under the clock that were supposed to help you drive more economically). I passed my driving test on that car and so it holds particularly fond memories for me.

    Of course, it wouldn’t be a Citroën of that era without some idiosyncrasies. What springs to my mind is how easily you could plunge yourself into darkness at night if the headlamp switch wasn’t properly set; the way the undamped fuel gauge needle would sway about; and the charming graphics of the behatted head and shoe on the heating distribution control.

  4. I obtained my Spanish driving licence back in 1990 with a 1986 Visa II RD. I remember fondly that car.

    Visas were rugged, frugal and functional beasts.

    Once I saw a Visa RD with almost 400.000 Km. An amazing achievement in a popular car built in the 1980s.

    C15s are still ubiquitous in Spain. Vigo Citroën plant manufactured the last one in 2005 (!)

    https://www.elmundo.es/elmundomotor/2005/12/05/empresas/1133805620.html

    Users love the old beasts. If you have an expensive problem with a complex modern van someone will tell you “that never happened with a C15”. Of course, equipment the c15 did not had could not go wrong.

    1. And back at that time most marques had their own van and not a shared body. There was a Ford Escort van an Opel Astra van and Peugeot 205 van, for example. Ford´s Tourneo is a nice modern van, to be fair. Is there a van spun off a small Mercedes? Yes, and it´s based on a Renault. Goodness.

    2. Hello Spanish Reader. Thank you for sharing the nice photo, which I have inserted into your comment.

  5. Good afternoon all. It is apparent that the Visa was a characterful and charming car that is remembered with affection by many. Notwithstanding its Peugeot derived underpinnings, it really was a ‘proper’ Citroën too, and a worthy successor to the Ami.

    1. Hello Daniel, yes – definitely a ‘proper’ Citroën, in that it ignored convention for the benefit of those travelling in it.

      As the adverts show, even going for a 5-door only design was unusual, at the time. The aerodynamics weren’t very special, but they didn’t need to be – it would be economical in any case and maximising room and visibility was more important.

      Then there’s the comfort-biased seats and ride, and the clever controls. It’s got charm and character to spare, too.

      By chance, I’ve just watched a review of an Audi e-tron Sportback which produces 800+ nm of torque and weighs 2.7 tonnes. A nice car, I’m sure, but the antithesis of the philosophy which produced the Visa.

  6. Even though it is redundant given how much of a leap forward the inline-4 engines were, was the Visa capable of receiving the GS engine?

    A Visa Break prototype was looked at though not proceeded with.

    This Visa study by Heuliez looks tidier compared to the mk2 and can see shades of the later AX at the front, not keen however on the alternative study that looks too much like a Peugeot at the front.

    http://leroux.andre.free.fr/h4c.htm

    1. Hi Bob. Interesting photos, thanks for posting. The rear looks a bit like the Mk1 SEAT Ibiza.

  7. We had black GT model from new in 1983. A really distinctive, imaginative and light-hearted vehicle. I think my father bought it as it got such good reviews in Car magazine. My mother kept stealing the keys.

    Re brochures, I find this site is very good (if you don’t mind losing hours of your life at a time):

    https://www.veikl.com/

    Lastly, a couple of commercials that I think sum-up the spirit of the car, nicely.

    1. Hi Charles. Thanks for posting the advertisements, which are great fun. Isn’t it nice to see a car manufacturer not taking itself too seriously in its advertising?

  8. I need to stop reading this as I am in danger of selling my Honda and getting a Citroen! We had a Xsara Picasso some years back which was a fantastically practical family car. We loved it egg-like shape and people centric design

    1. A terrific read, thank you. Really accurately describes our experience of the Picasso. Ours was a 1.8i Exclusive with the glass roof. Superb until the a/c packed up one hot summer! We got rid of it because the gear lever / centre console restricted my knee and it made it ache on long journeys (6’2’’). My wife never forgave me as we traded up to a Nissan Xtrail which drank diesel through the early years of austerity. Your article has helped me to balance up my rose tinted glasses view of the Picasso. It was ultimately an appliance of a thing, useful but tedious to drive, it would have gone well with a V6 and 4WD. Curiously my Mum purchased an Auto with leather seats. Not many of those around. It was half decent so we kept a Picasso in the family after ours had gone. Long departed now of course! Best wishes and thanks again

  9. Here’s the revised Visa dashboard, more conventional but less interesting:

    1. The one on the GTi was like that, but had the 205 GTi’s six-gauge IP. Phwoar!

    2. The first layout of the Visa’s dashboard is pure gold. Museum quality. Looks complicated, but is totally simple. Just gold.

      The second version is a bit more boring, but still better than 99.9% of the current automotive rubbish.

      The GTi’s dashboards are already heading towards oversaturation.

      What a brilliant vehicle. In retrospect, one has the feeling that everything was done right, but the majority of contemporaries did not realise it.

    3. My word, that brought back memories, what with the almost deadly-looking pre-airbag steering wheel! I remember now the spare (alloy) wheel had to live in the boot as it would not fit under the bonnet, robbing much of the available luggage space. The GTi shared the wider track at the front of the diesels, and I think that, overall, I would have been happier with the torquey derv-sipper; I never really fitted in as a boy racer (nor did the Visa for that matter).

    4. Like most French cars fro the past the Visa could take a retrofit ‘tableau Jaeger’, standard for Chrono ans Mille Pistes.

  10. On the first version the rear graphics are very tidy – the body side defines the boundaries of the rear lights and tailgate.
    Later versions demanded the lamps spead around to the side – it´s not as neat but was it a legal requirement? On the XJ-S there are silly tabs that also spread from the rear to the side (making a mess even messier).

  11. if these articles have created desire to own one of these 104-based cars and you’re in the UK, your pockets are safe: there do not seem to be any for sale! There are a small number of C15, all camper conversions except for one (restored) £5k pick-up: https://www.carandclassic.co.uk/car/C1312103

    Further afield, there are a several Visas on mobile.de including a 205k km diesel for Euro1500 which looks clean enough on the face of it. Also the 104 that Richard posted – and there has been another since, with a charming period rev-counter: https://suchen.mobile.de/fahrzeuge/details.html?id=318514074

    Thanks for these articles, it has been enjoyable to read them.

  12. So – I looked at the ad and was taken by it completely. It´s a very Citroeny car which I ought to add to the TA, DS, CX, SM, 2CV, Dyane, Ami, GS/GSA, BX, XM and (with respect to SV!) the C6. I think I prefer it to the 2CV (not that I don´t like those).

    1. Cheaper ones seem to be in Italy and also they are older too. I saw one for 500 euros which is cheap enough for it not to be a serious punt. There are newer, cleaner ones in Holland but they cost more and don´t have the lunules. There´s much less point to having a Visa if it doesn´t have the Citroen controls.

  13. Hi everybody! I think the Visa is a real Citroën through and through. It’s got enough Citroënesque features to comfortably earn its badge: Weird styling, wacky interior and ergonomics (at least in the original), soft, long travel suspension that allows plenty of body lean, and that general emphasis on austere lightness. Even its engine would qualify, despite its Peugeot design, being peculiar and not mainstream. I always thought the Visa looked older than a late 70s design should, but I celebrate its quirkiness. Great post, Daniel!

    1. Thanks for your kind words and glad you enjoyed the piece, Cesar. The response has shown that there’s a lot of affection out there for the Visa!

  14. Daniel thank you for the article! DTW is on an absolute roll at the moment.

    We had two Visas, a basic model and then a GT. It’s not far off thirty years ago now so my recollections are fading but I think we go them both very cheap – unpopular cars and needed some fix or other – clutch if I remember rightly for the GT.

    A similar buying model to the multiple Hillman Imps and variants that we owned.

    Both had the lanules – it was a very effective dashboard with the possible exception of the econoscope – thanks for the reminder Jonathan, I had completely forgotten that.

    A worthy Citroen? For me it’s a yes, styling accommodation, comfort, controls. And the single wiper definitely helps.

    1. You’re welcome, Rick. Good to hear you’re enjoying the site.

      Your mention of the Imp has got me thinking…

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