The G-Series transformed Citroën’s Irish market fortunes – albeit not necessarily in the manner intended.
The Citroën GS was a vitally important motor car for the French automaker, marking its first serious post-war offering in the medium (C-segment) class, placing the double chevron into the very heart of the volume car market. Overwhelmingly voted Car of the Year for 1970, the technically and stylistically advanced G-series appeared set for pan-European sales success.
The GS would also prove a defining model for Citroën’s ambitions in the Republic of Ireland, albeit not for reasons Quai de Javel would necessarily care to be reminded of. But before examining this unfortunate episode, let us first briefly review the marque’s somewhat intermittent Irish backstory.
Since the formation of the modern state in 1921, Ireland’s car market has remained relatively small and somewhat narrow in its tastes and preferences. Characterised by a somewhat rudimentary and mostly serpentine road network, largely dating back to the nineteenth century, the climate and topography have favoured more durable and compliant varieties of motor vehicle.
The Irish motorist too, with a number of exceptions, edged towards practicality, durability and fitness for purpose over overt technical novelty or ravishing beauty, the longstanding popularity of Ford, BMC’s more traditional offerings and Volkwagen’s evergreen Beetle aptly illustrating this practicality-first mindset.
Despite this, the cars of Automobiles Citroën were theoretically suited to Irish road conditions, but for a variety of reasons, have not sold here in quantity. But not so fast, for during the early years of the Irish state, Citroën did make notable sales inroads; “The French Universal Car“, sold exclusively by McEntagart Bros in Dublin becoming a regular sight on Ireland’s roads, such as they then were.
But the early success of the double chevron in the Irish market was cut short – largely by the Free State government’s 1932 policy of imposing swinging duties upon imported vehicles, with the aim of nudging carmakers to set up assembly operations here. Having invested in a lavish showroom close to Dublin’s upmarket Grafton Street, McEntagart’s Citroën business collapsed following these measures, relinquishing the Citroën franchise shortly after.
Prior to the outbreak of war, Ashenhurst Williams & Co became Citroën concessionaire, but it would not be until the early 1950s that the double chevron returned to what was now the Republic of Ireland, with small numbers of Traction Avant and later ID 19 models being assembled in Dublin from CKD kits supplied from the UK factory in Slough.
In 1965 a Free Trade Agreement was negotiated with the UK which allowed a limited number of fully built British vehicles to be imported without duties being imposed. It was progress of a sort, but so-called Continental marques remained prohibitively expensive, if available at all. However, further change was afoot. New Year’s Day 1973 marked the nation’s entry into the European Economic Community (EEC), meaning import duties on most imported European cars were lifted, allowing a wider choice of vehicles and the gradual running down of assembly operations in the Republic.
Following Ireland’s entry into the EEC, Ashenhurst Williams set up Citroën Importers (Ireland) Limited to act as nationwide distributor, establishing for the first time, a network of dedicated Citroën dealers. This would prove timely, since Citroën was now able to offer its most convincing new model since the 1955 DS 19.
Coincidentally, Citroën had chosen the remote resort of Rosapenna on the rugged North West Donegal coastline for the 1970 European press launch of their new midline GS. Flown in on the double chevron’s own Dassault Falcon jet, about 400 international journalists descended (in batches) upon the picturesque Donegal backwater, giving the 18 press cars a thorough seeing to; the Italian journalists in particular it seems, returning the cars in decidedly second-hand condition.
The GS wasn’t offered for sale in the Republic until the Spring of 1973, initially in 1220 cc Club specification. The 1015 cc G-Special would later become available, but sold in paltry numbers. The GS had been criticised by the press at launch for a lack of power and torque , but in service, more serious issues arose. The GS was an entirely new car, with no carry-over from any pre-existing model. Hence, a certain number of teething troubles were perhaps inevitable.
Early engines proved highly sensitive to the brand of lubricant used, and required oil changes at 3000-mile intervals. Under certain circumstances, camshaft failures took place, with a significant quantity of early 1015 cc engines being thus affected. Oil consumption was also noted as being unusually high – a matter highlighted by the Dutch importer in direct communication with dealers in late 1971. Citroën took the camshaft issue seriously, carrying out extensive investigations and by late 1972, believed they had resolved them. Most of the issues were rectified under warranty, and while some customers were inconvenienced, the European reputation of the GS remained largely unsullied.
Citroën recommended the use of Total lubricants (Shell was also an approved brand), but it remains unclear as to how explicitly this had been communicated by the factory. Further complicating matters was the scarcity of Total oil in Ireland at the time. It is believed that Ashenhurst Williams used another (albeit highly reputable) brand of motor oil exclusively in their service facilities, although it’s likely they did so without the knowledge that it contained additives detrimental to the GS engine. What is beyond doubt however is that multiple camshaft failures did take place amidst Irish market GS models in the years following the model’s 1973 introduction – the bulk of the cars affected being the better regarded 1220 cc models.
Where the precise cause lay remains unclear, but an already difficult situation was further compounded by the fact that that Ashenhurst Williams was unwilling to cover the costs of rectifying the affected cars, many of which occurred while still under warranty. While other European importers proposed quite lenient enforcement of warranty clauses to service outlets, the Irish importer did not, leading to a catastrophic breakdown in confidence between owner and agent, much adverse press publicity and the subsequent establishment of a dedicated owner-organised pressure group, consisting of over 150 highly dissatisfied Irish GS customers and motor journalists.
The issues were eventually resolved, but the reputation of the importer, the GS model line and Citroën itself was grievously tarnished by an unfortunate and what seems entirely avoidable episode. Certainly, the G-Series never recovered in the Irish market, henceforth failing to make any noticeable headway before being superseded by the BX in 1984.
The advent of the GS was a prime opportunity to embed the Citroën marque amid the more technically literate Irish customer. Instead, the GS became synonymous with mechanical frailty and a severed bond between importer and customer. It took years for Citroën’s poor reputation to fade.
The double chevron’s Irish fortunes ebbed and flowed over the following decades, to some extent cleaving to the ever-shifting political sands within Groupe PSA which controlled them. Now part of the sprawling Stellantis group, Citroën have staged a pan-European commercial recovery after years in the doldrums. In Ireland however, they seem destined to remain a minor player.
Having once held around 4% of the Irish market, in the year to date, Citroën maintain the number 20 spot amid new car registrations, with 827 cars registered – down 1.08% on 2020, and with a paltry 0.8% of a depressed market. This despite the availability of the new C4 model, a car which not only is claimed to visually honour the GS, but like it (theoretically at least), ought to appeal to a wide swathe of Irish motorists. Nevertheless, while Citroën’s sales performance eclipses that of its sister DS brand by some margin, the double chevron’s ‘s Irish fortunes remain in suspension.
 Following a bitter war of independence, the 1921 treaty with Great Britain saw the formation of what was then termed the Irish Free State, an independent nation within the British Commonwealth, consisting of 26 out of the 32 Counties of Ireland. (The six Counties of Ulster remained in the UK). In 1948, the Free State seceded completely, formally becoming an autonomous Republic.
 In later years, Toyota, Datsun/Nissan and more recently, Hyundai made significant sales inroads.
 The very few fully-hydropneumatic DS models sold in Ireland were sourced direct from Javel. Neither the 2CV nor Ami models were offered in the Republic at this time, although the Tin Snail would belatedly arrive to these shores during the mid-1980s.
 It took until 1985 before these operations ceased entirely.
 The GS was launched with the 1015 cc engine. The 1220 cc model debuted in 1972.
 Source: Marc Stabèl. GS & GSA – Citroën’s Avant-Garde Mid-Range Cars.
 On mainland Europe, the 1220 cc GS engine was well-regarded for its durability.
 Another possible factor was the Irish dealer network’s inexperience of handling Citroën’s technically dense cars. This would improve, but too late to be of assistance in this instance.
 Ashenhurst Williams’ primary business involved the assembly and servicing of Leyland commercials in Ireland, so it’s possible that the increasingly fractious situation at British Leyland at this time may also have distracted from the problems with the Citroën franchise; Citroën themselves hardly being untroubled themselves at this juncture. Ashenhurst Williams ceased trading in 1982, for reasons unrelated to this episode.
 The BX did much to repair perceptions in the Irish market; the C15 light commercial also proving popular.
 It appears that Brand-DS have registered a grand total of zero cars in Ireland this year.
It’s important to note that the current Irish Citroën importers are in no way related to Ashenhurst Williams or the issues documented in this article.
I’m indebted to Dublin-based Citroëniste and historian, Frank Bergin who generously shared his exhaustive research into Citroën’s Irish market history; his painstaking fact-finding forms the basis of this piece. Grateful thanks also to GS historian, Marc Stabèl, whose fine history on the GS has recently been revised and reprinted. (ISBN: 978-90-831417-0-1)