Suspended State

The G-Series transformed Citroën’s Irish market fortunes – albeit not necessarily in the manner intended.

GS publicity shot. citroenet.org.uk

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[1], 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.[2]

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.[3]

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.[4]

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.

GS brochure. veikl

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[5] , 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.[6] 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.[7]

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.[8] 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.

GS press shot. citroenet.org

The issues were eventually resolved, but the reputation of the importer[9], 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.[10]

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.[11] 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[12], the double chevron’s ‘s Irish fortunes remain in suspension.

[1] 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.

[2] In later years, Toyota, Datsun/Nissan and more recently, Hyundai made significant sales inroads.

[3] 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.

[4] It took until 1985 before these operations ceased entirely.

[5] The GS was launched with the 1015 cc engine. The 1220 cc model debuted in 1972.

[6] Source: Marc Stabèl. GS & GSA – Citroën’s Avant-Garde Mid-Range Cars.

[7] On mainland Europe, the 1220 cc GS engine was well-regarded for its durability.

[8] 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.

[9] 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. 

[10] The BX did much to repair perceptions in the Irish market; the C15 light commercial also proving popular.

[11] Beepbeep.com

[12] 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)

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

16 thoughts on “Suspended State”

  1. I hadn’t heard this story before, but as soon as I read the GS’s engine required a particular oil to remain in good health, the rest was sadly inevitable. I’m not sure the outcome would have been much different even had Total been widely available. I’m reminded of the Neil Tobín gag about two men discussing a van: ‘”Does she burn much oil?” “She would if she got it!”‘

  2. Good morning Eóin. This story had previously passed me by, so thanks for sharing it this morning. I remember occasionally seeing the GS around Dublin in the early 1970s and thinking how strikingly modern they looked in comparison with anything else on the road at the time. I particularly recall them in a striking contemporary orange colour:

    The refusal of the importer to honour warranty claims must seem outrageous to DTW’s younger readers, but was indicative of just how poor after-sales service was back then. Once you drove the car off the forecourt, you were pretty much on your own.

    Motor Distributors, who asembled (I use the word advisedly) Volkswagen and, later, Mazda cars in Dublin were pretty indifferent when my father’s new Beetle began to corrode prematurely along the folded seams that formed the rain gutters along the edges of the roof. History repeated itself when the front wings and tailgate my Mazda 323 rusted through. In both cases, the problem was inadequate (or no) rust-proofing.

    1. What a lovely colour and, indeed, a strikingly modern and attractive design: Only some details and peripheral materials date it. What a shame it was hobbled by a combination of mechanical sensitivity and poor service.

      This article reminds me just what a forward-looking, rational car manufacturer Citroën once was. I like to think that the GS would have appealed to me, had I been around at the time.

    2. Hello Daniel, Your example picture shows the colour Jaune Héliante, which was only available on the X models in MY 1975. I guess you recall Orange Ténéré, which was available from January 1974 up to September 1976 and a rather popular colour in those days. Best, Marc

    3. Hello Marc and thanks for your comment. The cars I remember didn’t have black painted window frames, so that makes sense! 🙂

    4. I think this is the orange ténéré colour I remember:

  3. Good afternoon, Eóin. I always liked the GS. They sold well over here, I think, but did have a reputation of being a bit fragile. The trade in value was very low too. Customer care in those days was pretty terrible as I recall my dad’s experience with his 504. Peugeot lost a customer for life.

  4. The GS was built in Spain since 1971 in Citroën´s factory in Vigo. Until then Citroën Hispania only sold the 2CV and Dyane 6, so the GS was a lot more sophisticated offering (from 1975 the CX would be built in Vigo, too).
    I didn´t hear about the camshaft issue but here the GS rapidly got a bad reputation for being difficult (and expensive) to mantain and repair, and resale value was worst in class.
    Regarding the recommended oil brand, remember all those Citroen ads in the magazines finishing with “Citroen prefere Total”…

    I remember a couple of things related with the GS from my childhood in the ´80s: a Palas (easily recognisable by the stainless steel hubcaps) burning next to a toll booth in the motorway, the hapless family that travelled in it a few minutes before watching how the car was going up in flames; and how many GSs, dirty and vandalized, were abandoned in the streets of my city.

  5. The story of customer disservice was repeated on a large scale with the Alfa 156.
    French manufacturers never were known for being particularly interested in their customers. Peugeot still is treating potential customers like beggars (asking money for photocopies of sales brochures) and the workshops and their sta dards of work aren’t what they should be…

  6. I was a fan of the GS, and I had a brief drive of one – a Welsh uncle dealt in secondhand cars. It was a model I wanted, until I realised Citroens weren’t very DIY friendly. I had a poor opinion of Main Dealer mechanics in 70’s Ireland and I’m not surprised the GS had problems, although I hadn’t heard of camshaft issues before.

    1. i had 3 or 4 gs /gsa models back in the 1980s. they were auction fodder by then. i got my v reg gsa for £60 with 9 months mot. 5 speed box and 1300 engine,it went like a bomb but sounded like a bag of spanners with its rattling camshafts. they were a flawed genius of a car.great to drive and supremely comfortable. BUT ! boy oh boy did they rust to bits.

  7. It’s a shame that the rotary engine was abandoned. Speaking of which, here’s a rather charming film from Citroën which promotes that technology, with due acknowledgment shown to Wankel and NSU. There are plenty of ‘Total’ signs in evidence, of course. It made me smile when a customer asked the petrol pump attendant to ‘Faites le plein’ (fill it up) – it’s a long time since I’ve heard that phrase.

    1. I remember seeing a GS Birotor in the wild only once. It was the demonstrator of our local Citroen dealer who drove around in it for a couple of weeks before the car was collected up by the importer and sent back to France.

      A couple of years ago I had a conversation with someone who had a beautiful CX Prestige. We talked about the GS Birotor and when I mentioned that it was a pity that Citroen had collected them all he said that it could not have been all because he had seven of them…

  8. I remember a work colleague buying a used GS back in 1974 and breaking down. He rang the office and myself and another lad said we’d pop out to see if we could help. I had a Viva HA and my mate an Anglia so imagine our surprise when we opened the bonnet! It was like nothing we had seen before and we had to tell our colleague it was a main dealer job. Never fancied a Citroen after that.

  9. I’ve had a thing about GSs over the past few years – I think it is the outright bravery of such a clean-sheet design, full of innovative solutions and lateral thinking which appeals (i.e. the very things that insured the GS’s fragility). Oddly, I hanker for a later car, possibly a GSA and certainly one with the mad, late 70’s dash with the PRN lunules.

    Back to the story in hand … what a shocker! No wonder the marque does so badly over there!! Oh, and it still irks me that people think that the new C4 can be compared in any way with the GS.

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