The Phantom Joint Venture – Part One

In this series, we examine a persistent bit of car lore involving French President Charles de Gaulle and two beautiful, yet flawed cars: the Lancia Gamma and Citroën CX.

As a kid, a teenager and, later on, young adult, I had very little interest in sports, and my artistic talents were pretty much non-existent. So, I looked to car publications for a source of inspiration. Impressed as I was by the detailed reviews and technical columns that contained a wealth of information that would be considered taboo today, I confess I took pretty much everything written there at face value. This applied not only to the reviews themselves, but to other sections of those magazines – from the ones that dabbled in automotive history to the ones where the contributors unfolded their political wisdom.

This exposed me to a non-trivial amount of rather dubious narratives that were (and some still are) presented as some sort of indisputable truth. For instance, in my teens I genuinely believed the major car publications’ narrative about a leftist conspiracy led by evil trade unionists and the hard-left populists of PASOK[1]‘ and aided by the ‘unpatriotic communists[2] that aimed to destroy Greece’s entire industrial sector, starting with Teokar[3] and Biamax[4]. An entire generation of readers (yours truly included) bought it hook, line, and sinker.

These narratives, of course, extended to the international automobile industry as well. Among these was the one concerning a supposed joint venture between Citroën and Lancia for the development of a large family car platform which, equipped with a Lancia flat-four engine and Citroën’s hydropneumatic suspension, would replace the venerable DS and the well-engineered, but slow-selling Flavia. But, alas, this wasn’t meant to be: according to car lore, Charles de Gaulle threw a nationalist fit and said ‘non’, throwing a spanner in the works and forcing Citroën to resort to the inline-four from the DS, and Lancia to not use the hydropneumatic suspension.

As I grew up and started putting car lore side-by-side with political and industrial history, I realized that these narratives that are still presented as truth by the automotive Press should be taken with a Panamax of kosher salt. Eventually, the time came for me to question the alleged Citroën-Lancia JV.

Could Have Been

A Citroën-Lancia JV focusing on the CX and the Gamma is a fascinating thought experiment for classic car aficionados, so much so that it is often presented as a historical fact. Both cars on their own were remarkable and charming for their own reasons, and both were flawed – the Gamma more so.

At launch, the CX was criticized mostly for its underpowered base engine, which also wasn’t exactly the last word in smoothness. The Gamma, on the other hand, was saddled with reliability issues caused by errors in engineering judgement that ruined its reputation. Finally, both cars lacked a six-cylinder option, which limited them to a maximum displacement of 2.4 (CX) and 2.5 litres (Gamma). This was deemed too large and uncivilized for a four-cylinder engine, especially a flat-four, and too small to compete with the biggest engines offered in what came from Cologne (Ford Granada), Munich (BMW 5-series E12), Rüsselsheim (Opel Commodore and Senator) and Stuttgart (Mercedes-Benz W114/115 and W123).

If we’re to believe automotive lore, Citroën’s Projet L, which eventually became the CX we know and love, and Lancia’s Ammiraglia (i.e. range-topping) Tipo 830 project, which eventually became the Gamma, started out as a joint venture, and were separated quite late in their development, with the Gamma suffering the most for it. Veteran car journalist Peter ‘Robbo’ Robinson writes: Three prototypes were built, using Citroen suspension adapted to the Lancia floorpan. The irresistible Lancia inclination to be different led to the birth of a new water-cooled flat-four engine of either 2.0 or 2.4-litres. Camuffo still maintained that this engine layout brings a lower centre of gravity and permits a lower bonnet line. Then, when it seemed the Fiat-Citroen deal would come off, the merger was cancelled, some say because French President, Charles De Gaulle, opposed the use of French technology in an Italian car[5].”

Robinson’s narrative conjures an image of a magnificent future doomed to never happen: two strikingly beautiful and innovative cars, both equipped with hydropneumatic suspensions and, perhaps, both equipped with adequately powerful 2.0- and 2.5-liter SOHC flat-fours developed by Lancia. This would certainly give the guys in the Bundesrepublik reason enough to pause and take notice – at the very least. But, if we’re to believe automotive lore, Charles de Gaulle famously said ‘non’ and put paid to all of this, denying two iconic and pioneering manufacturers an opportunity to collaborate and compete on equal terms against what became today’s main premium brands.

A Veto From The Grave?

What did de Gaulle veto? And when?  Credit: IMDb
What did de Gaulle veto? And when? Credit: IMDb

It’s true that de Gaulle didn’t shy away from vetoing things whenever he felt he had to. However, as attractive and useful to the “government is bad” free-market propagandists the whole “old nationalist killjoy de Gaulle vetoed the CX/Gamma JV” narrative might be, it quickly falls apart when one starts examining things chronologically. 

Robinson writes that development work on the Gamma, with Citroën’s suspensions in mind and on the three prototypes he wrote about, started in 1972 – month not specified[5]. That’s roughly two years after de Gaulle died (9 November, 1970). Don’t you think it’s a little hard to believe he somehow took a break from his sessions with the choir invisible to come back to the realm of the living and veto the whole thing? Then again, it’s de Gaulle we’re talking about, so who knows? Perhaps he did.

There’s also another problem with the narrative: it tells us that de Gaulle vetoed this alleged JV because he didn’t want an Italian car (or, more likely, any foreign car) to incorporate French technology. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but hadn’t Rolls-Royce acquired a license to use the hydropneumatic suspension on the 1965 Silver Shadow, while de Gaulle was still very much alive? In licensing Rolls-Royce to use its technology, wasn’t Citroën handing out advanced French technology to a foreign country and poo-poo’ing ‘the Great Asparagus’[6]?

And not just any foreign country, mind you; we’re talking about the very one whose entry into the European Economic Community de Gaulle had vetoed in 1963, and proceeded to do again in 1967; the very one that had been France’s fiercest rival for centuries. Clearly, this doesn’t do much to strengthen the narrative about de Gaulle torpedoing the CX/Gamma JV narrative, especially in its “he did it because he didn’t want the Italians to gain French tech” guise. The narrative is further weakened if we remember that Citroën owned Maserati from 1968 to 1972, a partnership entailing an extensive technological exchange between the two companies that flew right in the face of the hypothetical “thou shalt not give French technology to foreigners” commandment.

But did de Gaulle veto anything? As a matter of fact, yes. But what he so vehemently objected to wasn’t what the majority of car pundits, Robinson included, think and/ or say it was, and the reasoning behind his veto was nowhere near as shallow as we have been led to think it was. To understand what he vetoed and why, we need to delve a bit into the individual histories of Citroën and Lancia, with the period in question being our main focus. This is precisely what we’ll do in the upcoming segments of this story.

Sources, quotations, and acknowledgements:

[1] PASOK is Greece’s once-socialist party, which started out as a Labour/SPD wannabe. Gradually, it devolved into a cross between a cut-price New Labour and a bargain basement-grade Freie Demokratische Partei. Eventually, under the burden of debts that are, at the time of writing, higher than €300 million, it rebranded itself as “KINAL” (Kinima Allagis – Movement for Change) to keep the lights on and offload its debts on the plebs.

[2] In Greece, “mainstream” political pundits still push a Red Scare of sorts, whose subtlety (or lack thereof) depends on the interests and/or obsessions of the publication’s owner.

[3] Teokar imported Nissans back then and assembled a few models from CKDs for the Greek market. The narrative was that it could evolve to become a major factory and research and development centre that would export cars to all of Europe, were it not for the trade unionists and the Left. Truth is, it was rendered redundant as Nissan Motor Manufacturing UK came in full swing. Now it focuses on solar power.

[4] Biamax was a Greek vehicle manufacturer, whose main activity was coachbuilding, mostly on Mercedes-Benz underpinnings. When Greece’s market opened up to used bus and truck imports from other EEC countries, it found it harder and harder to survive. It ceased its coachbuilding activities in 1986 and focused on acting as a car dealership. It closed its doors for good in 1998. Certain Greek classic bus aficionados claim the company was even more technically advanced than Mercedes-Benz.

[5] Peter Robinson – Lancia’s Camuffo; Australian Motor Heritage Foundation

[6] One of de Gaulle’s nicknames, given to him at the Saint-Cyr Military Academy, for his stature, high forehead, and nose. Source: Jonathan  Fenby – The General: Charles De Gaulle and the France He Saved New York, Simon & Schuster, 2010 (p. 301)

[7] Carlo Pesenti – Wikipedia (Italian Edition)

[8] Antonio Fessia – Wikipedia (Italian Edition)

[9] CEMSA Caproni F.11 – Wikipedia (Italian Edition)

[10] Everything to the Front – Eóin Doyle : Driven To Write, 30 January, 2021

[11] Enzo Altorio – Lancia fulvia HF e tutte le altre Fulvia, Giorgio Nada Editore, 1992.

[12] Andrew James Jacobs – The Automotive Industry and European Integration: The Divergent Paths of Belgium and Spain, Palgrave MacMillan, 2019 (p. 346)

[13] Comotor – Wikipedia

[14] A. J. Jacobs – The Automotive Industry and European Integration: The Divergent Paths of Belgium and Spain, Palgrave MacMillan, 2019 (p. 348)

[15] A. J. Jacobs – The Automotive Industry and European Integration: The Divergent Paths of Belgium and Spain, Palgrave MacMillan, 2019 (p. 347)

[16] Signs and Portents – Eóin Doyle : Driven To Write, 8 August 2019

[17] Blues for Ceaușescu – Eóin Doyle : Driven To Write, 17 Sep 2020

[18] Oltcit Club/Citroën Axel development story : AROnline, 7 November 2021

[19] Franco Amatori, Storia della Lancia. Impresa Tecnologia e Mercati, 1906-1969, Milano, Fabbri, 1992 (pp. 107-111) 

[20] William Rust, “Transitioning into CIA: The Strategic Services Unit in Indonesia” (PDF) Retrieved July 22, 2016

[21] Jan P. Norbye, Citroën SM, Automobilia, 1991 (p.13)

[22] Projet L : Citroënët, retrieved 2 January 2022

[23] Carrozzeria designs : Pininfarina 1800 : AROnline, 6 March 2017

[24] Deserving Beta (Part One) – Daniel O’Callaghan : Driven To Write, 27 Sep 2021

[25] Marc Sonnery, Maserati – the Citroën Years 1968-1975, Eau Rouge Publishing 2012 (p. 109/169)

Author: Konstantinos Tzoannopoulos

Industrial engineer. Disgruntled lover of Italian cars. Virtual worlds dilettante.

32 thoughts on “The Phantom Joint Venture – Part One”

  1. Good morning, Konstantinos. An interesting connection between the CX and Gamma, that I was only vaguely aware of. I never was interested in the Gamma that much to be honest. I like Lancia, but mainly the older cars. Also you almost never saw a Gamma around, I think I saw probably ten in total. Maybe that had an effect too. The big Citroën was once common, now I know of more DS’s in my area than CX’s.

    Looking forward to part two.

  2. Very very interesting start of a series, many thanks Konstantinos, looking forward to the next installment already. Especially as you cover the subject matter from so many angles. One nit-pick (sorry…) The Greek would be full of cheer if they’d have “only” 300 million in debt. I’m afraid it’s a 1000 times as much, and then some, realistically. That said it’s also really interesting to learn about Greek car production as well.

    1. Hey Joost, I think he is referring to the debts of “PASOK”, the political party itself, not the country as a whole.

    2. Sorry, now i see, it was too early, and this thus is a nice example of ‘conditioned reading’…

  3. Is it known whether de Gaulle crossed river Styx or Eridanous for his short journey to say ‘non’?

    Short remark: the maximum size of the CX engine was 2.5 litres, not 2.4.

    1. Yes, that’s true, although I think Konstantinos is referring to the earlier CX’s. The 2500 only became available in 1977 as a Diesel and in 1983 as a petrol. When launched the biggest engine was the 2200. The 2400 was introduced in 1976. It’s only 2,347 cm3, so technically it would be a 2.3.

    2. Freerk is right. The CXs I was talking about were the early ones, and, since the Gamma (with whom the CX was supposedly connected) was only available with petrol engines, I had focused on the petrol versions.

  4. Good morning Konstantinos. You have chosen a great subject for further investigation. The CX and Gamma were iconic in my teenage car-obsessed years (even if the Gamma was a glorious failure) so I’m really looking forward to seeing where this story takes us. For a young Irish boy brought up on a diet of potatoes and Cortinas, Lancia and Citroën were impossibly exotic and vanishingly rare. Looking forward to the next installment.

    1. Hmm. I´ve read a good few reviews down the years and those point don´t stand out as particularly severe to call them flaws, more like part and parcel of each car having a weak point. Granadas had some coarse engines; a lot of Mercs were pretty slow and none too good on rear leg-room. Things like the dodgy cambelts on Gammas are what I´d call flaws.

    2. With a wheelbase like that, though one would expect better rear legroom. Then again, this wheelbase was the result of its original design brief, which called for an MF layout like the DS’.

    3. I don’t exactly see the CX as flawed, either. The rear legroom was not too bad, but of course if you compare it to a DS with its much longer wheelbase (over 25 cm difference), then it wasn’t too good. But what goes more in the direction of a flaw is the restricted rear headroom. This even lead to the Prestige (LWB) versions gaining an elevated roof after the first year or so.
      Another issue was certainly its rust-proneness and general shoddy quality. Some rust traps were perhaps the result of an unfavourable design (e.g. the covered rear wheelarches), but most of it could have been resolved by better rustproofng.

      What the CX in fact had at the beginning was a somewhat incomplete range and equipment. Placed lower in the hierarchy than the still available DS, it gained power steering and larger engines only after some time. But also here: not strictly flaws, but shortcomings that were remedied later.

      But Konstantinos, please don’t get me wrong: I actually don’t want to criticize you piece, as I really enjoyed it, and look forward to reading the next part(s) a lot! I like how these two extraordinary and interesting cars are put side by side, and I hope I get more insight especially in the Gamma (I’ve already read tons on the CX and I’ve owned two of them, but I might be surprised and still learn new things).

    4. Whether flawed or weak point, I think the rear legroom is small given its substantial wheelbase, but that isn’t too much of an issue. I once sat in the back of a CX with aftermarket sunroof. The lack of headroom was so substantial I would call it a 2+2. Without the sunroof there would have been more headroom, but still too little to sit comfortably.

      I agree with Konstantinos that the car is compromised for not having the engine it was supposed to have, but in case of the Wankel that might actually be an advantage. But this is a bit of a thing with some of the large Citroëns: as far as I know the Traction Avant was supposed to have an automatic gearbox, the DS would have been nicer with the intended flat six, the CX didn’t get the Wankel.

      Having said that, I’m quite fond of them all.

    5. Freerk: The big Citroëns not getting what they were supposed to continues even beyond the CX. The XM at least had V6 engines, although the PRV wasn’t the epitome of smoothness and performance. It also had a quite complete line-up from simple carburettor 2-litre to fully equipped 200 hp flagships. Plus several diesels and an estate that almost matched the CX’s volume (although without extended wheelbase and with questionable aesthetics). But it never achieved the level that the “Activa” prototype promised: 4WD, all wheel steering, active roll compensation, etc. Allegedly, the platform was “4WD ready”, but this was never used.

      And the C6… It truly lacked adequate engines for its weight, the later top of the range 3 litre diesel was just about sufficient.

    6. Good morning, Simon. I saw a green XM V6 driving by yesterday. It was a quiet area so I could listen to the engine. That was quiet too, but it lacks the inherent balance of an in-line six. The PRV had of course the 90 degree angle between cylinder banks with the 30 degree offset in crankpins, not an ideal solution, but understandable as this engine started on the drawing board with two more cylinders. Despite all this it still sounded rather pleasant to my ears.

      I didn’t know there was a carburator engine in the XM. In the Netherlands the base engine was a 2.0 monopoint injection. The same engine with mulitpoint injection and slightly more power ran a lot smoother than the base engine.

      I had no idea that the platform was 4 WD ready, but I’d probably be more interested in the 4 wheel steering and active roll compensation. I liked the Activa concept and the Xantia Activa too. I still want to drive one. The system is a bit hard on the tires or so I am told.

      I’ve driven the C6 only once, with the 2.7 HDI engine. I liked it, but personally I feel this car would have benefited more from less weight than more power.

    7. Hi Freerk, my answer is a bit late, I don’t know if you will notice it.

      If that XM sounded unexpectedly smooth, it might also have been a later example. After 1997, they had a completely new V6 with a 60° angle. I had this engine in the Xantia (Activa, yes!). It was rather more refined than the PRV, and much more eager to rev, which produced a nice growling sound. I don’t remember that my Activa ate a lot of tyres, but then I only used its full potential sporadically (but with great pleasure). It was also a nice cruiser for Swiss highways, but the complicated suspension components tended to wear out after 15 years and 250’000 km, and I decided to switch cars.

      The C6, as you say, is rather too heavy, and I fully agree that it’s better to make cars light than to just use bigger engines.

      As in the Netherlands, the carburettor engine was never available in Switzerland. I don’t know if it was sold anywhere outside France. It was never available with a catalytic pot, that ruled out this variant for many countries already in 1989.

  5. Very interesting and I’m looking forward to the next instalment, too.

    There have been many examples of very successful UK / French collaborations – not least Concorde, of course; however, I understand the reasons for de Gaulle vetoing other things – but I’ll leave that to Konstantinos and another time.

    The CX robust and useful? Useful, certainly and at a basic level, reliable. My family had 2, from new, in the late seventies – both 2400 Pallas C-Matics. The first one (metallic brown with beige interior) was so badly built that it was exchanged for the second one (silver with a blue interior), which lasted about 5 years. The basic mechanicals were fine, but the bodywork and interior weren’t robust. Anything beyond the basics, like the aircon (points for specification bravery) and engine oil level gauges never worked.

    This brochure shows the silver car’s spec:

    I got the impression that the UK dealer network weren’t up to the task. We used to holiday in France and we once dropped in to a small town Citroën dealer for a suspension fluid top-up. We were treated like royalty and the dealer offered to check the car over. It transpired that it was still in its ‘low-performance’ pre-delivery mode – the UK dealer hadn’t prepared it correctly.

    We always said that it was a great concept, if only it had been built by Mercedes-Benz. The experience with Citroën led to the family subsequently buying only Swedish or German marques. Despite everything, I have very happy memories of Citroëns and miss having one.

    Incidentally, I came across a video featuring Projet L, recently:

  6. The English translated Citroen CX book by Michael Buurma mentions that one of the first Project L prototypes was equipped with a 95 hp 1654cc water-cooled Boxer based on the Lancia Flat-Four (rather than a larger capacity version of the GS Boxer motor), which was available due to the short-lived partnership between Fiat and Citroen at the time.

    However the engine was apparently rejected because the centre of gravity was too far forward and had an adverse effect on the handling, another likely factor was Citroen wanting a slightly bigger and more potent engine explaining why prototypes were built with a Maserati V6 and Wankel engines.

    1. That’s a very interesting piece of information! I can see how and why, after the PARDEVI accord was signed, Citroën might have experimented with the Lancia flat-four.

      But here’s the deal: these engines would have become available to Citroën only after 1970. Furthermore, they ran contrary to the Projet L’s design brief, which called for the car to have a MF layout, like the DS and the SM, and it was to be powered by Wankels and the Maserati-derived V6 – this can be easily seen in how far ahead of the passenger compartment the front wheels are located. The Lancia engine was simply not suited for this task, as it was designed to be mounted in front of the gearbox.

      Finally, the design brief for the CX came before Lancia and Citroën were acquired by Fiat, and was a “child” of Projet S, which begat the SM.

    2. The only surviving Project L prototype (that features the Lancia-sourced Boxer) dates back to 1971 and features 177.5-inch length, 65.4-inch width and 52.4-inch height.

      Perhaps it was Citroen’s way of experimenting what was in Fiat’s cupboard at the time, similar to how early versions of Project Y made use of a Fiat 127 platform (and possibly engine)?

      Sure, go ahead.

    3. Perhaps they were “checking out the goods”, I don’t know. The fact that the prototype dates back to 1971 proves beyond doubt that the split happened not because of de Gaulle, but because of other factors.

  7. Hi Konstantinos
    Funny story. I don’t remember this rumor was circulating here in France.
    Not only did de Gaulle died, as you mention, in 1970 but he had left office in 1969. Moreover he didn’t object to Citroën’s purchase of Maserati in 1968 which led to the use of HP systems in the later’s models such as the 1974 Khamsin and the Bertone Quattroporte II.

    1. Precisely. Yet, outside of France, many classic car journalists either adopt the idea that the CX and the Gamma would be built on a shared platform, but de Gaulle vetoed it, or mention it in the name of “let’s show both sides of the story”. In the latter case, they do so in a way that presents it as somethat that was likely to have happened, even if the dates don’t add up.

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