A short series in which we look at three small eco-concept cars from the 1980s and see what became of them.
I was an eighties teenager and consider that decade to have been influential on many aspects of the world today. After what seemed to me to have been the grim stagnation, complacency and listlessness of the seventies, the eighties saw the (sometimes painful and tragic) breaking of ties to the past and the search to replace them with future opportunities, especially in technological innovation.
Like myself at that time, I would argue it that was a decade which could be described as naïve, one in which political, economic, cultural and social ideals and principles still meant something. People who believed in those ideals and principles were prepared to stand or fall on experimenting with their trust and belief in them.
I also perceive that the experimental activities of car manufacturers in the 1980s resonated to the drumbeat of those times. Following the second oil-crisis at the end of the 1970s, governments leant on their national manufacturers to develop super-economical cars for the masses. Given that average real wages were still relatively low and credit availability tight at that time, it was no surprise that lower cost, sub-compact and compact cars were most often the subjects for such experimentation.
It was through the pages of Car Magazine that I experienced a quite fantastic and exciting era of innovative and interesting looking small car concepts. I believe this experience nurtured my fascination with small cars, which I still think should, above all, display intelligence in their conception and development, although it’s also handy if they come to production as fun to drive and engaging in character.
A notable differentiator of the times was that, back in the ’80s, ‘eco’ was taken to mean ‘economical’ rather than ‘ecological’ as we would assume today, although there should obviously be a read-across from former to latter. The three eco-concept marvels I have in mind are; the BL ECV 3, the Renault VISTA, and, to get us off to us a brisk start, the Citroën ECO 2000. These contemporaries demonstrated both similar and divergent solutions to the challenge of reducing fuel consumption, solutions which would inform production cars of the future – at least that was the idea.
The ECO 2000 was formally revealed at the 1984 Paris Salon. Like the other cars featured in this mini-series, it was not just a styling exercise, but a true, running experimental prototype. 50% of its cost of development came from French governmental research funds. The funding went to a joint Peugeot-Talbot-Citroën research organisation called DRAS.(1) Possibly because of this, it was clearly felt that its styling should not be attributed solely to Citroën (under Carl Olsen) and so was more anonymously accredited to a joint PSA design team.
DRAS was set a target to produce a car capable of fuel consumption of just 2 litres per 100km. The criteria also stipulated that the car should have enough room for four people to ride in comfort, for there to be adequate performance and roadworthiness, and for the car had to meet all known incoming legal and regulatory requirements.
The DRAS team developed three design proposals(2) before landing on the final version shown in Paris. The first was rear-drive and propelled by an air-cooled twin(3). The second had a three-cylinder in-line diesel and, as such, was deemed too sluggish and uncouth(4). The third prototype, completed in March 1984, possessed the best compromise within the design criteria and was quickly evolved into the definitive version of the ECO 2000, code-named SL 10.
Car Magazine reported that “This FWD four-seater…boasts an exceptional drag coefficient of 0.21, and weighs a mere 1,056lb [about 480kg]. It accelerates from 0 to 60mph in 18sec, tops 88mph and averages an incredible 80.7mpg. Among the car’s more interesting details are its revised Hydropneumatic suspension, a water-cooled 35bhp in-line three-cylinder petrol engine, a hydraulic four-speed gearbox, a tiny four-gallon petrol tank and low profile 140/65R290 TRX tyres with very low rolling resistance.” Note that the overall fuel consumption quoted by the magazine equates to 3.5 litres per 100 km, well shy of the target. However, the car reportedly did manage 2.1 litres per 100 km at a steady 90km/h.
According to further information published on the excellent Citroënët(5) website, the engine was a 750cc version of FIAT’s FIRE engine. The same source informs us that the suspension included electronic control of the ride height depending on the car’s speed. It seems stubborn of Citroën to have insisted on a Hydropneumatic suspension even though that would have come with a weight penalty (and engine efficiency losses depending on how the suspension was pressurised) on a car which was designed to be as light as possible in the name of fuel economy. That said, it sounds like it could have made for a small car that drove like no other.
Of course, the bits of the ECO 2000 that one can see are rather interesting too. As with the other cars in this series, it looks like aerodynamic work undertaken by at least two of the three manufacturers in question led to production cars of a fundamentally similar profile. The ECO 2000 is a three-door hatch and stands out for its two-box, ‘aero-bread-van’ shape, with a smoothly round-edged but vertical rear and featuring a roofline which slants downwards noticeably just beyond the line of the B pillar. It’s like a wide but shallow ski-slope and is clearly shaped from learnings in the wind-tunnel.
It’s also notable for a its deep and extensive glass-house, with a quite acutely curved screen and shallow window openings cut into the side glass so that the aerodynamics would be less disrupted when occupants open the windows. This latter solution is reminiscent of the Subaru SVX and Toyota Sera. From the leading edge of the door forwards, the car could well be one of Italdesign’s, a thought embellished by the notch along the lower edge of the DLO just at the leading edge of the door’s window opening.
The way in which the tops of the rear arches are flattened off (to align with a feature-line which rises from just aft of the doors and wraps around the lower section of the car) is the only real visual statement that the ECO 2000 is a Citroën. Citroënët attributes the styling to Scott Yu(6). Pictures available on Citroënët show a pleasant interior, with fun orange and grey fabrics on the seats and a dash featuring the delights of PRN-Lunules.
Overall, then, a lot to get excited about in terms of the potential for a production variant of this car. As Car Magazine noted: “If the ECO 2000 is really the pattern the upcoming AX will follow, the ’86 baby Citroën will undoubtedly set new standards for superminis.”
With that in mind, it’s not that surprising that the production AX, when it emerged in 1986, was received with disappointment by many. Apparently, more radical designs that were much closer to the ECO 2000 conceptually were rejected following poor feedback from customer clinics. In its October 1986 edition, Car Magazine reviewed the recently launched AX in a piece titled ‘Citroën’s Peugeot’ and stated that “…big brother Peugeot has quashed any sign of Citroën quirkiness.” At first look at least, the AX appeared utterly conventional and conservative in its styling.
Look a little deeper, though, and the low Cd of 0.31 was very good at the time for such a small hatch, while the car’s weight was exceptionally low at 640Kg for the base 954cc example. Both factors hold true to the objectives and achievements of the ECO 2000. Driven sensibly, the AX was notably more parsimonious than a 205 equipped with the same engine(7).
The AX’s suspension was steel-sprung, but was at least all-independent and possessed of longer wheel travel than was the norm, in the tradition of the 2CV which it was partially designed to replace. The interior was basic and the lightweight plastics all too evident, as was the absence of lunules.
Overall, the AX was disappointing in the context of the ECO 2000. As a former owner of an 11RE version, I can say that the AX had a great, zesty character, was excellent fun to drive, very economical, even with only a four-speed gearbox, and so got away with the obvious downsides of its lightweight build, which included poor interior noise insulation, especially from the gargling exhaust pipe. Well, at least it did on my example.
Today, the idea that Stellantis would develop and produce a small, ultra-light, gas/ fluid-suspended car with a semi-automatic gearbox is, of course, impossible on so many levels. But, that still doesn’t stop me from wishing that it would.
(1) A prize to the person who can discover what DRAS stood for. I’m blowed if I can find it!
(2) Code-named SA 103, SA 109 and SA 117. Interestingly, SA 109 and SA 117 were sold at auction in 2017.
(3) It is unclear as to whether or not this engine was sourced from the 2CV.
(4) As anyone who has ever driven a VW Group car with an engine of similar format, for example, the Audi A2, can attest.
(5) I mean to pay Citroënët the highest of compliments when I describe the site as being to Citroën what AROnline is to British Leyland / Austin Rover / Rover Group and all of its other guises.
(6) I have failed to discover any more about Mr Yu.
(7) PSA’s TU rather than XU unit, and no three-pot version of the FIRE engine in sight. I wonder what happened there?