Confounding the cynics, the 1982 BX was a proper Citroën.
The 1976 takeover(1) of the bankrupt Citroën company by Peugeot S.A. caused consternation amongst diehard fans of the products of the Quai de Javel. Since the days of the Traction Avant, Citroën had been fêted as a manufacturer of technically advanced and highly innovative cars, noted in particular for the superlative ride quality delivered by their unique Hydropneumatic suspension system. Would Peugeot, noted for its technical conservatism and financial rectitude, be respectful of this tradition, or discard it in favour of cars that were Citroën in name only?
The first(2) post-takeover all-new Citroën was the 1978 Visa. While heavily based on the Puegeot 104, the Visa at least looked sufficiently different(3) and had enough quirky details to be accepted as a proper Citroën in the mould of cars such as the Ami and Dyane. However, Citroën’s small cars were historically relatively simple in technical terms, so the bigger test of Peugeot’s commitment was yet to come, with the replacements for the larger Citroën GS and CX models. The GS had been on the market since 1970 but had been usefully updated in 1979 with the addition of a hatchback, at which point it was renamed GSA. Nevertheless, a replacement(4) for this model was next on the to-do list.
A new platform was designed, intended to be used not only for the new Citroën, but also for Peugeot’s eventual replacement for its 305 medium-sized saloon. Hence, it would be a conventional transverse-engined FWD design, like the 305. However, unlike the Peugeot, the new Citroën would be a five-door hatchback, with an estate to follow later. Cleverly, the platform was designed to accommodate both conventional spring and damper suspension and Citroën’s Hydropneumatic units.
A number of in-house proposals for the new model were considered, but it was a proposal from Bertone that prevailed. Marcello Gandini, Bertone’s chief designer, had put forward a severely angular and geometric design that was at the time very much his signature style. It owed more than a little to both his stillborn 1977 Reliant FW11(5) and 1979 Volvo Tundra concept car.
The new model, named BX, was revealed in June 1982 but the formal launch took place some months later, at an event beneath the Eiffel Tower in Paris on 2nd October. The BX was almost identical in size to the GSA: the wheelbase was 105mm (4”) longer at 2,655mm (104½”), while overall length was just 50mm (2”) longer at 4,230mm (166½”).
Better packaging, however, meant that the BX was considerably roomier inside. Citroën claimed that the cabin length and width at elbow level were increased by 125mm (5”) and 75mm (3”) respectively, while the new car weighed on average about 36kg (80lbs) less than the GSA, thanks to the use of a polyester / glassfibre composite for the bonnet, tailgate and fuel filler flap, plastic for the bumpers and much high-strength steel. The claimed Cd was 0.33, actually slightly higher than the impressive 0.32 claimed for its predecessor.
Two engines in three different power outputs were offered. The smaller unit was the familiar 1,360cc XY unit from the Peugeot 104, Citroën Visa GT and Talbot Samba. This was offered in two states of tune, producing either 62bhp (46kW) or 72bhp (54kW). The larger engine, designated XU, was a new design with a capacity of 1,580cc and power output of 90bhp (67kW). It was first installed in the Peugeot 305 in 1981.
The engines were inclined backwards to reduce the height of the bonnet and mated to either a four or five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission, the former taken from the Talbot Horizon. Suspension was via Citroën’s Hydropneumatic spheres, mated to MacPherson struts at the front(6) and semi-trailing arms at the rear, with front and rear anti-roll bars. Brakes were discs all round, with a pressure release valve incorporated into the self-levelling system to prevent the rear wheels locking under heavy braking.
At the car’s launch, Citroën made much of the lightness and efficiency of construction of the new body. It used fewer, larger sections of steel than the GSA and required about half the number of spot-welds to assemble. The exterior styling might have been a bit severe for some tastes, but it was very coherent and quite sleek, thanks to the low bonnet line allowed by the inclined engine installation. One interesting feature was, on upper-level models, a third light inserted into the broad C-pillar. It was certainly distinctive, but whether it did anything for all-round visibility or improved the car’s appearance is a moot point.
The dashboard was entirely faithful to Citroën tradition. It featured a central ‘fish-eye’ digital speedometer where the speed is displayed on a rotating drum. Supplementary strip gauges for fuel and oil sat to the right of the speedometer. To its left were the overall and trip odometers and a digital clock. A tachometer only featured on the top-line model.
All the secondary controls were grouped on two projecting pods behind the steering wheel rim. On the left pod were controls for lights, including flashing and low/high beam, and turn indicators. On the right were controls for the horn, front and rear washers and wipers and hazard warning lights. The heating and ventilation controls were grouped more conventionally on the centre console.
The trim and engine combinations were straightforward. The smaller-engined models started with the basic BX with the 62bhp engine and a four-speed gearbox, then the BX14E with the 72bhp engine, followed by the BX14RE which added the five-speed gearbox. The larger-engined models were the BX16RS and BX16TRS which were mechanically identical but offered different levels of trim and equipment.
Initial demand for the BX was strong and it took almost a year for RHD versions to cross the English Channel. Car Magazine’s Steve Cropley tested the BX in both engine sizes and reported his findings in the October 1983 issue of the magazine. Cropley was clearly a fan of its angular, chiselled lines and described it as “one of the few really good-looking cars being offered to the car buyers of Britain for the 1984 model year.”
Cropley went on to describe the BX as a “parts bin car”, pointing out that much of its engineering had either been lifted from existing Peugeot cars or would be used in forthcoming models. He did, however, acknowledge Citroën’s candour in its BX launch materials where it stated that the company and its previous models had suffered from “over-engineering, high maintenance costs, strange handling and a disparate range.” The advertising slogan chosen for the UK launch tried to counter this perception with the claim that the BX “Loves Driving, Hates Garages.”
On the road, the BX was “pure Citroën” with its “unhurried bump-absorption [and] superb self-levelling”. It represented a step forward over the GSA in that it “allowed less road harshness into the cabin” and less kickback through the steering. The driving position was “superbly comfortable”.
The smaller engine was, however, “thrashy” and required frequent gearchanges. The “mechanical cat fight is made all the more obvious by the fact that the car is quiet through the air and over most road surfaces.” In contrast, the much preferable 1.6-litre unit “propels the car to 110mph [177km/h], near enough, shoves it to 62mph [100km/h] in just over 11 seconds and can support a top gear ratio which is tall enough to make 4,000rpm cruising a thing likely to offend forces of the law.”
Criticism of the cabin was limited to a dashboard that some found “too plasticky” and that “rear seat passengers don’t have as much head or knee room as those in a VW Golf II.”
Overall, Cropley was highly impressed by the new BX, stating that it had “all the advantages its predecessors did [and] improves in areas where they attracted criticism. Were I a family person, I’d find it hard to lay out my hard-earned for more space or more performance than a BX16 – let alone for a combination of the two.”
Praise indeed, but how did the BX do in the market and how did it evolve over its production life?
The story of the Citroën BX concludes in Part Two shortly.
(1) In December 1974, Peugeot acquired a 38.2% stake in Citroën. On 9 April 1976, Peugeot increased its stake in the by now bankrupt company to 89.95%, thus creating the PSA Group.
(2) Ignoring the 1976 Citroën LN, a stop-gap small car that was merely a Peugeot 104ZS fitted with the 602cc flat-twin engine from the Citroën 2CV and a rather makeshift looking restyled front end.
(3) The Visa shared no external body panels with the 104 and had a completely different dashboard, very much in the Citroën style.
(4) Although the GSA would continue in production alongside the new model until 1986.
(5) Reliant had been commissioned by the Turkish Otosan car company to design a small family car for domestic production. It never made it past the prototype stage.
(6) This was the first time Hydropneumatic units had been mated with MacPherson struts. The GSA had used wishbones at the front.