PSA’s ’80s midliners in microcosm.
Editor’s note: Today, we revisit the second part of a two-part meditation on rationalism in design, featuring the Peugeot 405 and Citroen BX. The original article was first published on DTW in April 2015.
I present here the Peugeot 405 and Citroen BX together with some highlighted lines marking out their main features. I have extended the lines to see how they relate at a hypothetical level.
And now here are the annotated cars.
Note how most of the main lines are at or near parallel. The feature line running from the front to back lamps is not a straight line but gently curved.
The Peugeot is visually simpler in that it lacks a third side glass. The Citroen has that complex area at the C-D pillar plus the louvres underneath. What adds a considerable amount of visual noise is the vertical line where the rear bumper meets the rear wheel arch bodywork. An entirely different solution is needed to eliminate that unwelcome vertical element.
I believe that the use of large radii all over the 405 also reduces the amount of information. Research shows that points attract the eye. Turning sharp corners into radiused corners defeats that effect and make it harder for the eye to fall on any one place.
My conclusion is not that one of these cars is better than the other. Frustratingly, I like them both a lot. What I have learned or what I propose is that the BX is not in fact design rationalism but more technicalesque.
Whether deliberately or not, Citroën and Gandini produced a car that played up the technical elements of the design, adding details that stress the car’s mechanical character. The 405 plays this down in the search for smoothness at all scales. It’s classical to Citroen’s determined Modernism.
34 thoughts on “Franco-Italian Design Rationalism II”
Good morning, Richard. I agree with you. We had this same kind of discussion about two buildings in my first year at the faculty of architecture, whether a building was rational or whether it was something different. I think the other was called ‘glorification of technology’, or words to a similar effect.
I had my first drive in a proper Citroën, an ID 21 Familiale, yesterday. What a lovely machine that is. On my way to the testdrive I spotted a BX and was overtaken by a DS 21 Pallas on the highway. On the way back I saw an XM Break, which I haven’t seen in ages. The world is hinting on me getting a Citroën, I reckon.
When we discussed the BX a couple of days earlier here on DTW, it came to my attention how few BX’s you see these days, but I also realized I can’t recall the last time I saw a 405. The BX survival rate in the Netherlands is 1,3%. Peugeot sold 83,242 405’s in the Netherlands and only 684 remain today.
Good morning Freerk. Be careful what you wish for: I know someone who has an LHD Citroën XM in need of some TLC who might be receptive to an offer… 😁
Apart from a loaner AX while our Discovery was in having a dent repaired (and which doesn’t really count) I have never driven a ‘proper’ Citroën, so am very envious of your ID drive. Please do share your impressions of it with us.
By the way, the history of the BX concludes tomorrow.
Good morning, and it was a pleasure sharing the experience Freerk, great you took up the challenge.
As to BX and 405, clearly the basic shape of BX is ‘function over form’ instead of the reverse. Still very striking that Mr. Gandini was able to impose such a clear style on it. Angular, yet similar to Volvo’s 850, most lines are not as straight as they may seem. All the more striking that, while 405 and BX share a lot in technical underpinnings, their appearance is miles apart (well, km’s, perhaps…).
Well, you asked for it. So here it goes.
The first car I ever sat in was a Citroën 2CV. I was ten days old and my parents drove me home from the hospital. Obviously I have no recollection of it. My granddad had three Traction Avants after the war and he was very fond of them.
I was about two years old when my parents noticed my love for cars. It’s something that runs in the family, but not everyone is affected. In primary school one of my class mates parents had a 2CV and later a CX 2400. During that time there was a grey DS 21 Pallas parked close to the school. Sometimes I cycled there just to have a look of it. I was always intrigued by it. One of my dad’s friends always had CX’s. At one time he had a white 2500 GTI with black leather and air-conditioning. Air-conditioning was unheard of, in those days, apart from the odd American car.
Fast forward a couple of years and I was reading a lot of car magazines and books. Turned out not every car journalist liked Citroëns, especially the power steering and brakes. It was clear from their writing you needed to be special kind of person in order to enjoy it. At the time I was more interested in fast rear wheel drive cars, notably Porsche and BMW. And that continues until today. The stories of how different a Citroën was to drive somehow worked their way up in my brain and I hate to admit it, but I was intimated.
Fast-forward until the present day. I have driven roughly a 1,000 different cars. From a Lotus Elise to a Dodge Ram, from a rusty Alfa 33 that had part of the clutch pedal assembly perish on me when I was shifting gears to a brand new Jaguar.
Citroëns were mostly absent. I have been a passenger in a 2CV (I have no memory of it), a BX, a CX, an XM. I have driven a Xantia and C6. But never one of the really iconic models like the SM, DS or CX.
It wasn’t until DTW published the article ‘It’s such a fine line’, that I was offered a ride in an ID 21 Familiale. It all started out with a discussion about the weight distribution. Of course I said yes and we agreed to meet.
On my way to the agreed meeting place, a DS 21 Pallas on the highway overtook me. I also spotted a BX, a very rare thing these days. Good omens?
First impressions were good right away. The ID has this old car smell that you simply don’t get in a brand new vehicle. The seats are really soft, but they hold you in place very well. In some soft seats I kind of glide forward a little which leads to lower back pain. Not even a hint of that in the ID. How do they do it? The driving position (seat relative to the steering wheel and the pedals) reminded me a bit of pickup truck. You sit relatively high in relation to the floor. It’s comfortable.
What is also immediately apparent is the visibility. You don’t get this in a modern car. You’re also able to see the front wings, something I didn’t expect. It makes driving the car a lot easier.
I’ve never driven a car with a column shift either. Yes, a few American cars, but those all had an automatic gearbox. This was a proper manual. The gearshift turned out to be really nice. The throws are not that long and have a real nice mechanical feel to it. Shifting gears is a very pleasant experience and I found myself shifting maybe more times than strictly necessary. The clutch needed a bit of getting used to, you have to push the pedal quite far, but the engine has enough torque low down to make driving off easy.
The steering is light as in really light. The steering wheel is perhaps a little bigger than it is on modern cars. It’s also a lot thinner which increases your awareness of how good the steering really is. It is very light and 100% accurate. There is no play at all. I wasn’t expecting this as in most older cars there is a fair bit of play. Even in some modern cars you can turn the wheel ever so slightly and nothing happens. Not here. I like that. Also it is very direct. You don’t need a lot of input to turn the car. It simply goes where you point it.
I’m sure the DTW readers are all familiar with the stories that the brakes with the rubber ‘mushroom’ pedal. You just look at it and your head ends up against the windscreen. There is very little truth to that. Yes, the brakes are powerful. Yes, there is little travel from the pedal. But once you are aware of the fact this is a high-pressure hydraulic system and not vacuum assisted they are not hard to use, not at all. Apart from the first time I tried to decelerate, it was as if I have used it all my life. You intuitively apply the right amount of pressure all the time. I was much surprised by it.
Then there is the ride. You don’t notice bad road surfaces too much. It’s not that you are completely unaware of them as the body of the car does move around. This is not due to play in the suspension parts. There is no play. It’s totally absent. Again, unlike many older cars I have driven. All the movements feel controlled. The car leans a fair bit in corners, but never to an alarming degree. The car is really surefooted.
When I drive over a railway crossing in my E92 (run flat tires 225/40 R 18 at the front and 255/35 R 18 at the back) you feel that in the chassis and in the steering wheel. You hear it too. However, the body movement it causes is gone immediately too. In the ID you notice it much less, but the body of the car moves for a longer amount of time and then settles. I don’t find the solution in my BMW uncomfortable, but that might be because I am used to it and I like a Spartan life style. But there is no point in denying that the ID masters the railway crossings with aplomb seldom, if ever, seen in other cars.
And what about the weight distribution, the question that started all of this? You feel that all the action is at the front and the back just follows what the front is doing. No issue there at all.
On my way back I spotted, as I already wrote, an XM Break. It’s ages since I last saw one. Another omen? I found myself checking adds for a DS, CX and XM when I was home.
Let me end with a big thanks to Joost, who made this possible.
Hi Freerk. Excellent stuff, thanks for sharing. 👍 You were clearly hooked on cars from an early age (as was I). The ID sounds like a very enjoyable drive once you acclimatise to its peculiarities, like the brake button.
It sounds like you might be on a path to Citroën ownership. A good BX would be a relatively safe choice and, if there is a Citroën owners club in The Netherlands, that would be a great place to start your search. In the meantime, here’s a selection to peruse:
Best of luck!
Thanks also to you Freerk, you clearly had all your senses switched ’on’ and you’ve described the old lady beautifully. I guess the similarity between BMW and Citroën (at least the Citroën of yesteryears) was in their technological pureness, or lack of compromise if you will. With very different results, making both marques all the more interesting. It was a pleasure to have you on board and be witness all of your sharp observations!
What a great resource this site is. I love the word ‘technicalesque’.
To me, the 405 is the flowing lines of Pininfarina at their best. The BX is the other Italian style, not playing up the flowing lines but emphasising the disjuncture of elements, the angles, the intersections, the corners. So in that respect the treatment of the bumper massing is apt.
In modernism, like the op art of Bridget O’Reilly compared to De Stijl art.
You are most welcome. Did you know Mondrian had a big argument with Klee about diagonals? Mondrian wanted to keep them out. I suppose this was due to their different, disruptive character.
The disruption of the diagonal, or the wedge, reminds me that Gandini never had a problem with diagonals, it’s become his trademark. Particularly on the rear wheel arch.
Hi David. That Bridget O’Reilly piece is very disconcerting to look at on a tablet. As you scroll up and down, it appears to be in motion and ‘shimmers’ before your eyes – very unsettling!
Mondrian’s early 1920s ‘grid’ paintings were much imitated, but never bettered, not even by the artist himself in his later works, IMHO.
You´d better hurry if you want a free LHD XM from me. It´s waiting at the mechanic´s garage for collection for scrapping in the coming days.
Feeling bad about the demise of my 1990 Citroen XM Si, I had a look at Mobile.de and found a very similar one costing less than I´d pay to repair my one. I hope someone can do something with the nice Cromadura alloys on my car before it´s crushed up.
I can sympathise Richard. My Saab also departed this life not so long ago. It was emotional…
Wonderful discussion starter. Thanks Richard! I’d like to add a couple of other elements to the discussion, if I may.
I think that we here at DTW are often guilty of focusing rather too exclusively on surface graphics. Creases, shutlines and surface detailing tend to dominate discussions here. With all due respect, I believe there is much more to harmonious design than surface graphics. It often feels like we’re discussing the pattern on a person’s shirt rather than the shape of the body within it.
I believe one should always look at volumes and stance first. Assessing the ratio of the glasshouse to the solid body, the size of the overhangs relative to the overall length, the placement of the wheels, the degree of tumblehome in the body sides, the front and rear taper in plan view. If any of these elements are wrong, no amount of surface graphics will solve the problem.
In that regard I have always believed the 405 to be a far more satisfying design than the BX, whose glasshouse was always, to my eyes, too big, too tall relative to the body sides. Similarly, in plan view, the BX doesn’t taper enough into the front elevation, making it look over-bulky in front three-quarter view. Indeed, to me it looks over-bodied in general, with a somewhat weak stance due to wheels too far inboard. All this is before we ever get into discussing the fussy C pillar, the contrived wheelarch shapes and so on.
The 405 is on another level, for me. Close to perfect, even 35 years later. It’s glasshouse ratio, body tumblehome and upper door integration is nigh-on perfect. The car’s overall volumes are satisfyingly simple and “right”. It barely needs any surface graphics to make it work. And as you say Richard, the deft use of appropriate radiusing not only simplifies the perceived shapes, but it also somehow future-proofs them. I’m not sure I know how to express this, but I’ve always believed that properly radiused edges can give any volume a timeless quality. In the same way, over or under-radiused edges can date a volume instantly. God is often in those very details.
I’m rambling now, but I just wanted to contribute. Thank you for the opportunity!
Hi Ric. I might have to take much of the blame for our tendency to obsess about details. I find that I quickly focus on a badly drawn shut-line or panel-gap, or an ill-conceived stylistic flourish, then struggle to ignore it. I really should try to take more of a holistic perspective.
Daniel, I know exactly what you mean. Once it’s seen it cannot be unseen.
Following on from Ric’s comment above, the essential correctness of the 405, in contrast to the considered discordance of the BX is rightly attributed to Pininfarina’s firm grasp of the essentials, not forgetting their house style, which was as determinedly classicist as it was visually harmonious. To be critical, so finely judged was the 405 that it could fade into the background, not so much by way of blandness (for it is not bland at all), but perhaps a lack of astringency, if that makes any sense. Its larger sibling had more visual character.
For all of its self-conscious flourishes, Gandini’s design for the BX (and Marcello was rather a self-conscious designer) married just enough Citroenesque oddness to carry it off. I’d warrant that the design was refined by people like Jean Giret, long-standing stalwarts of Citroen’s design centre with a thorough grounding in marque semiotics. However, the surfacing on the BX, in comparison with the 405 appears brittle, a matter which suggested in design terms what proved to be the case in reality. In that regard at least, one could at least describe it as an honest design. But in its defence, one would never for a moment mistake a BX for being anything but a Citroen.
Hi Daniel. I just re-read my post, and I’m somewhat dismayed and embarrassed at how pompous it comes across, with me pontificating on, as if I’m some kind of Certified Authority On Automotive Design. I’m not, I assure you! Please accept my apologies for the overbearing tone!
Hi Ric. Not at all, you’re being much too hard on yourself! You made a perfectly valid point clearly and politely in the best DTW tradition. Like you, I have no formal training in design, automotive or otherwise, so I’m just an enthusiastic / obsessive amateur. Keep those comments and observations coming, they are much appreciated! 👍
Hey Ric, I got on Mr. O’Callaghan’s case for his shut-line obsession my first time on DTW as well! I say any car must be judged both in detail and with the ‘squint’ test wherein if you de-focus your eyes does the form suddenly become more coherent? It vastly improves the look of cars where a ‘hidden’ door handle is used as a design feature and reveals whether or not the proportions are correct for such a gimmick. In my book, the 156 passes because of its subtle swage line treatment where the Mk2 Leon fails since it appears far too tall and slabby to be a 3 door.
I am not trying to discredit looking closely at shutlines, though. As a kid this one used to always amuse me, the ‘zig-zag’ used on the rear bumper of the XV40 Camry (apologies for the shoddy MSPaint circle):
Good morning Alexander. Don’t get me started on ‘hidden’ rear door handles! I hate them all, not just for the fact that they’re an artifice, but also they’re also an ergonomic nightmare too.
When you go to open a door (front or rear) on the left-hand side of a car, you automatically use your left hand, because the articulation of opening the door works naturally with your left arm, and that is the arm and you will use to close the door after you get in. The converse applies to opening a right-hand side door. This leaves the other hand free to hold stuff as you get into the car. All perfectly ergonomic.
With hidden rear door handles, their orientation always* forces you to use the ‘wrong’ hand to open the door, which feels unnatural and means you need both hands free, one to open the door, the other to close it when you’re inside. If you doubt this, try using the ‘wrong’ hand to open the door the next time you get into your car and see how it feels!
* I cannot think of an example of a ‘hidden’ rear door handle that’s orientated correctly.
Regarding the Camry, that Z-shaped bumper to wing panel gap is masterful. I could gaze upon it all day! A less careful manufacturer than Toyota would simply have drawn a straight diagonal line from the wheel arch to the lower corner of the rear light cluster. In fact, the XV40 Camry is, overall, a lovely piece of design:
It even survived a facelift relatively unscathed:
The XV50 successor, while not as nice as the XV40, wasn’t bad:
But it all went horribly wrong when they facelifted it:
The revised C-pillar treatment is vile. The designers, presumably in an effort to distinguish it from its predecessor(s), tried to change the profile of the side DLO by sticking on a shiny black plastic panel with a thick chrome trim. It is totally unconvincing and looks even worse in the metal. That crease under the rear light cluster is just a superfluous exercise in gilding the lily.
Glad I got all that off my chest!
As the former owner of two 156s I readily admit that their rear door handles are not the epitome of practicability but they are just about usable.
I had about half a dozen passengers telling me they saw a shutline and therefore knew the car had a door but could not figure out how to open it.
As an owner I just used my thumb to pull out the handle to open the door.
The biggest complaint I had was that there was no way to exert enough pulling force on the door when it was frozen shut in winter which happened regularly because the one piece door design collected water at the top and then froze solid against the roof.
I dislike all other hidden door handles because they are a simple pagiarism of the 156.
Hey Daniel, I am not trying to start a discussion on Camry styling trends here, but they are quite a subject of fascination for me considering they’re the street appliance of choice here in the (Wild) West. It seems you’re mixing your USDM Camries with your Oceanic ones! There are minor trim and fascia changes for each region, or were since the newest XV70 models seem to all use the same fascias regardless of market (JDM of course gets its own, along with the amusing ‘Daihatsu Altis’ rebadge). Weirdly, I always hate the way a new Camry looks upon release but then several years down the line it seems my eyes have been bludgeoned into liking it because of the ubiquity. Still think all the TRD ones look naff, though. I think the rise of the CUV has helped since it makes the ordinary saloon car seem so much more exotic in comparison. As its competitors drop like flies I do wonder how long Toyota (and Honda, with the perennial Accord) will keep at this midsize saloon thing. Even the Koreans are supposedly dropping theirs after this generation despite their relative popularity in the domestic market.
Hi Alexander. I don’t doubt that I might be mixing some of the many Camry variants up, but I saw plenty of examples of the 2015 XV50 facelift models with the horrible C-pillar treatment in Chicago a couple of weeks ago. I’ve seen them before in the US, but familiarity doesn’t make them any more acceptable!
Daniel: Oh, I’m by no means trying to excuse the lazy design-work, but it’s interesting to chart the differences across the generations since the same general shape lies underneath as the graphic details simply get more and more embellished. With XV40 I first perceived it as bloated; now it seems clean and formal; the XV50 looked too tall and boxy, but now it seems neoclassical; the XV70 seemed overwrought, but now it’s modern and ‘Japanese’. The facelifts in between really lose the plot, though. The XV40 facelift introduced an awful corrugated grille and boxy bumpers that cheapened the look and made it seem closer to the Corolla:
And of course the 2015 XV50 facelift which was especially disappointing since the front is so nice and Lexus-like:
only for it to all fall apart in the rear, as you point out.
I spent quite a bit of time as a passenger in both the 405and the BX in the 1990’s in Israel – two close colleagues owned these and we drove around the country quite a bit. I wanted to love the BX. I learned to drive on the family GS (which as a 16 year old I persuaded my mother to buy…) so liking the BX was obvious. The shape was great although the Middle East sun caused the plastics to crack and discolour to different shades. Hydropneumatics were great and the ride was very familiar. Both cars had great factory-fitted air-conditioning.
But both cars, especially the BX, rattled. There were little squeaks and knocks that had me spinning around placing my hands on random bits of dashboard to see if I could stop the noises. I have always been a bit obsessive about squeaks and rattles and could never own either of these two on grounds of potential to (a) diminish sanity; and (b) I don’t have enough limbs to hold down bits of interior plastic while driving.
(One day when in a more confessional mood I might write about the lengths I’ve gone to with cars to eliminate squeaks and rattles – a SuperCinque and Saab 900 drove me to exceptional measures).
returning to the BX/405 couple, Peugeot was a bit better than the BX; possibly a more rigid bodyshell?
I always thought the 405 to be great looking, until I saw the 605 and Alfa 164 – which were even better. I wouldn’t compare these shapes to the BX, which is very different and attractive in its’ own way – and more attractive after the facelift tidied-up the front indicators.
Just to add to what Freerk said, an interesting experience I had with a 23 efi hydraulic involved an emergency breaking situation, momentarily the front of the car started to dip as you might expect, then very strongly the suspension pumped the front spheres and the front held and the back lowered. The car braked very hard and level. This made the car feel very stable. I liked the brakes very much. Very powerful and so controllable. You almost seem to role your foot lightly on the button and you certainly you do not push it hard. Not at all what commentators at the time said. I suppose with our experience of modern brakes we are used to the power available.
I recently watched anew the D.Cironi video-interview
with Marcello Gandini
(in which he insists that the Miura’s shape was limited by the lack of properly squared off low profile tyres in the early ’60s, and claims he’d have designed the Miura with even more fender flaring/curves, had they had such wide tyres back then).
This made me think that Ric’s comment about the BX lacking lower body ‘visual girth’, might be well founded, as Gandini’s original sketches were probably more akin to what later came to be the BX 16V Ph.2 (wider, squarer bumpers, fuller wheelarches & wider, more offset wheels/tyres).
The need for aero-superority, coupled with the MPG race of the early ’80s, led to the lesser BX models having a relatively narrow rear track (and thin, 145-165 tyres),
which ultimately deleted any traces of stance or perceived, visual ‘surefootedness’ (for want of a less clumsy notional instrument).
This, however, might have made the BX gain a certain gender-neutral status, placing it distinctly outside of the competitors whose shapes were always subliminally connected to the ‘Fast Car’ scene distastefully modified
examples (Golf, Astra/Kadett etc.).
Automatically, it might have thus developed into a mature, less “wild” visual proposition,making it appeal much more to the elderly and intellectually activw target demographics.
This might have played, as a paradox, significant and underrated role in the BX’s undisputable commercial success (probably stealing away a healthy percentage of former Saab, Opel and Audi drivers -while appelaling to hadrcore Citroenists just as well).
The above hypothesis notwithstanding, I will use it as pretext to propose that Gandini might not had imagined the BX narrow-tyred and with a ‘castrated stance’, as it turned out to be, but his initial sketches were probably even ‘wilder’ than even the Ph.2 16V .
Therefore, any debate on the essential styling of the BX, might easily grow untowards, as most of us tend to observe the average, or lesser example, within the relatively rich palette of its versions.
Or maybe it’s an even game:
Just as the 405 was properly defeated by the BX on the Bathurst 12hrs, the 405 might have humiliated the BX on the styling front, in return.
But I would definitely point out that there is a world of visual difference between the lessest BX and the Ph.2 16V, whereas, the visual difference is not *that* big bitween the 405 GL and the MI16.
Which might point out that a proper methodological approach would be to
observe thw BX in its GTi version at least, if not the ‘full fat’ Ph.2 16V one.
Looking at the Iranian built 405 pictures (above) it seems that the car has a higher ride height than my examples (both French built). This may have been deemed necessary to deal with the bumpier roads the Iranian built 405 would encounter.
Did you know that there was a rear wheel drive version of the 405 manufactured in Iran? They also built an extended wheelbase “limo” 405.
Iran had been dealing for many years with the Rotes Group, which became Chrysler, then Peugeot, and had built Hillman Hunters before the 405. They were tooled up for rear-drive, which probably explains the ride-height.
As is customary, DTW got there beforehand – our esteemed contributor, Bruno having penned the following fine piece in 2020.
Interesting reading. I found myself endlessly engrossed in the thread of conversation beyond the primary article. Thank you for the piece on the similarities and contrasts between Gandini’s Citroen BX and Pininfarina’s Peugeot 405. The latter adjudged as a product of design rationalism and the former not so much so, but rather technicalesque as the author put it.
Without doubt the design of the 405 is sublime and timeless, with the coupe even more strikingly so. It is why it has survived the decades without appearing to age and without looking too out of place relative to more recent car designs. Gandini on the other hand appears to have set out first to create a product of design rationalism and then to punctuate what was pure, by introducing elements of dissonance, such that the BX becomes striking. Here pleasantness of design wasn’t so much the object, as provoking a response, any response from the beholder, as is the case with all good art. For some, the high tension/dissonance created in the elements of design discord in Gandini’s BX are actually essential for the appreciation of its rationalist elements, like I. M. Pei’s pyramidal glass extension of the Louvre in Paris, and its overall effect on the perception of the whole. In a world full of streamlined aeronautical design, Gandini’s BX is like Alexander Karveli’s A10 Warthog (Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II), which, beautiful or ugly in the beholder’s eye for its numerous elements of design dissonance, cannot be ignored.
Love it or hate it, one can’t but be touched in such a way as to hold an opinion on Gandini’s Citroen BX. Was it beautified or spoilt/uglified (forgive use of the word, but I like it for its evocative effect, despite its niggling effect on the classicist) by the dissonant design of the bumper lines viewed from the side? I think we should find opinion divided, which was Gandini’s desire, perhaps, in design without compromise to house-/designer-style.
The disappearance of the BX from the market and short lifespan ironically had little to do with its modern extensive use of Plastics in the car’s components or its evocative/provocative design, but rather, its hydropneumatic suspension, which beautiful as it was, simply was too unreliable and expensive to service/ maintain in an ageing low/medium budget car with poor resale value, particularly in countries with a poor network of Citroen-trained mechanics. Citroen got the message and resorted to conventional suspension and braking systems in its newer offerings within the medium to small car size bracket/market. That decision saved Citroen.