We consider two complicated entities – the Citroën DS and Pierre Bercot.
For loyal enthusiasts, the sound of a hissy, lethargic A Series engine is essential to the holistic experience of the Morris Minor – none of the readily achieved Ford, Fiat, Rover, Toyota or other engine swaps could ever appeal. Likewise in the case of another car that did not receive the engine it was promised. For many Citroënistes, the wet-liner straight four, tracing its conceptual roots back to the early 1930s, is now part and parcel of the Citroën DS’s character, however much its uncultured sound rails against the rest of the car’s smoothness. But for others it is the one great disappointment, and mention is often made of the six-cylinder engine it should have had. But we ask the question, is the DS great, not despite its engine, but because of it?
Pierre Bercot was a complex man. An intellectual in the French tradition, after a doctorate in Law, he completed his education at the National School of Oriental Languages in Paris. With an impressive knowledge of Ancient Greek and an accomplished pianist, he wasn’t the average car industry boss. Joining Citroën under Pierre Jules Boulanger shortly before the War, he worked on lowering production costs of the nascent 2CV. Following Boulanger’s untimely death, in 1950 he took over the Voiture de Grande Diffusion project, encouraging engineer André Lefèbvre not to Continue reading “It’s Such a Fine Line …”
CX and Gamma – Separated at Birth or Perfect Strangers?
In the third and final part of this series, we examine whether the CX and the Gamma were mechanically and technologically related at any point in their histories, and what – if any – politics, corporate or otherwise, affected their development paths.
Could a joint venture between Citroën and Lancia possibly have been on the cards, especially before they briefly shared a roof under Fiat?
Trouble in Turin…
Under Gianni Lancia, the Italian firm ran a costly racing program that gobbled up whatever profit its modest sales brought. Its cars were expensive to begin with, aiming squarely at the upper echelons of Italian society. In the post-war context, Lancia’s export efforts were always hampered, and not just by the high import taxes of the era: its cars, for all their mechanical refinement and excellent driving experience, had a niche appeal, which eluded the majority of the newly-emerging (or re-emerging) affluent potential customers. Too many of them viewed Lancias as too expensive for their body size, engine displacement, horsepower, and acceleration. Plus, they wanted something far more flamboyant. Clearly, the times had changed, and so had buyers’ tastes.
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‘ and aided by the ‘unpatriotic communists that aimed to Continue reading “The Phantom Joint Venture – Part One”
Citroën suffocated France’s oldest carmaker in what seemed a needless fashion. Could it have ended differently?
At the official June 1963 presentation of what would be Panhard’s last new car introduction – the 24 – Jean-Pierre Peugeot was among the attendees. Having inspected the new car he took CEO, Jean Panhard aside and said to him: “How fortunate you are to have such talented designers – we’re forced to Continue reading “(Dis)missed Opportunity”
The news earlier this week that JLR cancelled its Jaguar XJ programme, believed to have been close to production-readiness was greeted with varying degrees of dismay by the commentator and enthusiast community. Many questioned the financial logic of taking such drastic action so late in the developmental programme, suggesting that such profligacy was madness.
Whether folly or expediency, it was certainly not unique, BLMC rather notably electing to cancel the Rover P8 programme at huge expense in 1971, for example. However, perhaps the most glaring and possibly the most financially damaging instance was that of Citroën, when in April 1967, President, Pierre Bercot took the decision to Continue reading “F is for Failure”
A brief, meteoric rise and sudden precipitous fall.
While there may have been some discord as to the conceptual nature of Citroën’s 1970 flagship, the matter of its style appears to have been more assured. Certainly, there are few observers who could cogently argue that the SM’s styling was not a success – indeed it remains probably the car’s defining feature – still a futurist marvel, despite a half-century having elapsed since its introduction.
Within Citroën’s Bureau d’Études, the Style Centre was hidden away in an unkempt and dingy section of the Rue de Théàtre facility. Overseen by longstanding Citroën design chief, Flaminio Bertoni, he alongside his small team of fellow designers and put upon artisans would work largely in seclusion, without much by way of recognition.
Originally training as an architect at the Ecole des Beaux arts in Amiens, Robert Opron joined Citroën’s style centre in 1962. He quickly developed a rapport with the mercurial Bertoni, the two men sharing mutual interests in art, cuisine and culture. Opron was said to be devastated when in 1964, he learned of his sudden and premature demise.
Observing 50 year old events through modern eyes can make for a faulty tool, yesterday’s visions of the future tending to appear somewhat naive to twenty-first Century sensibilities – as much a consequence of socio-economic factors, evolving customer tastes, not to mention the relentless march of time itself. Few carmakers have done more to define the modern automobile than Automobiles Citroën – especially during the post-war era – not simply in design, but also in terms of systems engineering, in particular its widespread adoption of aviation-inspired, engine-driven hydraulics.
If only Citroën could have made a car as technologically and stylistically advanced, as resolutely modern as the 1970 SM, it could only have done so during this fecund (some might say profligate) period of their history. Today, the SM still appears thrillingly futuristic, yet the future to which it spoke so promisingly seems more the subject of fond regret; one where to Continue reading “The New Frontier : [Part One]”
“He who has not seen the road, at dawn, between its two rows of trees, all fresh, all alive, does not know what hope is.”
This phrase, translated from French by Georges Bernanos is but one of several accompanying the evocative images in the beautiful and highly sought-after Citroën DS Décapotable brochure. These poem fragments are also virtually the only words to be found in the booklet, which represented a hitherto unseen and fresh way of publicizing a car, thanks to the combined creative genius of artistic manager Robert Delpire and photographer William Klein.
“After all this, they have created an enormous car; I wanted a Porsche.” These are the words of none other than Citroën President, Pierre Bercot, spoken at the time to delegate-Maserati administrator, Guy Malleret. Quite some statement to have made, one which flies in the face of all conventional lore on the subject; the commonly held version of the SM’s creation saga being that Projet S was schemed almost entirely to Monsieur le Président’s specification.
Jacques Fleury was the Citroën director responsible for factories, production and acquisitions. By consequence, the Maserati factory in Modena, and the SM engine programme would come under his purview. Speaking to Marc Sonnery, Fleury suggested that the S-programme had lost focus, morphing into the type of Grand Turismos Maserati were already producing. But by that point he suggested, it had become too late to Continue reading “Oh Lord Won’t You Buy Me A… Porsche?”
Citroën cars were like no other, nor were Citroën’s engineers – least of all its greatest exponent.
Few carmakers operated quite like Automobiles Citroën, not only during the tenure of the company’s eponymous founder and chief architect, but equally in the years that followed the carmaker’s initial collapse and takeover by Michelin in 1934. Michelin had placed Pierre-Jules Boulanger as company President, under whom existed an environment which permitted Citroën engineers a great deal of freedom to Continue reading “Soul of the Chevron”
Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1970 Franco-Italian feature film, The Conformist is billed as a cinematic masterpiece. Set during the 1930s fascist-era Italy, its themes of politics, betrayal, and psycho-sexual guilt, framed within Vittorio Storaro’s lavish cinematography remain as provocative today as they were when first screened in cinemas half a century ago.
As Citroën’s SM turns 50, we trace an unlikely inspiration.
During a cocktail party at the French consulate in Detroit in 1960 – it is not known if any Ferrero Rochers were served – Citroën president Pierre Bercot met a man by the name of Henry de Ségur Lauve. Present as an interpreter because of his excellent command of both French and English, de Ségur Lauve was soon engaged in animated conversation with Bercot as the Citroën boss discovered that the Franco-American had considerable previous experience in car design.
Cars no longer differ from country to country, but once they had definite national characteristics. What happened when two nations met – collaboration, collision or confusion?
We now seem to have reached a consensus that the type of car most should be is ‘Germanic’, being lazy shorthand for something efficient, hard riding, fast enough and, usually, a bit clinical. Some sports cars remain, possibly, more traditionally ‘Italianate’ in spirit, being nervy, noisy and involving to drive. Nowadays, though, car making is truly a global industry where an Italian car maker might produce a model exclusively in Poland, and where the designers and engineers come from scores of different nations. Nearly fifty years ago this wasn’t the case.