I spent a day last week in the company of hundreds of classic Citroëns and hundreds of classic Citroën owners. If asked, I wouldn’t have identified myself as a particular fan of the marque. But wandering around the gathering models at the 15th International Citroën Car Clubs Rally just outside Harrogate, I started to realise just how many of these cars that I had admired.
The sheer spread of Citroën’s product history is amazing. There was no shortage of Traction Avant models - still a remarkably elegant design. The DS still dazzles and the CX is ageing very gracefully. The odd little Bijou is crying out to be reinvented.
I was especially struck by the GS models on show, particularly the estate and van versions. Even today, the GS stands out as a really neat and modern concept, with the added benefit of hydropneumatic suspension, a characterful flat-four engine and Citroën’s truly different interior design. It is amazing to think that the car was launched in 1970 and was on sale for 16 years. Has there ever been a car so prescient in its styling? It also struck me that the GS is almost exactly the same size as the Mini Countryman and came as a hatch, estate and van. If I was a Citroën product planner, I’d be looking at a revival of the GS line. It could have been greater potential than the DS3.
Of course, Citroën complexity (and potential unreliability) was not much favoured by Europe’s mechanics and the very distinctive ride and handling delivered by the suspension system was an acquired taste. The BX replaced the GS under the tag line ‘loves driving, hates garages’ an express recognition of the GS’s mainstream failings, but it still rode on the sophisticated suspension set-up. Although most of today’s Citroën’s are thoroughly mainstream, when the facelifted C5 is launched this Autumn it will be the last hydraulically-sprung Citroën.
While we were at the Citroën gathering, however, the very future of the brand was being debated in the boardrooms of Germany and France. Peugeot-Citroën, which is in a genuine crisis situation, losing £643m in the first half of 2012, has entered an alliance with General Motors Europe. According to industry reports, there is good possibility that the replacements for the Peugeot 508 and Citroën C5 will be built on an Insignia platform. They could even be made in Germany.
It is no wonder GME (which lost £418m in the first half) and PSA bosses are currently trying to merge future product plans. In the Mondeo market, volumes are crashing and profits have evaporated. Mixing the 508, C5, Insignia and DS5 onto the same platform could send volumes north of 300,000 and make money. The political fall-out in France, would, though be huge.
Symbolically, if the deal with GM goes through, its Hydropneumatic suspension could finally disappear fifty years after making its debut on the DS. It is sad to see Citroën in this position. Such an innovative company deserved better than to end up on a downward slope. Few car makers have a more innovative engineering heritage.