Those unfamiliar with older Citroën models may wonder why it’s worth writing about the story of a company that seemingly creates cheap runabouts for people who are not really interested in cars. Well, put simply, it wasn’t always this way…
If you haven’t seen it already, take a look at The Rise and Fall of Citroën: Part 1!
Citroën During the Second World War
During the German occupation of France in World War 2, Citroën factories were forced to produce vehicles for the Wehrmacht, however, then boss Pierre-Jules Boulanger ordered a “go slow” on production. Alongside this, he organised the sabotaging of many vehicles along with french workers, putting the notch on the oil dipstick in the wrong place, so that engines ran dry and seized.
Boulanger also refused to speak to German authorities and SS member Ferdinand Porsche after several meeting requests. His exploits led to him being placed on a Nazi blacklist and for him to be arrested in the event of an allied invasion of France. Against the order of the Germans, Citroën designers continued their work in secret coming up with the concepts for the legendary 2CV, Type H van and the DS.
After the war, much of Europe lay in ruins, people had lost belongings, land and loved ones, and the french economy desperately needed building back up again. A cheap to buy and cheap to run vehicle was needed to mobilise the workforce and Citroën had a design waiting to be finished. Initial designs had started in 1936 for a toute petite voiture (very small car) and was led by André Lefèbvre, a Grand Prix race car engineer. These had been abandoned at the start of the war and the prototypes either hidden or destroyed, fearing they could be adapted by the Germans for military use.
After the war adaptions were made from these prototypes, such as an air-cooled engine, rather than water-cooled and steel, rather than aluminium bodywork to save on costs and the final design went on show at Paris in 1948. Citroën was flooded with orders and within months, a three-year waiting list had developed, causing prices of secondhand 2CV’s to be more expensive than new ones for a brief period.
Overnight, the car had transformed the lives of low-income families across France. They allowed the transportation of goods and livestock, to go further and faster than ever before and many variants went on to be built for the next 42 years. A simple yet innovative design that set Citroën up for decades to come, becoming a motoring icon in the process and one of the most important cars in history.
1955 saw the introduction of the revolutionary DS and the first in a long line of luxury cars using Citroën’s famed, hydropneumatic suspension system. The DS was also the first mass-produced car to use disc brakes, power assisted steering and headlights which turned with the steering wheel to aid vision around corners at night. It was a car years ahead of its time and typically french in its out-of-the-box thinking with its approach to design and technology.
In 1962, the DS would go on to show the world just how effective and versatile it’s unique suspension system would be, by saving the life of French President Charles de Gaulle in an assassination attempt near Paris. The President’s motorcade was hit by a hail of gunfire and all four tyres of his DS were punctured but thanks to the way the suspension regulates the ride height, he was able to power away from the situation. After, de Gaulle vowed never to travel in another make of car. Such a heroic feat only served to add to the legend of the DS.
Continuing the DS Bloodline
By 1974, the ageing DS was replaced by the aerodynamically efficient CX. The CX carried on the use of the DS’s hydropneumatic suspension system and utilised wind tunnel testing to create a low drag coefficient shape of 0.36. It also boasted speed adjustable power steering that was light at low speed to assist with parking and heavier at higher speed to give better feedback. The CX wasn’t quite the success of its predecessor but still showed Citroën were at the top of their game, bringing a host of “firsts” into the automotive industry.
Following on from the CX, was the angular Bertone styled XM in 1989. This was the first big Citroën made car under the PSA group and so shared parts with the Peugeot 605. Despite this handicap, Citroën was allowed to bring some of their usual technological advances to the car, many focusing on improving flaws of the CX such as active electronic suspension management that controlled body roll in corners.
The facelift model brought in passive rear-wheel steering to sharpen up handling. In 1990 the XM won European Car of the Year, beating off the mighty Mercedes SL, gaining twice as many votes as its German rival. Despite production continuing into the millennium, sales had been disappointing with many criticising the unusual styling and poor reliability.
Maybe, for this reason, it wasn’t until 5 years later, in 2005 that they released the next flagship, the C6. Once again the big Citroën was packed with technology; heads up displays, lane departure warning, xenon directional headlights, active aerodynamics and a sophisticated electronically controlled hydractive suspension system. It was also the first car to gain four stars in the EuroNCAP pedestrian crash test.
As with the XM however, the car struggled against its German rivals. Reliability was again questionable but in my opinion, its failure was due to it just being different. BMW, Audi and Mercedes have all seemingly been in competition to see who can create the most aggressive and angular front end whereas the C6 was curvaceous and elegant. The Germans were all generic three-box designs, the Citroën had a concave rear window like nothing else seen on a modern car. I definitely think this mindless obsession with German brands and their badge appeal hampered the C6. Even historically significant manufacturers like Jaguar and Alfa Romeo have been overtaken in prestige by the Germans.
2012 was the final year of production for the C6 and it hasn’t been replaced, seeing a halt in big flagship Citroën’s that goes back to the introduction of the DS in 1955. I really hope that’s not the end of the line though, I think this type of car would even suit electric power, non of the engines in any of the big Citroën’s (bar the SM) have ever been their focal point. Combine that famous magic carpet ride quality with a silent, linear powertrain and I can see a fantastic return to form.