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…
Racing and Rallying
When most people think of Citroën and motorsport, they’ll probably think of years of WRC domination with Sebastien Loeb and the Xara, followed by the C4 and ending with the DS3. It does, however, go all the way back to 1959 with a Monte Carlo rally win in a DS and a further win in 1966 (where the minis were disqualified for non-standard headlights).
A gap of 38 years without a top-flight win ended in 2004, when Sébastien Loeb took the Xara to its maiden WRC title and his first of a record 9 driver’s titles. The Xsara went on to win 3 drivers titles, 3 constructors titles and 32 individual WRC rally victories. In 2007 the Xsara made way for the C4 which continued Citroën’s dominance with a further 4 drivers titles and 3 constructors titles and 36 rally victories.
The DS3 capped off Loeb’s success with yet another 2 drivers and 2 constructors titles and 26 more rally wins, bringing the Loeb era a staggering total of 17 combined drivers and conductors championships and 94 individual rally victories.
Citroën’s WRC campaign continues to this day with the C3, which while competitive, hasn’t reached the lofty heights of its predecessors. The disheartening thing about all this success is that Citroën didn’t make any effort to transfer this to their road cars.
An AWD Xsara, C4 or DS3 with a two-litre turbocharged engine like the Subaru’s and Mitsubishi’s of the past, would have made an incredible halo car for Citroën and would have brought some much-needed kudos to the brand. I’d go so far to say it’s one of the biggest missed opportunities in the automotive industry. (I wrote a blog about this specific car if you’d like further reading)
Yes, there was a Xsara VTS, a C4 by Loeb and a DS3 racing but they were all front-wheel-drive and had nowhere near the power nor the flared arches and aero required to look like a homologation special, ready to attack a tarmac rally stage. What was the point in Citroën pouring massive resources and spending years conquering the WRC if no link to it can be made in the showrooms?
Other Racing Citroën’s
While the Loeb era takes up the bulk or Citroën’s racing history, there are a few other notable entries. The ZX won the gruelling Dakar rally in 1991, 94, 95 and 96, the first with fan favourite, Ari Vatanen at the wheel. There was a very successful World Touring car team with José Maria Lopez, Yvan Muller and Sébastien Loeb that only lasted three seasons from 2014 to 2016 but picked up a drivers title and a constructors title in every year of competition. There’s also the hugely popular 2CV racing that involves sprint races at circuits around the UK and even includes 24-hour races!
For those on a budget, look out for the relatively new C1 Challenge, a championship with strict rules to keep costs down and racing close. There was even a short-lived and often forgotten Group B car from 1986. It only took part in 3 races before the series was cancelled but the BX 4TC was a complete redesign of the standard BX. It featured a turbocharged engine that was fitted longitudinally and fed power to all four wheels.
It is believed the very few road cars that were sold to the public, of which there was planned to be 200 to meet the FIA regulations, Citroën tried to buy back in an effort to save face and erase from history the poor showing, a 6th place finish being the BX 4TC’s best result.
The Dilution of Citroën’s Distinctive Styling and Innovation
Many would argue the 1970 SM was peak Citroën. It’s probably my favourite car the company has produced and while it featured everything you’d expect from the left-field french manufacturer, it also had an Italian heart.
In 1968 Citroën had bought Maserati with the purpose of inheriting its high-performance engine technology for their “project S” grand tourer and thus, a Maserati 2.7 litre V6 found its way into the front of the SM. In typical Citroën fashion, it looked like nothing else on the road, it also drove like nothing else.
To dial out torque steer (the SM, unusually for a big GT was front-wheel drive) the DIRAVI variable-assist power steering system, was fitted that eliminated any steering feel. This system took some getting used to but many said it made traditional steering systems feel outdated. I could do an entire blog just on the SM and it’s “quirks and features” (has Doug DeMuro trademarked that yet?) but if you ever get to see an SM in the metal, you’ll know just how special this car is and what a high watermark it was for Citroën.
In 1974 Citroën was bought by Peugeot and a year later the SM was no more. The factory in Paris that opened in 1915 was also closed leaving the remaining unbuilt SM’s to be assembled by Ligier.
1975 saw Maserati sold to De Tomaso and in 1976 Peugeot upped their stake in Citroën from 38.2% to 89.95%. While this merger proved financially successful for the coming years, many see it as the beginning of the slippery slope to mediocrity that the company has now become. Much of Citroën’s cars from here on, had Peugeot underpinnings and shared many components with its sister company, not only to save on costs but Peugeot felt the need to dial back some of Citroën’s quirkinesses to appeal to a larger market.
Here lies the problem for many companies today, not just Citroën. Their identity has been watered down to the point that buying a new car comes down to how good the finance deals are, as whichever segment you’re looking to get into, the competition is just so similar.
Citroën’s entry tier car is the rather unremarkable C1. A car that is essentially a rebadged Peugeot 108 and Toyota Aygo. The next tier up is the C3 a car that uses another Peugeot platform, the PSA PF1 that was first introduced in 1998! It’s the same story for the rest of the model line up, shared platforms, engines, drivetrains, electrics and more with the equivalent Peugeot.
I understand making money in the automotive industry right now is difficult but surely it’s in their own interest to try and stand out from the crowd? Go back to their roots and think outside the box, be different and be French! There seems to be a trend to set the German brands as a gold standard of what a car should be but what if you don’t like how they drive? What if you don’t like their aggressive and over-styled appearance? Or their often harsh uncomfortable ride?
Citroën’s of the past had a soul, something that you couldn’t measure. You sat back in soft, plush, velour seats taking in the relaxed Gallic charm as you wafted over the potholed roads, arriving at your destination unaware of the chaos of the morning commute. Now we are left with firm “supportive” seats and lowered, stiff suspension for faster response during hard cornering. None of that matters when you’re sat in traffic at 7:30 in the morning on your way to work.
Somewhere within Citroën’s design and engineering departments, there must be people itching to be given some freedom and create a car that is befitting of the famous double chevron badge, something that André Citroën himself would be proud of. They don’t have to make the entire line up quirky and left field, simply create another halo car that embodies everything the company stands for and sprinkle a small bit of that magic on the rest of what the company has to offer.
I implore Citroën senior management to be bold and look back at their history. Use it to set a direction for the future that sets them apart from their competitors and once again lead the field in design and innovation, rather than playing catch up and responding to others. Citroën is one of the all-time great manufacturers but so many people these days have no idea thanks to years of “playing it safe”
I’d love to know if reading this has changed your thoughts about Citroën and if it’s even made you a fan of the brand like myself! Thanks for taking the time to read!