Take a look inside Citroen’s secret stash of amazing heritage cars
Want to see some truly remarkable French motors? Now's your chance
Paris, France. Home to pointy towers, nonsensical roundabouts, Austrian pastries (croissants were invented in Vienna, fact fans) and the Conservatoire - Citroen's very own, very private Greatest Hits collection.
Tucked away in a top-secret location, next to the PSA factory in the Aulnay-sous-Bois region, it comprises around 250 vehicles in 6,500 square meters of temperature-controlled warehouse. Where once it was solely accessible on an invite-only basis, it’s now opened its doors (and its workshop) to the public for the measly entrance fee of €10 per person – and to whet the appetite, we thought you'd appreciate a virtual sneak-around.
The place is absolutely staggering. Firstly, it's massive. Secondly, all of the cars are absolutely immaculate. Thirdly, there's literally every contribution the manufacturer made to the wheeled world in here, from the sublime to the Very French.
There's the first car ever made by the eponymous Andre Citroen - a 1919 Type A - right up to the adorable Ami, and the most quintessentially absurd contraptions inbetween. It's a potent place, this - looking across the ranks of cars you realise just how many contributions this storied manufacturer's made to motoring.
When you look at the density of innovation in this place, the phrase ‘ahead of its time' is unavoidable. OK, so we've descended into cliché, but we didn't start it. Citroen did.
There's the Traction Avant, which is the first car with torsion beam suspension and monocoque construction. The DS, which has swivelling headlights that move with the steering wheel (modern carmakers are still touting this as a cutting-edge innovation) and hydraulic self-levelling suspension, which remains a staple of luxury cars. It appeared on the DS back in 1955. The list goes on...
There's plenty of stupid stuff too - fancy an AX roadster with a calculator in the dashboard? Or the 2CV (equipped with four-pot GS engine) used in James Bond: For Your Eyes Only? It's all here...Advertisement - Page continues below
Ever wondered what André Citroën's office looked like?
Citroen celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2019, so the manufacturer created this linear line-up of all its cars from early beginnings to the current day. Not bad for a toy car collection...Advertisement - Page continues below
The eagle-eyed will have spotted the Type A lurking in the background - the only Citroen to ever feature the letter 'A' on the logo.
Big year for the Citroen BX, this - 2022 sees it celebrate its 40th birthday. This one has been loaned to the Conservatoire by a very precious owner, and is identical to the launch model as seen in the advertisement (note the pic in the background) four decades ago. Bon anniversaire...
Bet you won't see one of these on the street - it's a 1970 M35 Prototype Coupe. Citroen supplied these rotary-engined coupes to "a select number of technical enthusiasts" then asked them to put 30,000 test kilometers on the clock ready for the car's launch in 1970. You can see "Prototype Citroen M35" in big white letters on the wing.
In 1976 a French artist called Jean-Pierre Lihou daubed on a GS X2 and called it the "Energetique". There's 73 different colors on here, all of which are combined with a module of arrows that are readable in two directions.
Apparently, it explores "the interpretation of dynamic concepts with evidence of forces that are the arrows and lines of tension". Alrighty then.Advertisement - Page continues below
This is Citroen's contribution to Group B rallying; the four-wheel-drive BX 4TC. 200 road cars were built to meet homologation regulations, but it was so unsuccessful (its best result was sixth place in the 1986 Swedish rally) that it recalled and scrapped as many examples as it could.
This is a specially modified DS used to deliver the cash payments from HQ in Paris to Citroen workers at the factory in the suburbs. It kept getting hijacked, so a special safe was built in the boot.Advertisement - Page continues below
Didn't believe us about the AX Roadster concept with a calculator in the dash? It's called the Xanthia. And...
... just check out the double chevron tyre imprint. Groovy.
Any rally cars, you ask?
Just when we thought our day couldn't get any better, we found this - Roger Moore's 2CV used in James Bond: For Your Eyes Only - waiting outside. For us to have a go in. It was heavily modified for the driving scenes - Albert Broccoli had a roll cage, skid pan and four-pot GS engine fitted for its stunts, which took place on the island of Corfu.
Spoiler alert: those bullet holes you see? Stickers.
A couple of very tidy, very early Traction Avants - the first car built using monocoque construction. It was front-wheel drive, too. And a favourite of the French Resistance.
These are the original 2CV concepts. The project began in 1936, destined for launch three years later at the '39 Paris Motor Show. Trouble was, France was occupied by the Nazis, so Citroen hid them in the attic of a farm building at the company's test centre in Normandy in case they were destroyed.
They were unearthed in the Nineties - one was restored and the other three preserved in as-found condition.
Citroen also built half-tracks. Quite a CV, no?
Anyone for a Citroen Saxo rally car? Every teenage boy racer's dream...
If you listen carefully, you can hear the gentle fizz of steel oxidizing.
This presidential limo was built by coachbuilders Chapron - them that made a convertible DS - and it's 6.53 meters long. That made it bigger than the state cars used by Lyndon B Johnson and Richard Nixon.
And here's some more, uh, very red machinery...
These are the original models from the design studios. Citroen was an early pioneer of aerodynamics - it started using wind tunnels back in the Fifties, and its CX was so slippery that it took its name from the term used to measure drag coefficient. Which is, unsurprisingly, Cx.
These are the ZX Rallye Raid Evolution 2s Citroen took to the inaugural World Cup for Cross Country Rallying. Lartigue/Périn brought back the Driver's and Constructor's title in '93.
Is this the coolest digital dashboard in the history of EVER? Probably. It belongs to a BX.
Wondered where concepts go after motor shows? If they're the Citroen Survolt, right here.
Um, here's half a DS.
Turns out, Citroen had a go at making helicopters too. The RE 2, complete with rotary piston engine, was built during the Seventies, with its first flight on 24 December 1975.
The project was canned when production of the rotary piston engine ceased, and it was ordered to be destroyed. It never made it to the crushers however, instead hidden away before it was restored in the Nineties.
And now there's a new twist in the RE 2's tale, with many of the engineers who worked on the RE 2 during its conception - and are since retired - now spending their spare time working on getting it flightworthy again. Note the missing blades, because that would just be downright dangerous in here...
It did buses too. This one - originally built in 1947 - was found rotting in Corsica in 2006, before a five-year restoration brought it back to its current condition.
More racing pedigree, including the Maserati V6-powered SM - a handy rallyist, and not just because of its engine. The self-levelling suspension meant it kept its aerodynamic profile and instantly reacted to imperfections in the road surface.
The brakes run off the same hydraulic system, and you slow it down by pressing a weird zero-travel mushroom button on the floor (note this rather beige interior is from the road car, not the rally car) - depending on the intensity of your foot pressure, a specific amount of fluid is fed to the brakes, so drivers can meter it perfectly. The front discs are also mounted inboard so there's always true centre-line steering. Snazzy.
Recognise this? It's the DS 7 Crossback Présidentiel edition, used by French president Emmanuel Macron to tour the Paris streets during his 2017 inauguration, before he upgraded to his current ride, the DS 7 Crossback Élysée.
Around five years ago Citroen opened its Conservatoire workshop to the the public, allowing owners to bring their cars in for servicing and repair work, as well as sourcing spare parts. The idea was to increase awareness of - and guests visiting - the Conservatoire. This or Kwik Fit's waiting room while your car's being serviced? We know which we'd rather...
And finally, this is where the Citroen double chevron logo comes from - the company used to manufacture gears like this.