The beginner’s guide to Citroen
Rally champions, tech deities and enemies of Nazis. What else could you ask for?
Who’s Citroen, and when did it start making cars?
Welcome to Citroen, and an article that’s 100 per cent certain to include words like ‘avant-garde’, ‘revolutionary’ and ‘idiosyncratic’. Also a fair chance of ‘dead flat broke’. But hopefully not a bunch of loanwords and phrases from French, a language we don’t speak. Except for avant-garde, which... ah, damnit.
Citroen is the brainchild of André Citroën. It’s also a car company, which André started back in March 1919. That, in case you’re temporally challenged, is quite a long time ago. It’s also right after an absolute meat-grinder of a war that you might remember from your history books as World War I. Or, if they’re quite old history books, ‘The war to end all wars’. Mm. About that.
The reason we mention this particularly unsavoury chapter of our history is that Mr Citroën built armaments for France during the First World War, and soon realised, as many of his contemporaries did, that the end of the war would be as good for the common man as it would be bad for his business. As far back as 1916, André was already planning a switch to car building, drawing on his experience at Mors (an early car manufacturer) and enlisting the help of a series of proven engineers.
So that’s why, just four months after the end of one of the deadliest conflicts in history, Citroen was able to announce its first car, build the first one two months later and put it in a showroom a month after that. On the Champs-Élysées, of course. Where else?Advertisement - Page continues below
Where are Citroens built, and how many does Citroen build a year?
Well, France, as you’d expect. At last count (at least our last count), there were no fewer than four French factories dedicated to building various examples of Citroens and its sub-brand, DS.
But, with the world being the way it is, capitalism being the way it tends to be and protectionism still being a thing, you’ll be unsurprised to find Citroen’s factories in Spain, Turkey, India, Brazil and so on. Add in the joint-venture factories and you’d find Citroens of one stripe or another being built in China, Italy, Japan, Russia and Iran.
In terms of cars built, we know that Citroen sold more than a million double-chevron-badged cars in 2018. So, presumably, it built about that many. DS, in case you’re interested, did about 50,000 in the same time frame.
What cars does Citroen build?
That’s something of a long list, as you’d expect, especially if you delve into market-specific cars – like long-wheelbase variations of DSes for China – and the manifold cars from DS intended for global markets.
But, happily enough, Citroen’s car lineup is usually quite logical. The littlest one is a C1 (not counting the C Zero, a rebadged Mitsubishi i-MiEV), running up to a C6 for the biggest. Coincidentally, the new C6 is also a China-only car. But don’t stress – it’s not the avant-garde (ding) masterpiece of the original, so you’re not missing out on a crucial example of Citroen idiosyncrasy (ding ding).
For international markets – excluding the entirety of North America, Mexico and North Korea – the biggest you’re likely to find is the C5. That is, unless you plump for Citroen’s luxury offshoot DS, and nab a DS9 luxe saloon.Advertisement - Page continues below
What’s the cheapest car Citroen builds... and what’s the most expensive it builds?
Well, we would have said the delightful Ami, but it technically fails by virtue of being a quadricycle, not a car. As an actual car, that’s sold in any decent number to a decently wide number of markets, you’re looking at the C1. It is absolutely tiny, has the raw power of an iPhone 3G that you found in a drawer and somehow manages to fit a 6’4” Australian in the driver’s seat. And, as is the way with small cars (barring, perhaps, the Aston Cygnet), it’s also quite cheap.
If we're going to go for the most expensive, it’s – as you’d expect – at the other end of the spectrum. If we still consider DS under Citroen’s purview (even if it’s ostensibly a ‘standalone’ brand now under corporate overlords Stellantis), the DS9 will fit the bill for ‘most expensive’. Even if the bill in question isn’t scarily large.
What’s the fastest car Citroen builds?
Up until recently, that would have been one of its lovely rally cars. Alas, Citroen pulled the pin on rallying in 2019, and Citroen chassis engineer, Nicolas Berlinger, said in 2018 that “performance is not as big a focus anymore – because of CO2 regulations and customer demand". Ouch.
Really, asking after the fastest Citroen is like finding the wettest desert or the least-talented guitarist. So rather than focus on how slow and wet modern Citroens are, let’s instead remember how truly excellent this 200mph Citroen SM drag car is.
What’s been Citroen’s best moment?
That’s pretty subjective. Ask an anorak-wearing bobble hat and it’s the basically unimpeachable career of the Citroen World Rally Team. For others, it’s the non-stop (well, until Peugeot took over, at least) innovation and invention. Or that time that technology literally saved a President’s life.
Or, for history buffs, how about the French Resistance’s affinity for the Traction Avant, which helped give more than a few officers in Nazi-occupied France sleepless nights – and in some cases, the big sleep? Or when Citroen hid the plans and prototypes of the 2CV from the Nazis, lest they get their mitts on the French people’s car and do what they did with the Tatra V570 and... er, ‘pay homage to it’.
Citroen destroyed, hid or literally buried the 2CV to keep it secret from the occupying forces, and Citroen vice-president Pierre Boulanger was so unhelpful to the Nazis that the Gestapo reportedly labelled him “an enemy of the Reich”. So, for some Indiana Jones-esque foiling of the Nazis, we’ll happily award Citroen’s best-ever moment.
What’s been Citroen’s worst moment?
Well, probably when it went broke that one time. And then that other time. We’d say it would be the second time it went broke, after the people in charge decided that technological innovation at all costs was the path to Citroen’s success. So they invested in all kinds of stuff, including a series of all-new bespoke models, developing rotary engines and even buying Panhard, Berliet and Maserati. That’s the cliffiest-of-cliff-notes version of Citroen’s activities in the Sixties and Seventies.
And the results were some lovely cars, like the GS, CX and the loveliest GT of all time, the SM. Then some abject failure and incredible expense for rotary engines. The end of Panhard and Berliet, and subjecting Maserati to the De Tomaso era, which saw utter brilliance like the Bora and Merak give way to utter dross like the Biturbo.
But then, as the dearly departed Purple Prince once said, “life is just a party and parties aren't meant to last". Just be glad that Citroen managed to sneak so much individuality and idiosyncrasy past the fun police for so long.Advertisement - Page continues below
What's Citroen’s most surprising moment?
To be fair, Citroen basically existed for surprising moments. Completely revolutionising suspension, delivering such incredible ride quality that Roll-Royce asked to licence the tech for its cars. Front-wheel drive, to keep the weight of the engine pressing on the driven wheels to aid traction and improve cabin space. Four-wheel independent suspension and unitary bodies when the competition was still using body-on-frame and solid axles.
But the most surprising part, at least for us, was not of Citroen’s own making. After Peugeot bought up and bailed out Citroen, the bosses at Peugeot didn’t set Citroen back to task doing what it did best – dreaming big and thinking differently. Instead of keeping Peugeot as the sensible, reliable car and Citroen as the outlandish inventor (that Peugeot could, as owners, nick the best bits for its cars), Peugeot ditched being sensible or well built and made Citroen as Peugeot-ish as possible. It’s like hiring Frank Zappa to play 12-bar blues.
What's the best concept Citroen built?
You’d think it’d be the GT by Citroen, given that a) it looks incredible and b) we actually managed to drive one – and park it in front of Harrods, outdoing the manifold sons of industry who parked up beside us. But it isn’t. See, we just spent 150-odd words bemoaning the un-Citroening of Citroen, so it really would be a bit crass to hand the title of ‘best concept’ to a Peugeot-era car, regardless of how cool it may be.
Instead, we’re going to hand it to the GS Carmargue, a Bertone-designed masterpiece that sits atop the car-of-the-year winning platform of the GS. It had as much chance of actually being made as the sequel to Battlefield Earth. But, unlike that, the GS Carmargue was something we actually wanted to see more of. For a small idea of why that is, we’ve a helpful primer over here.Advertisement - Page continues below
Tell me an interesting fact about Citroen.
Did we not do that with the whole ‘buried 2CVs and Nazis’ thing? Oh, OK then.
Well, did you ever hear about how Citroen left the US market back in the Seventies? So, back then, Citroen was in full tech-overload mode with the updated DS, the equally divine SM and the hugely forward-thinking GS. And it was really, really putting the work into developing its cars. The GS, for instance, took 14 years from idea to fruition, and the SM started life nine years before its debut as a sports version of the DS.
What the SM became, however, was a properly luxe GT car, with styling by Robert Opron, the best suspension in the business and a powerplant by Maserati. Even now, that still sounds like our perfect car.
The DS wasn’t selling particularly well in the United States, in part thanks to the fairly anaemic afterthought of an engine, but also because some of the DS’s best features – swivelling headlights and hydropneumatic suspension – were nixed or literally watered down by American legislators. The special hydraulic fluid that suspends the DS wasn’t allowed in the land of the free, so Yank-spec cars used brake fluid instead. Brake fluid, which readily absorbs water and mixes with it. Which had a fairly predictable effect on the smooth running and non-rustiness of the DS’s calling card. It being America and all, even the aerodynamic headlight covers ran afoul of regulations. The SM’s swivelling, faired-in headlights were just as illegal in the States, but Citroen soldiered on until receiving the final blow.
Remember those hideous bolt-on bumpers that America insisted on back in the Seventies? If not, have a look at the difference between an Italian supercar in its own country and an American version of the same car. These buck-toothed monstrosities ruined the aesthetics of everything they touched and absolutely destroyed the Lancia Montecarlo. But they weren’t done yet.
The rules stated that the bumper had to be a certain height. And a few manufacturers like Lancia and Fiat got around that rule by raising the ride height of their cars. And destroying the handling, but at least they could sell them. But what could Citroen do, selling a car that could sit as high as a horse or as low as a snake? Well, apply for an exemption, which it did, which was denied. Because of course it was. So Citroen, whose SM was a hand-in-glove fit for grand touring across the great North American continent, pulled it from sale and left the market completely. The story goes that the leftover left-hand drive SMs went to Japan instead.
The worst bit? The bumpers weren’t in the name of occupant or pedestrian safety or anything like that – they were to reduce the costs of repairs and ensure that cars could keep working after low-speed crashes. Because that’s the most important thing. Next up: scuba gear you wear every day in case you fall in a lake sometime.