Consider the entire spectrum of automotive offerings there are out there today, from the least alluring, economy-minded thriftmobile to the worlds most extravagant, fastest beacons of conspicuous consumption. When all’s said and done, there’s really not a huge amount to choose between them. All the city cars, superminis, coupes, sedans, SUVs and supercars are each geared to satisfy a very well proven set of buyer expectations. Sure, people like us — e n t h u s i a s t s — will feel the nuances, the characteristics of each one, but as far as most buyers are concerned, every car in every category offers the same basic package as every other.
Once upon a time, there were cars that didn’t offer the same basic package. There were cars that did things radically differently. Let’s take a look at the 1978 Citroen GS — a family car that did anything but tread the path of least resistance. Welcome back to The Carchive.
Click on the images to make them bigger and let the Frenchness flow
“Citroen have always had a reputation for offering simple yet original solutions to the motorist’s problems. The GS, as Citroen’s standard bearer in the medium-car market, is no exception”
This brochure dates from 1978, at which point the Citroen GS was exactly halfway through its sixteen year sales career. Citroen wasn’t in the habit of phasing cars out that still had life left in them — the DS lasted from the late ’50s to the early ’70s. the CX almost made it into the ’90s from the early ’70s, and the Citroen 2CV was produced from the middle ages until stardate 43443.5.
In fact, this brochure represents the GS in its most rational form. The dashboard is sensibly laid out, with rotary dials in place of the earlier art noveau rotating speedometer drum and quarter-circular rev counter, and had yet to go fully insane with the twin rotating drum instrument cluster, alien control pods and dominant illuminated diagnosis panel that would characterise the GSA of 1979.
“As proof of both its beauty and reliability, the graceful lines of the GS have been attracting admiring glances all over the roads of Europe for several years now. It’s a car which demonstrates once and for all that a functional design need not involve any sacrifice of character.”
Thing is, the GS, which very much resembles a smaller version of the CX (although the CX actually launched four years later), demonstrates that the ‘same sausage, different length’ philosophy of today’s ‘corporate design language’ is nothing new. It seems that Citroen struck the right formula, though — the GS was among the most aerodynamic family cars yet seen and CX’s longer, lower form would make the flagship even more streamlined. This streamlining also made for a very quiet car to travel in, and made the most of the relatively meagre power available.
And I mean meagre even by 1978 standards. The entry-level 1,129cc engine could muster 56.5bhp (the half was absolutely vital), and the ‘luxury’ 1,222cc engine was barely any more throbbing, with 60bhp under its belt. Nevertheless, top speeds were pretty good for the day — the smaller engines managed 93mph and the bigger ones raced ahead to the dizzy heights of 94.
“What gives the GS its outstanding combination of ride comfort, unyielding road grip and obedient handling is undoubtedly Citroen’s self-levelling hydro-pneumatic suspension”
The bouncy bouncy was way more interesting than the forwards and backwards, though. While the vast majority of the GS’s rivals used suspension of the same design that was dragged along by oxen in the 19th century, Citroen used a system steeped in mystery and wonder. A similar system had already been seen under the Citroen DS, and had wowed owners and journalists alike with its combination of resistance to squat and dive and a sufficiently smooth ride to have you doubting the very existence of the road you’re driving on.
Not only was it extremely stable fore and aft — though not quite so clever laterally — it could also help to keep the car remain stable during a tyre blow out, and then faciliate an easy tyre change by lifting a single wheel off the road. Yes, it was an intimidating prospect for any uninitiated mechanic to work on, but it worked extremely well and proved reliable and durable.
It’s a real shame that the hydro-pneumatic system’s intellectual triumph wasn’t seen as valuable enough to endure as a Citroen staple. A more orthodox evolution of the system would later feature on the flagship C6, and clever adaptive suspension systems are offered by virtually every manufacturer out there, but the phasing out of the hydro-pneumatic system is just one example of how Citroen can reasonably be accused of losing its way over the years.
“The three saloons and two estates which make up the GS range offer a choice of cars to suit all pockets and requirements”
And the really amazing thing was that, despite the avant-garde looks, the unparalleled technical innovation, the genuinely impressive build quality and the undoubted level of thought that went into the GS’s conception, it wasn’t an expensive car. In fact, it was a bit of a bargain. In 1980, the mid-range GS Club, with the lion-hearted 60bhp engine, cost £3,633 on the road. By comparison, the four-door Ford Escort 1.3 GL, a car more rudimentary in design than a hammer, cost £3,700. Sister company Peugeot’s closest equivalent, the 305 GL, cost £3,799.
The Citroen GS should have been far more successful and more influential than it turned out to be. It should really have been imitated the world over, both stylistically and technically. I’m not saying it should have been slavishly copied, but it seems fundamentally arrogant on the part of the world’s motor industry that so many car firms treated the GS and CX as eccentric wannabes. These cars were packed with great ideas, and generated a rabid and very loyal following, but one that would always be of finite proportions, yet somehow that brilliance tempted customers less effectively than the gimmickry, gadgetry, perceived prestige or ‘sporting’ prowess of other brands.
Even more crucially, there were many for whom Citroens like the GS, CX, XM and Xantia were just too weird and unconventional. History shows that, as we hurtled towards an ever more homogenized world where buyers would tread very conservatively when making a buying decision, Citroen’s parent company PSA became ever more risk averse. And as if to prove how uneasy PSA are about thinking outside the box these days, in 2017 they bought Opel and Vauxhall — companies that have been on an entirely different wavelength to Citroen since the very beginning.
(All images are of original manufacturer’s publicity material, photographed by me. Copyright belongs to PSA, whose Citroen division still produces some of the most interesting-looking cars on the road — but the eccentricity only runs skin deep, which is something of a pity)