Few car makers are as distinctive and almost wilfully different as Citroën, which didn’t so much break the mould as cast a completely fresh one all for itself when it launched the ground-breaking Traction Avant in 1934. With front-wheel drive, independent front suspension, unitary construction, rack and pinion steering and a host of other cutting-edge features the Traction was one of the most advanced cars of its day. After the Second World War Citroën kept ploughing its own furrow (to use a suitably agricultural phrase) with the 2CV, which introduced motoring to the French masses and bemused everyone else with its out-of-the-box ideas such as an air-cooled flat-twin engine, corrugated body panels, dash-mounted gear lever, fabric rolling roof, spindly wheels, absurdly soft suspension and off-putting mix of extreme body roll and almost unlimited grip.
Every Citroën product seemed to deliberately reject convention, be it with the boxy front-wheel drive ribbed-skin H-Van or the 2CV-based Ami with its backwards-raked rear window, rectangular headlamps and complete absence of any normal degree of styling.
The peak of Citroën’s addiction to the cutting edge came in 1955 with the launch of the DS as a replacement for the Traction Avant. With extremely absorbent, self-levelling and height-adjustable Hydropneumatic suspension, 2000psi brakes with front discs, power steering and a semi-automatic gearbox, plus front-wheel drive, a translucent roof, a single-spoke steering wheel and styling like a flying saucer from a Hollywood alien invasion movie, it was indisputably the most advanced car in the world. It was also one of the most distinctive and came to exemplify a peculiarly French approach to cars, born from an advanced, egalitarian nation of distant cities connected by terrible roads.
The DS was slowly developed during the 1960s and by the end of the decade the 2CV had spawned a clutch of variants such as the Fourgonette van, the Ami, the Mehari and the Dyane. In the early 1970s came the superlative SM tourer, with the DS’s suspension system, a Maserati V6 engine and a bizarre self-centring steering system and the midsize GS, teaming the hydropneumatic suspension with an air-cooled four-cylinder engine and one of the most aerodynamic bodies of the time. The DS’s replacement was the CX, launched in 1974. It wasn’t as much of a stellar leap as the DS had been but still showed that Citroën was dedicated to cutting-edge comfort. It had the same aerodynamic shape as the GS, plus the addition of a concave rear window.
It had the SM’s fancy steering and the same hydropneumatic suspension, still so good that by now Rolls-Royce, Mercedes and Lincoln had licensed it. It had been designed with the intention of using rotary engines but the cost of developing these (without real success) on top of the hefty costs of the CX project as a whole drove Citroën to bankruptcy and into the ownership of Peugeot from 1974. This means that the true Citroën purist will class the CX as the last ‘proper Citroën’, designed and engineered entirely without Peugeot parts or input. The LN supermini of 1976 was a badge-engineered Peugeot 104, albeit with the option of a new 652cc version of the 2CV engine, and this was followed by the Visa in 1978, a larger five-door version of the 104 design with bespoke bodywork. But these were additions to the range – the takeover really began in 1982 when the GS was replaced by the Citroën BX. Superficially this had the hallmarks of a true Citroën, with unusual, styling that was both practical and aerodynamic, weird instruments and a single-spoke steering wheel plus all the usual hydropneumatic systems. It also had Peugeot sourced engines, which were seen as a boon given that Citroën power units were never the most sparkling around. But the BX was built around the same platform that would underpin the very conventional (if very good) Peugeot 405, which required compromises. For instance the BX used Macpherson struts at its front end, which were cheaper than the GS or CX’s wishbones and leading arms and were compatible with the conventional steel springs used on Peugeots, but sacrificed ride comfort.
This didn’t stop the BX having the essential Citroën character, and it sold in huge numbers. But it was the start of what Citroën fans darkly referred to as ‘Peugeotisation’ or ‘normalisation’. During the 1980s the CX was facelifted and tweaked to remove a lot of its idiosyncrasies, gaining a more normal-looking interior, having its suspension retuned to ride more like a conventional big saloon and the addition of performance GTi and Turbo models. The CX’s replacement, the XM of 1989, shared its underpinnings with the Peugeot 605 and, while still a distinctive and forward-looking design, was a lot more subdued and conventional than the big Citroëns of the past. The small Citroën family had, by this time, been thinned out so just its patriarch, the 2CV, remained. But the Deux Chevaux bowed out in 1990, leaving only Peugeot-based models in production. It was itself supplanted by the 106-based Citroën AX, which was an excellent and successful little car but lacked the flair and intelligence of the 2CV that was the mark of a ‘proper Citroen’ as you could get.