Ninety-eight years ago Citroën delivered its first car. A humble 10hp Type A, the little quadricycle gave nary an inkling that André’s motor company would one day become one of the largest and most respected brands in France, and, to some, the world.
For the first decade, the cars were relatively normal compared to their contemporaries; but then, in 1934, the Traction Avant was introduced—a car which would turn the automotive world quite literally on its head.
Unibody; FWD; hatchback; ever so stylish and easy to drive; it’s no wonder the mighty Traction Avant was sold for nearly two and a half decades with three quarters of a million built!
The rakish profile was maintained by the car’s low stance, possible thanks to the unibody construction as well as the first of Citroën’s innovations in suspension technology with independently sprung front wheels and a torsion bar/wishbone set-up.
Over the years, the Traction Avant has become a symbol of pre-WWII France, a car from an era when gangsters and farmers alike slotted its familiar three-speed gearbox through its paces all over the French landscape.
But then, in 1955, Citroën would quite literally turn the automotive world on its head again. Not satisfied with simply pioneering FWD, unibody construction, and everything the Traction was known for, Citroën started from scratch and came up with this masterpiece.
Citroën’s DS. A car so captivating it practically sold 12,000 at its first showing. A car that some modern vehicles have yet to better. The car that is France.
Again, the DS proved to be a car that meant all things to all people. Presidents. Executives. Middle-class businessmen. Farmers. Gangsters. Teachers. There was one for everyone from the entry level ID to the midrange DW and fancy DS, not to mention the extremely roomy Safari.
As you can see here, the DS proved to be quite good in rallying as well, with the hydropneumatics allowing high speeds on poor surfaces and thus winning the Monte Carlo and other similar rallies in 1959, ‘62, ‘66, and ‘70.
It may have been a timelessly advanced race car, but by the ‘70s the DS was starting to be a bit outdated for the buying public even after a facelift. Thus, the last ‘true’ Citroën was introduced: the CX.
Brought to market in ‘74, the CX was named after “drag coefficient”, Cd in English, and sold 1.2 million examples in just 16 years. It never received as much attention as the Traction or DS as it was considered expected for Citroëns to be wacky and advanced at this point, and the littler GS and mesmerizing SM took center stage.
As was Citroën’s custom, the CX was on sale for about two decades or so, although it saw a larger decrease in sales towards the end of its generation cycle than both the Traction and DS.
The XM, the CX’s replacement, wasn’t much of a Citroën anymore. Scratch that—it’s perhaps the most Citroëny of cars in some aspects, and the antithesis of Citroën in others. First off, it featured styling commissioned by Bertone.
In the past, bit Cits had always had their striking lines done in-house so the XM was a departure in that respect, but at least Bertone kept the front-heavy aesthetic of previous big Cits. Worse was the fact that it rode on a Peugeot 605 but luckily that didn’t seem to matter given the XM placed second in this comparison test to the 605's eighth.
Still, awful reliability at the start of its production run and a lack of brand image in a market increasingly blind to the difference between quality and image meant that only about a third of a million found homes and the wedge was only sold until 2000.
Under the hood was the infamous PRV, later updated to the ES but not here as this is a replica of an earlier car. Apparently rather uncharacteristically Citroën was the fact that this engine was less refined here than in the 605, odd as the car was described as practically faultless otherwise (until it broke, that is.)
Unfazed, Citroën tried again with the C6. Alas, it was not to be. The market had gone from large saloons and besides, the C6 was far too expensive and exclusive to be family transport. Citroën soon found that businessmen had become far more focused on the badge their car wore than the actual car they drove.
A pity, really, as nothing could beat the highway-comfort of the C6's hydropneumatics and the efficiency of its myriad of diesels or, indeed, the improved smoothness of the ES9.
So, while the mainstream C5 has sold over 1.1 million over two generations, the C6 only sold 23K copies, a far cry from the past big Cits. Whose fault was it? Everyone’s. PSA made the car too expensive for family transportation, a key segment of the Traction, DS, and CX’s market.
The executives for whom it was positioned turned their nose up at the double chevrons. Worst yet, the awful reliability of the early ‘90s PSA range had tarnished both brands and left them reeling as “a purveyor of unremarkable little hatchbacks.”
So there you have it; the rise and fall of the once mighty, always FWD, and usually hydropneumatic big Citroën. It looks like those days are gone for good, with hydros gone with the last C5's and DS taking the mantle as a premium brand.
It’s a shame, really. I had wished for PSA to make Citroën a comfort-luxury focused brand against Mercedes whereas Peugeot could become BMW’s FWD rival in the field of driving fun and dynamics. While it looks like the latter is coming true today, I see nowhere in Citroën’s history books mentioning that hatchbacks should have floor mats glued to the side. Fun and funky, yes, but I feel like this is a paltry excuse of continuing Citroën’s history of innovation and “Créative Technologie”.
Sure, their new hydraulic fluid-filled coilovers are impressive, but nowhere near as iconic as a squatting DS with those green spheres under the gracefully arching bonnet.
I guess we just have to remember these icons, then, as relics of history which serve as reminders of Citroën’s illustrious and always innovative past. They may not be the company they were today, but at least they’re still doing their best, and I can appreciate that.
As for today’s diecast, we have with us Siku’s Traction Avant, Norev’s DS and C6, and Majorette’s CX and XM, all in 1:55-1:64 three-inch scale. Thanks for looking, and see you around LaLD! Bon weekend!