Lance Cole looks back to a stylish Citroen that had everything except protection against the deadly rust
Tuesday 27 September 2005
After two decades in the design doldrums, Citroen has, with its new C4 model, returned to daring to be different. But the C4's roots lie not in its immediate ancestors, the bland and boring Xsara or the ZX, but in the Car of the Year 1971 - the characterful GS.
Whilst the limelight always falls on the Citroen DS as the 'goddess' of Citroen design, it is the GS that kept Citroen alive into the 1980s. But because we expected a Citroen to be bold, the shock of the new GS in 1971 failed to make the impact on the public's perception that it might have done had it sported a Ford badge - as happened when Ford's first Focus morphed its Citroenesque curves upon us.
Yet the GS was the world's first small car with hydropnuematic suspension, and the first small car with a chopped 'Kamm' tail (named afetr Dr Kamm) and teardrop aerodynamics that were years ahead of the opposition). It also had a large cabin, great ride and handling and was a modern design that stood out from the usual fare of the time- Vivas, Cortinas, and associated 'three-box' car designs.
Perhaps only the Rudloph Hruska designed Alfasud came close to the GS- both sharing a flat four boxer engine design, fwd, Kamm tail, and other traits. And the GS had not just all round disc brakes, but in-board brakes -taken from racing car design to improve handling. Its liquid mineral suspension also gave it the ride of a Rolls Royce too. The air-cooled engine was unburstable as well.
The GS started out as 'Project C' and 'Project F' -1960s Citroen prototypes for a new smaller, family car. 'Project F' is shrouded in legend, for it looked very much like the later Renault 16 - itself a milestone car in design terms. Had there been industrial espionage involved? Such were the rumours.
Designed by Robert Opron under the influence of Flaminio Bertoni at Autmobiles Andre Citroen, the GS was expertly styled; it needed no rear wiper and kept its flanks clean through tuned airflow control. It looked right from every angle and as with all Opron designs, captured the light beautifully. It even survived being stretched into the long tailed GSA hatchback in 1979 with its grafted-on plastic bumpers. The GS estate - a flat-floored favourite with French farmers and British families carried on almost unchanged.
Special editions such as the sporty X1, the black painted, red-striped 'Basalte' and the strangely named GS 'Cottage' (was the world's first unintended, gay market car?) made the most of the 1015cc, 1220cc and 1130cc engines that the car was offered with over the years.
The ultimate GS had to be the rare twin rotor, Wankel engined, Birotor. In 1974, through a tie up with NSU, the GS became a powerful, turbine smooth cruiser, and the only rotary car with hydropneumatic suspension and brakes. Often painted a rich antique gold and with Pallas trim, 847 Birotors were sold.
Citroen bought them all back as they were troublesome, and too thirsty as the 1970s fuel crisis raged: In their brief lives the Birotors wowed France, they were equally at home swishing through a rainy Paris, or storming down the Autoroute du Soleil. Only one right hand drive Birotor was made and today it lives in Australia.
In the end, it was rust that did for the GS and the GSA- just as it did for that only other car at the time to offer advanced design- the AlfaSud (or Awful Sod as they became known).
The GS had a strong hull with thick doors- good in a crash, yet when water got under the 'Tectyl' undersealing, they rusted away from the inside out -seriously weakening the structure. Very few remain on British roads. Yet the Dutch still have a love affair with the GS and many still populate Amsterdam.
The suspension was never as complicated or as troublesome as some suggest - my local village garage mended my GS's hydraulics with a re-sleeved pipe for £20 whereas the Citroen dealer wanted £500. My GSA stormed up the M4 to London every day for years, its 'boxer' engine burbling away as the airflow cleaved over the car in silence. An Autocar road test editor once told me that he thought the GS was one of the best cars ever designed. Despite understeer and roll, the GS was superbly controlled, and fast too.
After 2.5 million GS/GSAs came out of the factory, the car died in 1986, but was quietly reincarnated via production in Yugoslavia and Indonesia. The Balinese loved the GS, as did the Zimbabweans. Out in the tropics, GSs do not rust away - they just keep on going.
So died the GS, a greatness wasted in the world of the mundane, for want of some proper rust proofing. But perhaps uniquely, a car re-born 20 years later, in the superb Citroen C4, a car that is not a retro-pastiche, but finally, at last, a real spaceship of a Citroen - just as the GS was.
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