The Carchive: The 1978 Citroen GS

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)

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15 responses to “The Carchive: The 1978 Citroen GS”

  1. Pete Avatar

    I had one exact like the first photo. In retroperspect, that was a real cool car.

  2. Rover 1 Avatar
    Rover 1

    Another great carchive, Chris, but don’t deny the epochal GS it’s success. The GS and the following hatchbacked, five speed, larger engine version, the GSA were quite successful in terms of sales. 1,896,742 GS models and 576,757 GSA models were produced in total, with production continuing in Indonesia right through to 1990. They were assembled all over the world as well as at Rennes, France, (Australia, Chile, Indonesia, Mozambique, New Zealand, Portugal, Spain, South Africa,Thailand, Slovenia (Yugoslavia), Zimbabwe.)
    That’s nearly 2.5 million cars, or more than the same years worldwide sales of the Vauxhall Viva, Hillman Avenger, Datsun 120Y/B210, Toyota Corolla, Opel Kadett ,AlfaSud or Renault 12. And not too far off the production totals of the Fiat 128 or the Mk 1 & 2 Ford Escorts.
    As for influence, in terms of styling, there was this, GM’s Opel/Vauxhall/Daewoo/ Pontiac introduced in ’84 and as the Opel Kadett, European Car Of The Year 1985. To many people this looked more Citroenish than the GSA successor the BX. The only thing that really dated the GS/GSA was the aircooling, which made meeting later emissions controls difficult.
    You are dead right about Peugeot’srisk aversion is what knocked Citroen back.
    You’d think that some marketing person might have been able to make something of the fact that the only other manufacturers that used Citroens own invention, hydropneumatic suspension, were Rolls Royce, Bentley, Mercedes Benz, and McLaren, and that it was banned in rallying for giving too much of an advantage. That doesn’t strike me as being particularly risky.

    1. Rust-MyEnemy Avatar

      All great points. I’ll admit that assembled this story from a UK perspective, the global scene was, as you say, quite different. And though the Mk2 ‘teardrop’ Astra/Kadett certainly had a resemblance, shape-wise, Opel had ample opportunity to employ Citroen thinking in the Mk1, too, but chose to ape the Golf and Talbot Horizon instead.

  3. Sjalabais Avatar

    So who has actually driven one of these? I remember them as beautiful, omnipresent spaceships all over France in the 90s. But I’ve never driven one. Today, these aren’t particularly expensive collectibles, at least in the conditions I’d consider. So far, I’ve ownly owned a Xsara wagon (reskinned Peugeot 306), had a Xantia for a weekend (gorgeous) and driven a C4 with night-marish steering on Mallorca. I’d consider none of them to be a true Citroën in the traditional “Oh wow”-sense.
    Why PSA bought ailing, boring, broken Opel…a total mystery to me. Doesn’t make sense on paper, in my heart or brain.

    1. Rover 1 Avatar
      Rover 1

      I have. A good friend had a similar GSA Pallas owned from new. They have a clattery sounding but quite smooth feeling motor that loves revs, a slightly notchy rubbery gearbox action and steering that really lightens up at more than 10km/h. No powersteering on cars back then. The heater is about as good as an early beetle but does come in fast as it uses exhaust heat.
      The Pallas version had a sort of velour upholstery that wore quite well but did go baggy with age and the metallic paint needed a respray after 15 years in NZ’s high UV sunlight, like all cars here.The ride is amazing, not just for such a small car, but for any car, nearly as good as the later BX, but with much more roll on cornering, like a 2CV. The grip is quite good, though, apart from the Alfasud which had flatter cornering it was easily a better car than it’s similar priced competition like all it’s RWD rivals with their live rear axles.
      With the odd instruments, loping ride, and revvy smooth motor they have a lot of character, they don’t really drive like a car from the seventies.My friend’s only problem was rust, probably partly attributable to the respray. The car was sadly written off after a minor rear ending in Auckland traffic.
      When new they were a similar price to a basic Mk2 Escort or Viva and they are a far better car in every way, other than the lack of high powered sporty versions. The estates are marvels of intelligent packaging design too.They are real engineer’s cars and certainly one of the best cars of their time.

      1. nanoop Avatar

        The early Beetle was really bad in terms of heating. Not only an air-cooled engine without close-circle warm-up and proper heat exchanger (they had to do the exhaust thing, too), but also seven feet of ducting that were not the most insulated tubing one could imagine…
        The official advertisement was “Air won’t boil, air won’t freeze.” Experienced users would shout “Air won’t heat!” at the commercials.

        1. Rover 1 Avatar
          Rover 1

          That’s why it’s better to have the little fan forced air-cooled flat four engine up front, and use the airflow to move the heat back.:-)

    2. nanoop Avatar

      The Opel deal is a bit strange to me, too. It would have made sense ten years ago (swallow a fish in the pond), but with the ongoing changes in technology and the necessary investments I deem it little helpful to survive or even dominate in the pond.
      Renault and Opel had successfully cooperated before (Vivaro, millions of them), and the current Opel lineup is very attractive (CUVs, Bolt/Volt equivalents), but given the lead times this is hardly PSA showing.

      1. outback_ute Avatar

        I’m not sure even then given the massive production overcapacity that existed then (and now), plus they overlap so much in the market. Colour me skeptical about the immediate profit turnaround too – if it was that easy Opel would have already done it.

        1. nanoop Avatar

          It is easy, sometimes: look at the profitability of your competitor. If it’s worse than your own, find out where the money is sunk, buy, and fix that. It can be as simple as reducing board bonuses and changing a process – both are changes hardly promoted by their respective owners.

          1. outback_ute Avatar

            The scale of the turnaround in this case goes beyond a few simple changes! From nearly half a billion Euros loss in the first half of 2017 to just over half a billion profit for the same period of 2018.

    3. crank_case Avatar

      I borrowed one for about a week 10 years ago, so still a modern-ish perspective on driving one. Took me a while to get used to the slowness of the steering, but I was coming from a near telepathic Toyota MR-S.
      The engine feels like something out of a light aircraft at motorway speeds, the RPM is way up there being an 1100cc, but it seems happy to do it all day, unlike many more modern small engines.
      Brakes are not confiden, ce inspiring, not because they don’t react, they do, but they have almost no feel and are hard to modulate – goes from nothing to standing the car on its nose via the soft suspension very easily. If you have to brake hard at motorway speed it can be a buttock clenching experience as the dive can cause the car not to brake in a straight line.

  4. tonyola Avatar

    At the beginning of the 1970s, Citroen seemed to be on the cutting edge of auto-dom with a brilliant future. The GS was a wonder when it came out in late ’70. As a teen, I read a 1971 article in Car magazine titled “Citroens for the Deep ’70s” – it featured the GS, the SM, and the rotary-engined M35. Sadly, Citroen was in terrible trouble a few years later and only the GS made it to the “Deep ’70s”.

  5. SlowJoeCrow Avatar

    I’ve always wanted a hydropneumatic Citroen, just for the sheer weirdness so the GSA would fit even better, or a BX 19 GTi. I wonder what a Mazda rotary powered GS would be like, Sort of an M35 done right.

    1. Rover 1 Avatar
      Rover 1

      I have a BX19TRi with GT suspension spheres and a six speed box from a later Peugeot 306. One day it will get a 16 valve head, or a 2 litre turbo from an XM. It was originally a JDM model so it has A/C, sunroof and ABS,( and No rust), and is one of the most comfortable cars to drive on our roads here in NZ, as good a ride as a Citroen, and handling like an Integra. There are some suspension quirks, because of the self levelling under braking, the whole car sinks slightly as the nose dive is fed through to the rear suspension, keeping the car flat and level, but lowering the whole car on it’s suspension. Once you’ve driven a hydropneumatique Citroen, you’ll want to keep driving them. I’ve managed to keep it to just the BX and a CX. So far.