I’m in Amsterdam, but it’s a different kind of CX that is grabbing my attention. The Citroen variety. A metallic brown example sits across the canal from us as we sip our white wines in the rain, the lights from the houses behind exaggerating its already distinctive shape. “Look at that, an old Citroen,” one of my company announces, unaware of my love for all things over twenty years old with inverted chevrons on the front. “I love those things, just love them. They’re so cool and so different.”
I refrain from volleying a ferocious tsunami of excitement and enthusiasm back at my companion, instead smiling sagely and contenting myself with the knowledge that someone else appreciates old Citroens. But I don’t have a chance to let this feeling settle before another of our crew who knows me better notes the CX and outs me. “Aww, look at that Leslie – you’ve gotta be loving that! Why don’t you go round and take a photo on the way home?”
And so for the rest of the week I have people drawing my attention to vintage Citroens. Not in itself a bad thing, but slightly wearing in the capital of Holland – because for some reason, Amsterdam is chock full of old French machinery. I quite honestly don’t know why this is, but I have never been anywhere outside of France where there are so many DSs, CXs, SMs and other two-lettered Citroens just lying around. Perhaps it has something to do with the affluent yet bohemian nature of Amsterdam, which sits well with the vibe of these old vehicles. Maybe it’s to do with this and also Amsterdam’s excellent transport infrastructure, which means that a car can be more of a lifestyle and fashion accessory than a necessity. Or it could be linked to the Netherlands’ proximity to France and lack of a national car maker (DAF and Spyker don’t really count as ordinary automobile makers).
Whatever the reason, it means my attention is drawn away from the canals, fine old houses and cannabis aromas, and to the parking spaces lining the canals and along the sides of suburban streets. I alternate between being Leslie: Geography Tutor and Leslie: Citroen Hunter. First sighting of the next day is a pale metallic blue CX by the wide canal at Entrepotdok. Spots of drizzle collect on its wide surfaces and heavier drops of rain run down the curved panels, leaving little watery lines that exaggerate the Citroen’s floaty shape. Inside, Dutch magazines are scattered over the ludicrously over-comfortable chairs, and there are cardboard banana boxes on the back seats filled with bits and pieces. This is a working CX. Good.
“Looking for a car Lesmondo?” enquires one of our students when he spots me taking a picture of the car. “That’s too old, it’ll just break down.” He’s absolutely right, it is and it will. You couldn’t have something like this as a daily driver, at least not in Scotland where the weather is harsh and spare parts are few and far between. I launch into a little speel about how I’d like one to use at weekends, and how they’re extremely comfortable inside. I even manage to retain the attention of the student – and a few others – when I start to regale them about how much better the Safari estate versions are and how I keep looking for them on eBay. I suspect, however, that this has more to do with the fact that the alternative is to look at the buildings and learn about the Dutch East Indies Company.
Over the next few days, my habit of stopping to pore over parked Citroens has the effect of increasing the students’ awareness of the environments through which they are moving. The vehicles at the side of the road cease to be amorphous blobs serving the sole purpose of providing personal powered transport for Amsterdam’s residents, and instead become a means of getting a rise out of the tutor in-between geography lessons. As we stroll through the Jordaan, three or four of our group up ahead start waving frantically and urging me to come round the corner. Their yelling seems to be linked to the ever-increasing clouds of blue smoke, throaty rasps and whiffs of four-star that seem to be coming our way. The source of these mechanical sensual stimuli turns out to be something quite incredible – a bearded and tweed-jacketed gentleman trying (and largely failing) to parallel park a Citroen SM.
Everyone in our group has stopped to see what happens, not as a result of the car but purely because the sight of an old man in an even older car making a massive hash of parking is inherently funny. It’s kind of like a sophisticated continental version of the scene in Austin Powers where Mike Myers is trying to turn the golf cart round in a corridor. I refrain from boring anyone with details about the Maserati engine or swiveling headlights, and join in the gawping at the bizarre unfolding scene. It turns out this SM has American-market (i.e. awful) headlamps, but I resist the urge to talk about this either. This turns out to be just as well, because the owner grows tired of being mocked for his parking efforts, decides to give up and exits the parking space by flooring the Maserati engine. Our group scatters and is left coughing in the massive plume of blue-grey exhaust gases emitted by the spluttering Franco-Italian coupe. Sadly, this dramatic exit is ruined when the SM conks out and stalls on a moderate incline five metres ahead, drawing sarcastic cheers from my cohort. The car conks out two more times before coasting to a stop outside an art gallery on the other side of the canal, each time receiving a mocking ‘waaaay’ from our troops.
I love SMs to bits, and this is the first time I’ve ever actually seen one out driving on the road, but it’s a rather sad sight. This example is white, and when white cars get old, unless maintained properly they start to look very, very tatty. All the dings, blemishes and rust spots seem to be magnified, looking like plain old dirt rather than a grander patina. The French and Italian components are also showing their age, as demonstrated by the constant spluttering and stalling, and the US-market plastic headlamps look nothing short of naff. I normally adore seeing old cars out and about and being used, but this SM clearly needs fixed first.
“Aw, look at that, that’s so cool – it’s like some kind of 50s gangster car!” That’d be a DS somebody has spotted, then. This confirms my suspicion that no matter how enthusiastic about cars – or hateful of them– one is, the shape of a DS will always elicit a positive response. It also confirms my long-held belief that films can do a heck of a lot for public awareness of old vehicles. Yes, it is the car from The Day of the Jackal. Yes, it did save de Gaulle’s life in reality too. Yes, Eric Bana does drive one in Munich.
DSs lurk all over the place in Amsterdam. Down side streets, by canals, under leafy trees at the side of suburban roads, the big old saloons sit with their rear ends practically touching the ground and their headlamps gazing wistfully out in the direction of the tarmac. My heart skips a couple of beats when I see an estate version through a steamy tram window, but by the time I whip the camera out we’ve moved on and I miss it. The Nieuw Zuid is home to so many old Citroens that the area is soon branded ‘Leslie’s Red Light District’, but the DSs prove to be a useful teaching tool by providing another example of imaginations of the future in everyday consumption, fitting well with the 1920s architecture we are sauntering through. Whether anyone remembered anything I was saying remains open for discussion.
The Nieuw Zuid is also home to a pair of fabulous Art Deco Citroen showrooms, positioned right next to the old Olympic Stadium. Sadly, one seems to contain exclusively vans, and the other has only a few modern cars scattered over its two levels and a couple more things parked on the roof. A pair of gleaming silver chevrons is bolted to the side of one of these white brick boxes, and massive red letters spelling out CITROEN adorn the tops of both garages. In my mind the DS3s and C1s fade out from the forecourts, and I start to imagine angular BXs flowing in and out of the glass-paneled doors in the 1980s, then shiny new CX Safaris being driven away by wealthy Dutch dads in the 70s, followed by a steady flow of DSs through the 1950s and 60s. A sharp donk from a tram bell snaps me out of my daydream before I get carried away any further.
It’s around this point that I realise my enthusiasm for Citroens does to me what the peeling paint round the back does to the Art Deco showrooms and the clouds of smoke do to the SM in the Jordaan. It shows my age. Badly. I’m just old enough to remember the more eccentric Citroens, the time when Citroens were suitably distinctive from other car brands to get away with being rickety and unreliable. The students accompanying me and my colleagues are a good bit younger, and to them Citroens represent – if anything – something much less exotic. To them, Citroens are Saxos and Xsaras and C4s, the kind of thing you learn to drive in, or buy when you can’t afford anything better. It goes without saying that the name invokes no connotations of Sebastien Loeb or motor sport success either – whilst Citroen’s efforts in rallying have been spectacularly successful in a sporting sense, the effect on Joe Public is virtually zilch. Let’s hope the new generation of cars from this French maker can capture even a fraction of the excitement their grand models from decades past managed to instill in not only me, but also the ordinary punters I was with. I really hope so, because as things stand, the chances of future generations getting enthusiastic about parked-up C3s are slim to none.