The Citroën Conservatoire Diaries: The Rally Cars

Dominance in motor sport makes me a little bit sick. Not metaphorically, but actually, properly queasy. I think it has something to do with the same colours flashing up on the screen again and again, having the same words going through one’s ears, and the fatigue on one’s eyes from reading the same name in the headlines over and over. I first noticed this phenomenon about ten years ago in Formula One, with a pointy-chinned German leaping repeatedly into the air out of a sea of red. Nowdays, if the purpley-blue car is leading a Grand Prix, I have to open the window with five laps to go to ensure a sufficient flow of air by the time the inevitable whooping, face scrunching and finger pointing breaks out.

With that in mind, the motor sport section of the Citroën Conservatoire might not have been the best place to spend a good chunk of the afternoon. Because when Citroën enter a motor sport series, they seem to have an awful habit of completely and utterly dominating it. Since 1990, taking the FIA-sanctioned Cross Country Rally World Cup and World Rally Championship into account, Citroën’s racing division has won thirteen world constructors’ titles, thirteen drivers’ titles, and a mindblowing ninety-eight rallies.

If processing those numbers has made you too feel a little bit peaky, I apologise. Take solace in the fact, though, that alongside all the vestiges of success in the Conservatoire, there is also a fairly liberal smattering of failure. You have to look a bit to find it, granted, but it is there.

The motor sport zone of the Conservatoire runs along the far wall of the giant warehouse, and is essentially divided into three blocks of glory. There are the continent-crushing cruisers from thousand-mile rallies of decades past, noses pointing confidently skywards on account of the depressurized hydraulics. Then there are the rally raid ZXs from the 1990s, standing proud on their giant wheels and raised suspension. And then there are Sebastien Loeb’s cars. Other one-offs and oddities are corralled into the space behind these blocks, or scattered around the museum with their roadgoing counterparts.

The motor sport section of the Conservatoire

The motor sport section of the Conservatoire

Citroën’s first period of motor sport dominance came in the 1960s and 70s, when the DS, SM and CX were unbeatable on long-distance rallies. Perhaps the key contributing factor in their success in such events was their supreme suspension and excellent ride – after tens of thousands of kilometers, drivers of lesser cars would essentially be shaken to pieces, whereas the Citroën crews remained refreshed and could retain their focus. This was particularly true for African events contested on dirt or gravel – but these big Citroëns also had an impressive record on blue riband European asphalt events such as Liège-Sofia-Liège and Monte Carlo.

These early Citroen rally cars are lined up in chronological order: short-tail DS, regular SM, short-tail SM, regular CX. All of them are painted in varying shades of French racing blue, a hangover from the days when European racing cars’ liveries were determined by the nationality of their manufacturer. Red for Italy, green for Britain, blue for France. The machines have been meticulously scrubbed of all the mud, oil and dead foliage picked up over a rally car’s working life, but still look like they’ve had a hard life. Racing through the desert has sandblasted their blue panels, reducing the once radiant paint to a matte, lifeless hue. Bonnets and bumpers pockmarked by flying stones, numbering and lettering scratched away to the point of being no longer legible, these are rally cars retired with full military honours.

A number with experience

A number with experience

They are also rally cars that would be completely unsuitable for modern competition. Watching a Citroën DS attempting to negotiate a sharp bend ranks among the most tragic sights a true car enthusiast will ever see. But on these old-school events where times were measured in tens of hours rather than tenths of seconds, inability to tackle hairpins was of secondary importance.

Indeed, the short-tail DS illustrates perfectly how some of the things that made the Goddess a fabulous road car had to be removed for it to be competitive on the stages. Next to the racing blue specimen is a stunning yellow example with no rear doors, a tiny back window and completely open rear wheels. It is the French automotive equivalent of a sawn-off shotgun, and like a truncated firearm it packs a fair punch over short distances. “This is an ice race car, not a rally car. Björn Waldegard raced this in the twenty-four hour ice race at Chamonix in 1972, and came second”, M. Huile explains in a matter-of-fact manner, calmly undoing the worn leather strap that holds the bonnet shut as he talks. Propping up the hood with a long rod, he casts a swift glance sideways, then turns to face me with a broad grin. “Would you like to hear it?”

I do not have time to answer before Denis is in the car, turning on the battery and flicking the fuel pump switches on the ceiling. The engine turns and turns and turns to no avail. “These cars spend a lot of time parked inside, so it is good for them to be started whenever there is an opportunity”, comes the voice from inside the car, carrying the air of someone trying to justify their actions to themselves as much as to the listener. “Because they are not used regularly, sometimes they can be hard to start”.

Three minutes later and with the battery getting weaker, the ex-ice racer finally clatters into life. Denis works the accelerator furiously, revving to the extent that black smoke starts to puff out the rear of the car. The exhaust note is fruity and full-bodied, not like the slightly asthmatic wheeze produced by the prehistoric standard DS motor. That’s because this car – which came famously close to winning the Chamonix race despite irreparably losing use of one wheel – is powered by the Maserati V6 engine out of the SM. Over the next five minutes I hear the Italian powerplant’s revs held at every pitch between 1,000 and 7,000 rpm, I see the driving lamps flashed on and off, and I witness the DS’ remarkable self-centering steering, the hydraulics hissing and squeaking as they pull the wheels back to a forward-facing position.

Stablemates

Stablemates

Much like the atmosphere in the Conservatoire once Monsieur Huile’s spectacular show comes to an end, Citroen’s motor sport endeavours went a bit quiet after the big saloons faded out of top-line rallying. The Visa family hatchback did, however, prove to be versatile and effective at lower levels of competition. Variations on the Visa theme are scattered around the museum, among them a smart white Trophée Rallye that formed the basis for a one-make rally series. There’s a bog-standard cream and brown example, whose dowdy exterior belies its giant-killing achievements on the Dakar – in 1984, with little modification and limited factory support, it finished eighth outright, even beating a Porsche on one stage. And there’s a beefed-up Milles Pistes, a four-wheel drive version whose awkward plasticky modifications served as advance warning for what was to come next: Citroen’s Group B fiasco.

Group B was the age when rallying was at its most extreme, when seas of spectators parted just metres in front of the cars and urban myths of rally cars being faster than grand prix cars abounded. Heroics on the stages were building real status among the car-buying public for previously staid manufacturers like Audi and Lancia, and Citroën wanted to be part of it. Unfortunately the Parisians were too uncommitted, too underprepared and above all else too late for Group B, but the legend of their failure lives on.

As a self-proclaimed car snob who cannot possibly be interested in anything that anybody else likes (ever), I was unashamedly relishing the possibility of coming face-to-face with the infamous Citroën BX 4TC. It has the three elements I believe are necessary to make a car desirable to real aficionados. It’s rare. It’s offbeat. And its name carries a whiff of notoriety. It is also a bloated, beached fibreglass whale of a machine. The BX comes from the brief period in history when cars were designed using only rulers and set-squares, and the exaggerated bodywork of the 4TC serves only to make this even more obvious. Every single panel is flat, or at least made up of a series of polygons. The flared wheelarches have four sides to them. A strong of oblong yellow lamps fill the gap where the grille on a normal car would be. Offset to the left of the bonnet is a giant geometric hump, which Denis thumps with the palm of his hand to confirm the car is indeed made of fibreglass.

Group B rules meant a car only had to vaguely look like the kind of thing you could buy in the showroom. The engine could be moved to the back, the layout changed and completely new bodywork constructed to make the rally car as fast as humanly possible. The only catch was that you had to build two hundred ‘road-legal’ versions as well as the competition version, and as you would expect the Conservatoire houses one example of each. Whilst the road car manages to pull off a certain air of coolness by looking very much an artifact of its time, the rally version ten metres away is nothing but tragic. Ingrained dirt has turned its exterior from brilliant white to off ivory, with the sparsely applied sponsor stickers doing little to disguise the grubbiness. The Perspex windows seem to have been crudely shoved in, sealant bubbling and curling out from their edges. The front headlamps, smaller than those on an ordinary BX, point slightly inwards and appear far too small for the hulking vehicle they are supposed to illuminate. Almost as a final insult, the tarpaulin that usually covers the car is loosely stuffed in the co-driver’s footwell.

BX4TC - long bonnet due to engine layout

BX4TC – long bonnet due to engine layout

All of this serves only to make the BX4TC even more enigmatic and alluring. Its competition career was ended after only three rallies, when a string of high-profile accidents led to the outright banning of Group B cars. Whilst Citroën’s effort was generally considered a flop – legend has it that the manufacturer destroyed most of the cars thereafter – let’s not forget it did score a sixth place in Sweden, a result with which more recent WRC challengers would have been delighted.

Still smarting from the BX debacle, Citroën returned to their favourite surface for their next rally episode: sand. Javel – or Aulnay-sous-Bois as it had become – was going rally raiding, and they were out to win. The humble ZX was selected as the base car, but the rally raid special was essentially related its civilian stablemate in name only. “I think only the rear lights are from the road car – maybe not even that”, muses Denis as we examine the foot-high spoiler on the back of one of the fleet. He looks like he wants to start a car again.

Sure enough, the engine cover on Ari Vatanen’s 1991 Dakar-winning ZX is unfastened and propped open with a lengthy pole. While my head is in the engine bay, which takes up the whole rear of the car, Monsieur Huile disappears out of sight. It is just as well I quickly twig where he’s going, because otherwise my face would have been five centimeters from the exhaust pipe when the turbocharged two-litre powerplant explodes into life. The wide single exhaust pipe gives the ZX Rallye Raid an exhaust note akin to a rapid series of abrupt, aggressive farts, grunting rather than growling. Constant assault on my eardrums from the fierce engine sound, coupled with the rich popcorn-like aroma from the racing fuel and the overbearing stench of fibreglass, quickly gets to me and I need to step back from the machine to regain my composure. Doing so allows me to better understand what a beast this Citroën is. The entire bodywork from behind the drivers’ doors – wings, tailgate, bumper, spoiler – lifts up together, wobbling and twisting on two flimsy little hinges. Pipes and cables curl out of the engine, disappearing into various orifices in the main body. The wheels and suspension turrets are connected to the chassis, which itself exists completely independent of the bodywork above. Yes, this is nothing like the 1.4 ZX Aura my uncle had.

Like Elvis Presley, year on year the ZX Rallye Raid specials got wider and wider, and turned an ever more alarming shade of red. The first two incarnations, one of which Denis kindly fired up for me, carry one of the iconic motor sport colour schemes of the 1980s and 90s – yellow with dark blue trim. As with nearly all of these iconic liveries, though, the colours were provided by a tobacco manufacturer – so in deference to political correctness and legal restrictions, the ‘Camel’ logos have been blanked out.

We stop at every one of the rally raiders, discussing the improvements and successes of each year’s model. M. Huile has a strong personal attachment to these cars, having been involved with Citroën Racing’s press office at the height of their Dakar dominance. This is why he knows not only the technical details – such as how to start one of the things – but also all the little back stories, like triple Dakar winner Pierre Lartigue resting a bottle of wine and a wine glass on the rear wheelarch to celebrate victories. Such decadence goes hand-in-hand with the absolute power Citroën wielded in mid-1990s rally raiding, culminating in the Evolution 5 in 1996. “We had the opportunity to make a 2.5-litre engine specially for this car, and it was putting out 59mkg of torque”, Denis explains, pride shining in his eyes as he rattles out statistic after statistic. “There were two versions, a standard one and a shorter one for the European Baja rallies. By this time we could carry four spare wheels. If you look under the wheelarches you will see ten shock absorbers, with a travel of 40cm. The rules were so free then, you know. If we were allowed to use these cars now I think they would be able to win”. The numbers start to make my stomach turn.

Lartigue's wine stand

Lartigue’s wine stand

I once entered a Blue Peter competition on the theme of what I wanted to do when I grew up with a picture of me, wearing a full-face helmet with the desert reflected in the visor, behind the wheel of a scarlet ZX. But in truth I really was too young to appreciate just how powerful Citroën was in desert rallying, and it was not until the late 1990s that I was mature enough to start properly following motor sport. That period of time coincided with two things: Citroën’s early engagement with stage rallying, and the emergence of V-Rally on the PlayStation. As such, the next two vehicles on tour are very familiar to me indeed – even though today is the first time I have ever seen either of them in the flesh. They are the Saxo S1600 and the Xsara Kit Car, cars I must have crashed hundreds if not thousands of times during my virtual rallying career. The fact that some examples of this car still exist is thus concrete proof that the virtual and real worlds have not yet merged. The Xsara in particular is a superb illustration of how a good motor sport formula can turn a mundane car into something very exciting. It has the road car’s Plain Jane face and uninspiring rear end, and yet the flared wheelarches (which must add a good half metre to the car’s width), massive wheels and insane spoiler transform it into one bad-ass road rocket. This is the car that, despite its front-wheel drive underpinnings, won two World Rally Championship rounds outright in 1999 against the likes of McRae, Sainz and Makinen, sowing the seeds for the decade of Citroën rule that was to follow. But it is the rear window of the Saxo that really foretells what is to lie ahead, four giant white letters ominously spelling out the word L O E B.

No explanation needed

No explanation needed

I was really hoping Denis would go for a hat-trick and fire up the Xsara Kit Car, but as well as being wedged in-between the Saxo and a four-wheel drive Xsara, it is also a show car. In fact, the collection of World Rally Cars held by the Conservatoire is a curious mishmash of genuine cars, rebuilds and display vehicles – most of the real warriors from the stages retire to Citroën Racing’s premises across the city at Versailles. There is some real history here, though, from the gold ‘1998 champions’ laurels on the Xsara Kit Car’s windscreen to the lettering on the Saxo T4 prototype carrying the name of the late development driver – and two-time WRC rally winner – Philippe Bugalski. One of the Xsaras in the middle of the row is proper ex-Loeb fayre, having taken part in such important engagements as a 2003 WRC round, the Race of Champions and its driver’s wedding. The C4 at the end of the row is painted up in the Red Bull livery from the 2010 season and bears Loeb’s markings, but its bona fide competition career came to a grisly end in Portugal in 2009 when it caught fire with Conrad Rautenbach at the wheel.

If truth be told, the section of the Conservatoire charting Citroën’s meteoric rise through the World Rally Championship feels very much like a work in progress. Somebody is yet to take down the life-size cardboard cutout of former Citroën protégé turned VW ace Sebastien Ogier, which still stands watch over the WRCs as if the last two years of rallying did not happen. Some day, the time will come for Citroën’s WRC dominance to come to an end, and this third chapter in the company’s motor sport history will be concluded. What follows next is still up for discussion – indeed, I was stunned to learn that right up until the introduction of the C4 in 2008, the company bosses were mulling over a return to rally raids.

Citroën x Citroën

Citroën x Citroën

There are of course all sorts of pieces of punctuation in the Citroën rally story, little victories and quickly-abandoned detours in between the big projects. There’s a Berlingo minivan that went all the way to China with a group of students, a double-engined 2CV used right at the inception of desert rallying, and a mid-engined Visa with a Lotus motor that was briefly considered as a response to Renault’s 5 Turbo II. But all of them are treated with the same respect, granted the same floor space in the Conservatoire. And as I discovered when I was doing my background research before and after visiting the Conservatoire, even the most obscure and unassuming rally car in the collection will carry great significance for a group of enthusiasts somewhere.

“All of these cars are part of our history”, M. Huile reminds me as I snap furiously away at the BX4TC with my camera. “Even if they were not so successful, we cannot ignore the fact that we made them”. For a motor sport manufacturer that was once rumoured to have tried to destroy as much evidence of a failed rally car project as possible, this is a brave and honourable statement indeed.

Note: as with the previous article, there is just too much stuff in the Conservatoire to do justice in a sensibly-sized article. I plan to drill down more into the ZX Rallye Raids and the early World Rally Cars in subsequent pieces, but if there are any photos you would like to see or cars you’d like detailed please do comment!

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2 Comments

Filed under Rally, Road Cars

2 responses to “The Citroën Conservatoire Diaries: The Rally Cars

  1. Another great article Leslie. One car I regret never buying is a Saxo T4 – I saw them in the early 2000’s when I was servicing for Nigel Heath – they were matching WRC times.

  2. I wonder why Citroen ended up going with the Xsara instead (although somehow I don’t think they regret it!) Perhaps something to do with wheelbase length, as the 206s needed elongated bumpers to meet the minimum length requirement. Was there not a French driver that used to rally a Saxo T4 on Welsh events?

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