The Citroën Conservatoire Diaries: The Modern Era

Depending on who you talk to, the last proper Citroën was made any time between 1973 and 2002. The deletion of hydraulic suspension, swiveling headlamps, properly weighted steering, comfy seats and horizontal speedometers have all been appropriated by different Javel aficionados as the point after which Citroëns became Just Another Car.

Whilst it is true that the average modern Citroën isn’t as kooky as the machines that rolled off the production lines forty years ago, the Conservatoire affords just as much respect to the present-day produce as it does to the legendary machines of yesteryear. And as I found out during my tour of the Aulnay-sous-Bois facility, the French marque seems determined to ensure it doesn’t make the same mistakes it did in the past when it comes to preserving a legacy for future generations.

For the purposes of this article, I’m going to draw my ‘modern’ line in the early 1980s, with the arrival of the BX family car. My decision is aided no end by the giant physical wall of BXs the Conservatoire has created, no fewer than ten of the early eighties hatches and estates straddling the older CXs, SMs and DSs, and the more recent Xantias and Xsaras. Whether this BX overload is the result of excessive pride in the fusion of Citroën design principles with modern technology, or just a demonstration of how seriously the Conservatoire is taking all phases of the company’s history, I do not know.

BX flotilla

BX flotilla

What I do know is that I am somewhat punch-drunk from the several aisles of seventies goodness in which I have just been enmeshed. I also know that I have been up since the middle of the previous night, and am running on finite energy. All the BXs are ever so slightly different, but in the absence of any significant facelifts they all start to meld into one low-lying metallic polygon. There’s a design prototype, a bog-standard early version, a more luxurious one, a sporty GT, one of the cavernous estates, and of course the abortive 4TC supercar I covered in the rally car feature.

I do not mean to do any disrespect to a very fine vehicle, but I somewhat absent-mindedly point the camera in the direction of the few incarnations of the Bertone-penned BX on display and then stagger onwards. I start doing the same for the AX, a boxy little hatchback of which numerous iterations are lined up, but am stopped dead in my tracks by an interloper. For right at the end of the line of little cars is a Proton. It is shaped rather like an AX that’s had its sharp edges sanded off, but the giant diamond crest of the Malaysian manufacturer is unmistakable. ‘1996 Tiara Proton’ reads the writing on its number plate, and M. Huile confirms it is indeed a version of the AX produced in Malaysia under licence following the disappearance of the hatch from the European markets.

An AX, but not as we know it...

An AX, but not as we know it…

The back story is a bit more interesting that that, though. As most car people know, Proton made a name for themselves in the early 1990s by reproducing old Mitsubishi models and selling them at knockdown prices. However, their president in the mid-nineties was anxious to shed this image, and for reasons best known to himself decided the best way to move the company forwards was to stop copying old Japanese cars and start copying old French ones instead. The Tiara was the first tangible output of this vision, but shortly after its launch the aforementioned president was killed in a helicopter crash and Proton went back to rehashing Mitsubishis.

The Proton Tiara does, however, symbolise the start of Citroën’s serious engagement with emerging markets. At the head of the AX/BX isle is a collection of recent models, each of which looks just a little bit different to the cars I’ve been used to seeing on European roads. Some of them have odd-shaped grilles, others have lower-grade engines, and yet others have unusual interior configurations. “These are models we have been making for emerging markets like Brazil and China”, Denis explains, yet again trotting out another morsel from his encyclopedic knowledge. “To be honest I don’t know exactly how they are different, but they have been adapted to the needs and tastes of these new markets”. Given the significance of these new markets to all sectors of industry, if you need to design a differently-shaped bumper to endear your car to consumers on far off shores, on balance the chances are you’re going to do it.

Brazilian and Chinese Citroëns

Brazilian and Chinese Citroëns

I am very familiar with the more recent Citroëns, so in the main there’s nothing that really jumps out and grabs me by the throat. This is the age of computer models and development via algorithm, so there’s no need to make crazy prototypes like the SM Proto Michelin in this day and age. Citroën are still Citroën, though, so there are a couple of utterly bananas creations lying around. Take, for instance, the Picasso with a full racing interior, replete with bucket seats, gullwing doors and sequential transmission (Swiss coachbuilder Sbarro made an equally aggressive C1 several years later, as if that was more likely to make it into production). Or the gold-encrusted C3 hatchback, liveried up by Dolce and Gabbana in an attempt to tempt Italians away from their Fiats in the early 2000.

The sad thing, though, is that these latter-day Citroën prototypes are just that – one offs, designed to turn heads and generate interest in the more banal cars in the lineup. There seems to be no hope that these things will one day make it into production, nothing that tries to pinpoint a gap in the market in the way the TPV sought to do seventy years previous. As if to illustrate the risks a car maker takes when trying to do something different, two C6 saloons sit side-by-side in the middle of the Conservatoire’s top aisle. One is the concept car unveiled at the 1999 Geneva Motor Show, with an interior clad in light leather and a body sprayed an optimistic shade of pale metallic blue. The other, registered just over a decade later, is black and nondescript with a dark interior. It was the last C6 to roll off the production line after Citroën decided to put the luxury barge out of its misery following just six years of poor sales. Its odometer shows only the distance across the car park from the factory to the Conservatoire.

End of an era: the very last C6

End of an era: the very last C6

Many in the know describe the XM as the last ‘real’ Citroën, so it seems like an appropriate place to wind up the ‘modern’ section of the Conservatoire tour. With Bertone styling consisting entirely of straight lines, passenger seats that one couldn’t even order in an Ercol catalogue and a rear sitting inches off the ground on account of its unpressurised suspension, the XM is a very 90s interpretation of the ‘big Citroën’ lineage. The example on display is a bright metallic red (M. Huile’s favourite colour) Multimedia version, an early attempt at connecting the car with the then-emerging digital world. Brought out towards the end of the XM’s lifecycle, the Multimedia came equipped with satellite navigation, an in-car phone and, apparently, internet access. The rear passengers got snazzy fold-down tables with keyboards, kind of like the ones pilots of Airbus jets get – I am not not sure who copied who on that one. The more cynical among you will point to the folly of packing a French car with electronic devices, but in any case the Multimedia wasn’t able to revive the XM’s flagging sales, and the plug on this French Millennium Falcon was pulled in 2000. The deep blue stretched limo parked next door soldiered on as French governmental transport for a few years after, but save for a brief and unsuccessful revival with the C6, the age of the big comfy Citroën is over, or at least on an extended hiatus.

As someone whose first encounters with Citroën involved gently rising suspension, sleep-inducing chairs and unnecessarily complex gadgets, I was more than a little sad when the canning of the C6 brought an end to a long tradition of vehicles that stubbornly refused to follow convention. But then again, the world is now a very different place to that into which the DS was released back in the 1950s. As the Conservatoire’s most recent acquisitions suggest, Citroën is busy safeguarding its future in other ways. Special models for emerging markets, fuel-efficient hot hatches, and shared-platform cars developed with companies who would have in days gone past been bitter rivals are all reflective of the wider trends in the motoring world. In the future we may not look back on the current crop of Citroëns with the same fondness as their predecessors, but as part of the company’s narrative they will – as they ought to – be enshrined in the Conservatoire.

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