As I’m sure you’re aware by now, the Citroën Conservatoire features many weird and wonderful things. With things being pretty hectic at the moment, it seems like a good opportunity for me to set the writing about the wonderful things (DSs and CXs, mainly) aside and jot down a few words on the weird. As a collection that encompasses the whole of Citroën’s history, all the detours Javel took along the way are preserved alongside the more well-known successes (I will cover the proper prototypes in a separate feature, so have omitted them here). In the interests of time this post will be short on words, and for the main I’ll let the pictures do the talking.
Car makers have long sought to cash in on the whims of their richest patrons (Aston Martin Cygnet, anyone?), and Citroën at the start of the French automotive boom were no exception. One might think battery-powered cars are a relatively recent invention, but Citroën set out to snare their second generation of owners as early as possible with this small-scale ‘Citroënette’ version of the C4;
The Panhard 24 used DS underpinnings, and was produced between 1964 and 1967. Although it’s derived from the DS, if you screw your eyes up a bit and look at the front headlamps, you can see how the idea for the faired-in headlights on the post-facelift DS might have come into being…
Having been raised on the Black Isle, I was delighted to see a tractor in the Conservatoire collection. This prototype was commissioned after the war as Citroën sought to re-establish itself by expanding its production base. However, before the tractor could go into full production (Citroën had also produced tractors pre-war), the French government stepped in and told Javel to concentrate on making cars. Agriculture wasn’t the only sector post-war Citroën had its sights on though…
As if engineering the ultra-complex SM, facelifting the DS and preparing the next-generation CX for launch wasn’t enough, Citroën’s engineers decided to make things even more challenging for themselves in the early 1970s by developing a helicopter. As you would expect from Citroën, though, this couldn’t just be a normal helicopter. No, it had to have a rotary engine. The vision had been to develop a rotary engine – an engine with a rotating triangle rather than straight up-and-down pistons – that could be used in a car, a boat and an aircraft. After a couple of test flights round the car park, the RE-2 was canned and Citroën gave up on the rotary idea. To date, Mazda have been the only manufacturer to really make the rotary engine work – and even then, that’s just on land.
Buses aren’t usually my thing, but this U23 stopped me in my tracks. Originally built in 1947, this particular example was found in Corsica and brought back to the mainland for a painstaking restoration lasting nearly four years.
Citroën like to dominate in motor sport, and what better way to dominate than to make a racing series that uses only your cars? Designed by a Citroën dealer in south-west France by the name of Maurice Émile Pezous – and subsequently christened MEP after its creator – this late 60s racer was fitted with a four-cylinder engine out of the GS saloon. Pushing out 78bhp, the MEP was used in the French one-make Formule Bleue series until 1976, and acted as a launchpad to circuit racing in much the same way Formula Ford does in the UK. I didn’t ask whether or not the French blue (rather reminiscent of Sir Jackie Stewart’s Matra, I must say) was intentional, but in any case with the confirmation of Citroën’s entry into the World Touring Car Championship next year, one feels more on-track domination is on its way.
There is a long history of Renault and Citroën following each others’ moves closely. Sometimes it’s Citroën who steal the march – as with the 2CV and Renault 4 – and other times the Diamond badge catches the Chevrons on the back foot – witness the Mégane Scenic and Picasso. The Visa Lotus is a case of the latter. Conceived as a knee-jerk reaction to Renault’s hugely popular and successful 5 Turbo II, the high-performance Visa followed the Turbo’s blueprint right down to the mid-engined layout and air intakes on flared arches. The plan was going to be to fit a 2.1-litre motor from the Lotus Esprit behind the front seats, but before too long the plan was shelved.
Back in the day, people all over the Western world used to get paid in cash. To speed up this process, Citroën converted a DS to carry wage packets round the Javel factory complex on pay day. It essentially consisted of a deepened rear boot fitted with a segmented wooden tray, into which the envelopes of cash for various departments were inserted, the workers’ names written in black ink on the branded brown packets. Following a failed attempt to rob the DS of its cash packets, it was escorted round the premises by a Dyane.
This is one for my pal John Fife – alongside its extensive collection of cars, the Conservatoire also has a comprehensive back catalogue of Citroën’s van production efforts. Here are two pristine minibus versions of the vans made as a joint venture with Peugeot and Fiat. I am even less of a fan of vans than I am of buses, but was still gobsmacked by the flawless preservation and meticulous presentation of two vehicles at which I normally wouldn’t bat an eyelid on the street.
ZXs got a reputation for crushing all comers on their way to rally raid domination, but a contemporary artist turned the tables by crushing several ZXs as part of a conceptual art project. One is mounted on the wall of the Conservatoire foyer – and the saddest thing of all is I was able to figure out what it was in its flattened state!
The Conservatoire had an extensive collection of models on sale. After I’d been to visit, there was one less DS Safari there to find a home…