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Are Citroen French?

The answer to that question is yes - but if you are a member of the incognoscenti and live in the United Kingdom, that may not be obvious. Until the mid sixties, Citroens were built in Slough, England - this was due to a punitive tax regime for imported cars. In 1965, the factory was closed and cars were imported from France. Citroen UK's advertising strap line was .."Quand vous avez dit Citroen vous avez tout dit" (When you have said Citroen, you have said everything) - a line guaranteed to emphasise the Frenchness of these cars (and concomitantly guaranteed to be incomprehensible to the majority of Brits) - thereby ensuring that the campaign and the cars would appeal to a cosmopolitan elite. Mass market vehicles they were not. 

With the advent of the seventies Citroen had a mass market vehicle in the GS but British drivers are a conservative lot and they bought the Ford Escort and Morris Marina in preference. For those of you unfamiliar with these vehicles, they were both possessed of scaled down American styling, cart spring rear axle, drum brakes - in short they were abysmal. The GS was the first attempt by Citroen at rendering the driver/vehicle interface more conventional - the muttering rotters praised the GS's foot brake because the mushroom of the D had been replaced by a conventional pedal - or so it seemed. Of course the only difference between the two installations was that on the D the shank of the pedal was concealed beneath the floor while on the GS it was visible. Why this should make a difference escapes me since I never look at the pedals when I drive. The introduction of the CX did little for Citroen's fortunes in Britain - if people thought the GS was weird and wacky, 5 minutes behind the wheel of a CX was enough to put them off for life. Citroens were perceived by the hoi polloi as being archetypically French - and the Brits and French have been enemies for 900 years. 

The take-over by Peugeot meant that a new air of realism pervaded the company - cars were designed that were meant to compete with the products of Ford GM, Fiat and Volkswagen. This meant building the cars that people wanted. In the fifties, Citroen management had stated that they built cars that people needed rather than cars that people wanted and the attitude was that if you didn't like their products, then more fool you. The BX was Citroen UK's first major success. Here was a car that had the traditional Citroen attributes but cunningly disguised to appear (relatively) conventional. The advertising campaign majored on "Loves driving, hates garages" and no mention was made of the high pressure hydraulics. A series of low or zero interest finance deals, competitive pricing, campaigns directed at the fleet market and a model range that spanned two market sectors (the Escort/ Sierra sectors) guaranteed the car's success. PSA's diesels were hailed as being as refined as any petrol engine outside of BMW and for the first time, British drivers opted for oil burners by the thousand. 

The 2CV was allowed to die quietly (by the company, if not by enthusiasts) and its successor, the AX was another success story. Here was an utterly conventional car (single windscreen wiper excepted) which looked chic, was cheap to run and had the best handling in its class. The ZX built on the AX's success and was equally as conventional even though its appearance was less elegant than the AX. Conservative British buyers saw both these models as rational alternatives to the products of the main players in the UK market (who by now included the Japanese manufacturers). 

The CX's replacement, the XM was an unmitigated disaster, plagued by reliability problems, poor build quality and a certain lack of refinement compared with the BMWs and Mercedes against which they were unwisely pitched. The XM was anglicised in an attempt to woo drivers who had been frightened off by the CX's power steering system. For the UK market, the DIRAVI (or Varipower) system was replaced by a conventional power steering system but to no avail. The advertising campaign played up the revolutionary hydractive suspension system - and the buyers bought German cars instead.

With the launch of the Xantia, Citroen UK decided that a radical reappraisal was due. The mistakes of the XM campaign and the successes of the BX campaign led to an advertising campaign where the technology was played down - notwithstanding that the USP of the car had to be that very technology. 

Citroen UK were very clever - Brits view France as a rural land (borne out by the experiences of the thousands of Brits who visit rural France every year) whose technology is untrustworthy (not helped by France's insistence on testing their nuclear bombs in the Pacific), - TGV, Channel Tunnel, Concorde and Ariane notwithstanding. For decades, muttering rotters have commented on the complex hydraulics of the D, GS, CX - a plumber's nightmare was the stock phrase - and the stereotype is reinforced ~ the highly visible and audible but ineffective plumbing to be found in many small French hotels. 

So what did Citroen UK do? They played down the French connection. Renault had a campaign which emphasised the French origin of their products and it was undoubtedly felt that there was room for only one French car manufacturer. France is perceived over here as being both sophisticated and decadent. The former being stereotyped by French wines, fashion, cuisine and perfume, the latter by sexual morality, women with unshaved armpits, the predilection for horse flesh and the like. Furthermore France was home to some very dangerous ideas - the Enlightenment, guillotining the nobility, Humanism, etc. Renault majored on the sophisticated aspect, conveniently ignoring some of the less salubrious areas of Frenchness and thereby leaving only those areas open to exploitation by Peugeot and Citroen. The Renault 'IV advertisements featured an elegant lady called Nicole, dressed in haute couture fashion land (and doubtless smelling of expensive French perfume), her "Papa" who was seen drinking an undoubtedly expensive French wine in the grounds of his chateau and Mama who had that timeless elegance that only French middle aged women seem capable of achieving - and not an unshaved under arm in sight. Renault has limited edition models called "Paris" ..Versailles" etc. while Citroen have ..Pzazz!" and ..Jazz". Renault model names sound French (even if they are meaningless) while Citroen's model names are much more international (with the surprising exception of the MPV, nťe "Evasion" in France but badged "Synergie" here). Peugeot have been plugging the fact that many of their cars are built in Scotland and anyway, Peugeot are a no-nonsense Protestant company whose products appeal to a no-nonsense Protestant Britain. Audi seems to have the monopoly on technology here in Britain - their strapline is "Vorsprung durch Technik". 

So where does that leave Citroen? Apparently they have instructed their dealers to make no mention of the fact that the company is French, the campaigns were once again based on the excellent finance deals and the technology is all but ignored - the suspension system is mentioned only by virtue of its ability to provide a smooth ride "If you are fed up of (sic) rock .n' roll...". I had an experience recently in a Citroen dealership where I heard a salesman tell a prospective customer that the hydropneumatic suspension first appeared in the BX eleven years ago. The workshop manager had never heard of the DS, was aware that the XM's predecessor was the CX but was unaware that it had hydraulics. When I pointed out that the hydropneumatic system first saw the light of day in 1952 on the 15 CV-H, his reply was to the effect that it was not really workable until the advent of the BX...

Furthermore, Citroen UK seem hell bent on ignoring the company's illustrious past - undoubtedly because they do not wish their current range to be associated with the oddball cars of yesteryear. This Stalinesque re-writing of history has led in recent years to strained relations between the company and the Citroen Car Club - they object to the magazine taking adverts from unfranchised repairers yet their dealer network does not, generally speaking, have the expertise to work on older cars. Citroen dealer labour charges hover around the £45 per hour plus 17.5% VAT ($81 tax inclusive) and they rarely hold stocks of parts for anything other than the current range. Citroen enthusiasts are viewed as cranks, analogous to train spotters (are there such beasts in the States - folk who invariably wear anoraks and are fanatical, obsessive even, about the minutiae of their hobby?).Citroen UK would like to be viewed as importers of the products of just another mainstream motor manufacturer and probably view the activities of the Citroen clubs as being counter-productive since we continue to remind people of the weird vehicles that used to wear the double chevron.

This article was originally published in CitroŽn Quarterly