We all have bad ideas sometimes. That’s okay if we don’t affect much. But when a big car company manages to dramatically misjudge what the public wants and releases a very bad idea upon them, then it’s a bigger problem.
The Citroen Ami is one of my favorite cars, and many of you other CCers love it as well. However, as much as we love it, it was a bad idea. Not only that, it was a failure. To understand why, you need to know the history of the Citroen brand.
The main roots of the Ami, and Citroen as a brand itself, can be traced back to 1934. Citroen was nearly bankrupt as they strained under the cost of developing the Traction Avant, so named for its front wheel drive configuration, which was very unusual for the the 1930s (in fact, it was the first mass produced front wheel drive car- 25 years before the original Mini), as was its unibody construction. Citroen had been founded in 1919, but in the 15 years before had made fairly simple cars- nothing like the Traction Avant. This meant an all new factory, developing new tooling, etc, as well as the extensive marketing costs associated with the all new model- Andre Citroen even used the Eiffel Tower as a marketing tool!
Because of all of these costs, Citroen filed for bankruptcy, but their largest creditor, Michelin, stepped in and took control of the company. The Traction Avant was a success, not just in sales, where is exceeded its goals, but also in achieving acclaim for Citroen and Michelin and winning awards, and creating the Citroen identity of advanced engineering. But this post isn’t about the Traction Avant.
The surplus of capital from the Traction Avant, achieved mainly by its lllooonnnggg production run (1934-1957) meant that Citroen had plenty of money to develop their next car. Since they had large and midsize cars (The Traction Avant, which was still in production), the obvious choice was to go small. This led to the 2CV, which had much of the same success as the Traction Avant; not only did it win awards and sell in large amounts (3.8 million for the original model), but, just as the Traction Avant had brought technological sophistication to the upper classes, the 2CV brought it to the lower classes. There hasn’t been another car that brought this kind of a technological update to the masses, excluding, though it’s hated around these parts, the Toyota Prius.
The 2CV was powered by a boxer two cylinder, the basis for the engine that would be found in the Ami. The original engine had only 375cc, but it was enough to power the super light 2CV. The 2CV’s main party trick was its suspension; basically, the suspension design featured two long coil springs inside of a cylinder mounted horizontally (below the doors of the car), linked to the independently suspended wheels via a system of moving cranks and rods.
click image to animate (courtesy entmontage.de)
On top of that, the cylinder which housed the springs ALSO had springs attached to it, allowing for it to move. Basically, the springs would move inside the cylinder, sending movement through the cranks and rods system, providing suspension movement. BUT the cylinder which housed these springs was also mobile, allowing for even greater suspension movement. In fact, the 2CV had the first active suspension of any car. There’s more to it than that, but that’s the gist.
But, despite all of these advancements, a problem was arising. In 1960, Renault introduced a new car, called the 4. It was a blatant rip off of the 2CV, but featured a stylish new body and a bigger engine. It not only appealed to the lower end of the market like the 2CV, but to the middle class. At the start of 1961, Citroen didn’t have a midrange car; their only models were the high end DS, the low end 2CV, the HY van, the 2CV AZ van, and the sales flop UK -only Bijou. Fortunately, Citroen had also realized their Achilles heel, at the same time as Renault. They got to work on a midrange car, and got there four months ahead of the 4.
You know the song “Lean on Me”, by Bill Withers? One of the main lyrics is “sometimes in our life, we all need a friend/we all need somebody to lean on.” Well, Citroen REALLY needed someone to lean on. If the niche wasn’t covered, they could lose a ton of sales to Renault, who had a larger range, a larger production capacity, a larger target audience, and more capital. If Citroen didn’t cover the niche, they were SCREWED. Thus, they made a friend: The Ami. Contrary to popular belief, the Ami wasn’t created to replace the 2CV; that was the Dyane. The 2CV was still selling well, and Citroen only wanted to create a midrange car. And the Ami wasn’t in response to the Renault 4, it was released four months ahead of it. But you have to wonder if Citroen could have created a more market appealing car if they had taken those four extra months.
There were two versions of the original Ami; the 6 sedan and the wagon, known as a break. Both had . . . unique styling. The front end had some interesting things going on, but that wasn’t originally planned. The Ami was the first car with rectangular headlights, but French safety authorities though they were too low on the prototype, so the front end was restyled to meet safety standards. Thanks, socialism!
On the Ami 6 break, the styling eccentricities ended at the front, relatively speaking; after all, it was still a Citroen. However, the sedan had one major unique design feature: the famous raked rear window, which was purely a misjudging of the market on Citroen’s part. The styling had become popular, namely being shown on the Mercury Turnpike Cruiser and the Ford Anglia, but Citroen didn’t anticipate how quickly it would become passe. You would think some good polling would’ve stopped that, but trends are hard to predict. It also served to maximize both interior room and trunk space on a small (midsize by Euro standards on the time) car, but the same could’ve been done with a hatchback, which Citroen ruled against with the Ami. D’oh.
On the 6, there were originally two different trim levels: the base trim Ami, and the upscale Club model. The Club’s main differences were an upgraded interior, different grille, and the round lights you see above. Yep, that’s actually a French domestic market version, which doubled as an US spec car. Ah, the good old days of work -arounds and cost cutting. Round headlights had been the mainstay in automotive design for close to 60 years when the Ami was introduced, and Citroen wanted a fallback plan in case their new rectangle lights were perceived as ugly. They shouldn’t have worried; as the booth babes in the picture above convey, the round lights left a little to be desired on the aesthetic front when compared to the standard rectangle lights.
The Ami was originally powered by a larger version of the 2CV boxer twin, with a grand 602cc! This made acceleration . . . leisurely, as the little 2 cylinder air cooled motor had to push 1,389 pounds unloaded. Top speed was an optimistic 76 mph, with a zero to FIFTY time of 27.1 seconds! Despite its leisurely acceleration, the 602cc was one of the major strides forward for Citroen that the Ami made; when placed in the 1,200 pounds unloaded 2CV, it was able to push the lighter car up to freeway speeds (75 mph claimed top speed, which may have been Citroen just carrying over the stat from the Ami), though both the 2CV and the Ami were more comfortable cruising at 50. However, this larger engine was able to buy the 2CV twenty extra years of production, which helped secure its place as an icon with the special edition Charleston and Dolly models, which helped turn the 2CV’s image as a farmer’s car, but that’s a story for another day.
The famous 2CV suspension was featured in the Ami, which wasn’t surprising considering that the Ami was essentially a 2CV in a suit. Citroen determined the main problem with the 2CV was its styling and lack of options, so they determined that putting a new, slightly larger (three inches to be precise) body with an upgraded interior would fill the midrange gap. The Ami even had the same wheelbase as the 2CV! And it worked! Well, sort of.
The Citroen Ami was produced from 1961-1979. Citroen sold 1.5 million Amis, which is a successful car by most standards. But it wasn’t. Remember how much I emphasized that the Ami was supposed to be Citroen’s midrange car? That was truly important, and the Ami failed at it. Dramatically. The Ami did nothing to sap away the sales of the Renault 4, and later the Renault 16. The Ami mostly sold to people who would’ve bought 2CV’s, but wanted more power. Or comfort. Or space. So, Citroen was right a 2CV in a suit being marketable, but not to the right people.
Citroen tried several more times to build a midrange car. Panhard, who had been building 2CV vans under contract for several years out of desperation, was bought by Citroen in 1963 for a) their capacity to build even more vans and b) their expertise in building midsize cars. But the Panhard route was fruitless; the PL24, Panhard’s only modern car, wasn’t offered as a sedan for fear of stealing sales from the DS. And the PL17 was too outdated to be competitive.
photo courtesy of citroenet.co.uk
Citroen did produce a Panhard based prototype called the P60 to slot between the Ami and ID, but it was another dead end. Meanwhile, the Renault 4 was selling like hotcakes, and spreading its hatchback design around the midrange segment. Soon, the BMC 1100 cars were introduced, with hatchback. And guess which car company pioneered the hatchback way back in 1938, and introduced to the small car segment in 1958? Citroen, with the Traction Commerciale and 2CV, respectively, though the 2CV didn’t have a full hatchback like the 4.
In 1968, Citroen introduced an update to the Ami 6, known as the Ami 8. The 6 sedan’s unique roof, was replaced with a fastback . . . . with a hatchback trunk, a concession to the Renault 16, which had won the European Car of the Year award two years earlier. The R16 displays many similar characteristics to the Ami 8, and that may not be a coincidence. In 1963, when the R16 (debuting in 1965) was in development, Citroen was still working on its midrange car.
photo courtesy of citroenet.co.uk
After the dead end of the Citroen – Panhard P60, Citroen apparently went to work on a fastback – hatchback, called the Project F. Then, Citroen saw the Renault 16 at its debut, and the similarities were . . . noticeable. Citroen cancelled the Project F, presumably for fear of being accused of cribbing the R16. However, they must have run out of ideas, as the Ami 8 hatchback was fairly similar to the R16 in styling.
The front end was revised on the Ami 8, creating it presumably as Citroen had intended it. The wagon remained, pretty much the same as ever, as it would until 1979.
In 1973, Citroen introduced the final upgrade to the Ami, a four cylinder engine. The new motor was a flat four based off of the old 2CV twin, a testament to Citroen’s financial troubles. With the new engine came a new trim level, called the Super, which was the top of the line Ami model. Thanks to the four, the Ami was finally distinctly above the 2CV and the Dyane (which had been introduced in 1967.)
However, it had been beaten to the punch. The Ami’s new motor had been around for two years- in a new midrange car called the GS. It won the European Car of the Year award in 1971.
The Ami was made until 1979, but its true swan song happened 10 years earlier. Flashback to 1965- the hatchback Renault 16 is sweeping Europe, the Project F had just derailed, and a Panhard based solution had failed for Citroen. At the same time as all of this, Citroen had partnered with NSU to develop a rotary engine, creating a rotary engine design company called Comotor. Citroen actually made a rotary engine car, producing the M35, an Ami based coupe with unique Heuliez bodywork, hydraulics from the big Citroens, and a 995cc single rotor rotary engine. Citroen originally planned to produce 500 M35s, but, in a classic Citroen manner, only produced either 267 or 274- no one really knows. Production was slowly and inefficient, so, rather than making 500 cars, Citroen just skipped serial numbers to make it look like they made 500 cars!
Citroen actually lent M35s to loyal customers for real – life testing, on the condition that they a) reported all flaws back to Citroen b) drove the cars at least 30,000 kilometers per year and c) had all maintenance done by a specialist. But the cost of producing the engine was too much, especially combined with the high costs Citroen had put into developing it. So Citroen gave M35 owners two options: they could either trade in their cars to Citroen in exchange for a new car, and have the M35s crushed, or keep the cars, but Citroen wouldn’t supply them parts and the warranty would be void. Surprising, many people kept their rotary Citroen’s- it appears half of the approximately 270 cars produced survived.
Citroen had purchased Maserati in 1968, and was hampered with costs relating to the upcoming SM and GS. All of these costs were too much for Citroen, and they went under in 1974. Citroen were bought by Peugeot, a French company that produced mostly upscale cars which had never really crossed over into Citroen’s customer base.
However, that was changing; After the introduction of the 204 and 304, Peugeot had begun to move downmarket. They would dominate the French market in the ‘80’s with their solid, conservative, and successful lineup. The Citroen rotary engine lived on in the Citroen GS Birotor, introduced in 1974. The GS Birotor cost as much as a DS23, and had horrible fuel economy at the height of the gas crisis. Only 847 were made, and Citroen recalled most of them to be scrapped.
So, where does the Ami sit today? Is it regarded as a failure, a laughingstock for its bad styling and its large role in bankrupting an amazing company? On the contrary, the Ami has an enthusiastic following, particularly in Europe. The two pictures above were taken by a member of a forum which I frequent who lives in the Netherlands, and Paul found one while walking the streets of Paris. It makes sense; they’re cheap on fuel, cost little to buy, and are common; 1.5 million Amis were produced (as I said earlier), out of 8.8 million Citroen 2CV derivatives. However, it still fails in this statistic; 8 to 9 million Renaut 4s were produced, making it the third most produced vehicle of a single bodystyle, after the VW Beetle and Ford Model T.