The grey market was a strange creature. During the late seventies and eighties, a raft of European cars not officially offered for sale in the US began appearing on our streets. This included desirable but unavailable models such as the Mercedes 500SEC and BMW 745i, as well as cars without an American dealer network. It pretty much all ended in 1988, but some of these “grey” cars are still on our streets, like this like this Citroen CX25 GTi, even if it is blue.
Since manufacturers chose not to certify certain vehicles for sale in the US for marketing or various federal regulations (safety, EPA, or CAFE), or because they had decided to exit the market, a substantial cottage industry developed in importing European-spec cars; modifying them to meet US regulations, and then selling them to willing buyers. Because of the high relative value of the dollar at the time, European-market premium cars cars were cheap compared to the sticker prices their equivalent models were carried in the US.
This led to a very significant numbers of lower end Mercedes, BMWs and such also being imported via the grey market. Needless to say, the problem of lost sales became too large to overlook, and with Stuttgart seemingly unwilling to engineer a way around it, Mercedes-Benz USA made a successful effort to outlaw grey market sales by lobbying congress. After the resulting new laws were passed in 1988, sales of grey market cars declined precipitously.
Unfortunately, MBUSA’s efforts didn’t just foist anti-grey-market legislation on its own cars, but those of all makes, as well. This effectively ended sales of the Citroen CX in the US market, which the company had already officially exited in 1974 after laws were passed effectively banning the sale of cars with height adjustable suspensions due to mandated bumper heights. While Citroen would never again touch the US market, even with a 10 foot pole, the repeal of that law in 1981 allowed some 1,000 CXs being to be sold on the grey market at double the original European price.
For those who bought the car, its eccentric appeal was worth the cost. To start with, there was the very tasteful 1970s space age design, courtesy of Robert Opron. While its exterior styling could be attributed to the pursuit of aerodynamic finesse, there was no such justification for the interior design.
A true triumph of form over function and an absolute ergonomic nightmare, there was little logic in the placement of its controls. Most notably, the radio was where the armrest would usually be. The HVAC controls were tiny, making them difficult to locate. Functions normally controlled by stalks on the steering column were instead housed on two pods on either side of the gauge cluster (not unlike those found in the Eagle Premier). Turn signals that did not self-cancel and cubbies mounted prominently on the dash were other curiosities.
Loading parcels was also made difficult by a tiny trunk opening, instead of the hatch the car would appear to have. To Citroen’s credit, the distinctive one-spoke steering wheel allowed for a clear view of the gauges, which designers were charitable enough to change to traditional dials for the Series 2. That still was not enough to substantiate the company’s boast of thoughtful ergonomic design, as quoted in their brochure, “With experience, Citroen have developed still further the ergonomic layout of the detailed controls and instrumentation.”
If people thought the car itself was weird, the associated advertising sought to capitalize on its reputation. The car’s most famous ad, aired during its tenth year of production, featured Grace Jones, driving through a desert landscape and into a robotic replica of her own head. Some would say that it inspired the 1997 French Sci-fi movie “The Fifth Element”, specifically, the antics of DJ Ruby Rhod. I will agree with that, to the point that this ad could have passed as an endorsement from Mr. Rhod himself.
Even with all of its quirks, the CX seems to treat its owners well. The rotary originally planned for the car, co-developed with NSU, was canned very late in the design cycle, owning to the oil shock of 1973 and the financial insecurities of both companies involved. Thus, the hydraulics are the most fragile parts of the car, with most failures due to corrosion in high pressure lines or the use of incorrect fluid.
The overhead valve engine initially used was quite old, with its roots dating back to the units used in the Traction Avant of 1934. The acceleration of this French frigate was therefore leisurely before suitable power train alternatives could be developed. Eventually, a new, all-aluminum SOHC four, built and co-developed with Peugeot and Renault, came online in 1984, as did a turbo option. As the CX was an expensive large car with a small engine bay, turbo power suited it quite well, enabling extra power and muffling the vibrations of the large displacement four-cylinder.
Cars so equipped had their suspensions stiffened, but to fully enjoy the car’s hydropneumatic suspension and its graceful ability to eat up miles, earlier versions, complete with their bathroom scale instrumentation and narrow tires, are preferable. This car is clearly for leisure and cruising, not driving on race courses, so the lack of power may not as big a detriment as it would be in a more overtly sporting chassis.
That isn’t to say that the CX won’t perform admirably in a variety of conditions. Combined with the advanced self-leveling hydropneumatic suspension, the ultra fast-ratio, fully hydraulically powered DIRAVI steering system and pressure sensitive brakes enable a driver to cover ground smoothly and rapidly, once accustomed.
The CX, more than anything else, is a thing of beauty. From Robert Opron’s aerodynamic and minimalist exterior lines, to its mechanical complexity and unmatched ride, there really is no bad angle. Such outre and unconventional cars in general deserve more respect, because we may never see such passionately conceived automobiles again. You may ask why we increasingly lack access to this sort of machinery, but the answer is too complex to approach in a single article. Our responsibility as enthusiasts, on the other hand, is to ensure that the memory of these oddballs is kept alive.
“You can’t change the present, but you can revel in the past.”