The Citroen Visa is a car with a history involving three prominent European brands, a back story period of over ten years, an unusual configuration and an ancestor that was one of the most well known cars in the world. For a car so compact, this is quite a big story.
In the early 1960s, Citroen was a company with a most unusual model range. Essentially, there were two car products – the inimitable Citroen 2CV, and the very different and also inimitable Citroen ID/DS family. Both were cars that were unique in their relevant sectors – the 2CV was perhaps the most basic, but also one of the most ingeniously executed cars, on the market; the DS was also ingeniously executed, but was far from basic. In fact, it was the most complex and technically accomplished car on the planet. In between these cars, there was nothing.
In 1961, Citroen prepared the Ami 6 (above), which was effectively a big brother for the 2CV. Conceptually it was very similar, with a flat twin 602cc engine, and a body and suspension that followed the 2CV’s practice. What it was not was a car that was similar to anything else, except the 2CV and Renault’s 2CV competitor, the Renault 4.
Then in 1967, Citroen, at that time owned by the Michelin tyre company, entered a partnership with Fiat, including Michelin selling a 49% share of Citroen to Fiat and the sharing of distribution channels. Citroen also entered agreements with NSU and Maserati, leading to access to the NSU Wankel engine and the Maserati- engined Citroen SM respectively, and bought the truck builder Berliet.
As the 1960s progressed, the format of the compact European car started to crystallise around the front engine, front-wheel drive configuration. By 1970, BMC, Renault, Peugeot, Simca and Fiat were all building cars to this template and of these, only Renault persisted with the longitudinal engine. The partnership with Fiat allowed Citroen access to the engineering behind cars like the Fiat 127 and 128, and with the apparent convergence of format the choice of the Fiat 127 as a basis for car to replace the Ami. Project Y was fairly straightforward.
Project Y was a compact hatchback, built on a Fiat 127 (above) platform, with a wheelbase of around 93 inches, around 5 inches longer than the Fiat and– unusually for this class at this time–five doors. The styling, by Robert Opron, is clearly related to the eventual Visa, even if it was not yet fully formed.
So, the format for the car was set. A lengthened Fiat 127 platform, with either a Citroen flat twin or Fiat four-cylinder engine set transversely with the end on gearbox, and torsion bar suspension.
In 1974, Michelin sold Citroen. With French government encouragement, the cars went to Peugeot and the Berliet trucks to Renault. Peugeot quickly acted to bring Citroen into line – the SM was discontinued and the car families were progressively brought together on common platforms.
The Fiat basis for Project Y was quickly dropped. In 1972, Peugeot had launched the 104 (above) which was (unusually for its class) available as a four door saloon, albeit with a hatchback profile. Under the code Project VD (Voiture Diminuee, or very small car) Citroen adapted this platform, and the Peugeot 1124cc engine with the transmission underneath, Issigonis/BMC style, for the Visa. The Fiat-based suspension was dropped, to leave what was basically a 104 with the late 1960s Robert Opron-styled body, with the option of the Citroen flat twin as a base model. Suspension was by MacPherson struts at the front and trailing arms with coil springs at the rear, and Citroen were able to retain the long travel required to get the true Citroen ride experience.
Peugeot, however, let Citroen be Citroen with the interior. The usual minor controls were replaced by a drum to the side of the steering wheel, which contained the controls for the lights, wipers, indicators and horn, all within finger’s reach from the wheel. On the other side were simple, sliding heater controls.
A typical 1970s single-spoke Citroen steering wheel gave full visibility of the instruments, even if you had to put your hand through the wheel to reach various minor switches. Undoubtedly, it was the most interesting or ugliest supermini interior of the time, depending on your point of view……
The car launched in September 1978. Size wise, it was within touching distance of the Golf Mk1/Rabbit, although a little narrower. Engine options comprised the air-cooled 652cc Citroen flat twin and the water-cooled 1124cc Peugeot OHC four, which was more powerful but in practice almost as economical.
The car was aerodynamically efficient, helping economy and cruising ability; crosswind stability was good as well, and the large curved windscreen was cleared by just one large wiper.
But the key assets this car had were space and comfort. It was larger than, say, a Ford Fiesta or Austin Metro but often cheaper, and with that suspension it offered a ride few cars this side of a Jaguar could match…remarkable at the price.
Perhaps the biggest barrier for the Visa was its looks. Of course, these are always subjective and I have no issue with the original styling (and, especially, the interior), but the consensus is that the looks posed a challenge to many.
In 1981, Citroen presented a revised Visa, with a new front grille and bumper and similar revisions at the rear. The great Citroen interior was kept until 1985, when it was replaced by something much calmer. Sales increased, from 117,000 in 1980 to 179,000 in 1981, so perhaps I have a minority taste…
The feature car is a 1986 Visa 11E, with the revised nose and calmer interior. It also represents a type of small car typical of France, being classified for commercial use with a more basic interior (typically the rear seats would be removable, for example) and recognised by the authorities accordingly. The key spotting point is the plate behind the front wheel, with the weight and load limits.
In 1983, Citroen widened the range of the Visa, in two perhaps surprising directions. Citroen commissioned Heuliez to produce a convertible version, known as the Decapotable. Heuliez, now defunct, was a French company based on the design and limited quantity production of a range of conversions and adaptations for many manufacturers. A French Karmann, if you like. Heuliez were also commissioned for the 1981 facelift.
The resulting conversion retained the door frames of the hatchback, and added a fabric roof that mimicked that of the 2CV, back to the top of the boot lid below the rear window. Power came from the 1124cc Peugeot engine.
Perhaps more surprising were the Citroen Visa GT, and later GTi, with a range of engines, varying by market. The 1983 GT had a 1360cc 80 bhp engine, shared with various Peugeots and the Citroen BX, but this was trumped by the 1985 GTi, with a 1580cc, 115 bhp engine from the Peugeot 205GTi that offered 120 mph and less than 9 seconds to 60 mph, and was identified by spoilers and twin headlamps. Somehow, you just know that Robert Opron and Michelin were not thinking of a car like that in 1968.
The other well remembered Visas are the diesel engine variants. The early 1980s were the years of awakening to much of Europe of the effectiveness of diesel power in a compact car, and this car was a great example of this. Citroen fitted a 1769cc four-cylinder Peugeot XUD7 engine, which had 60 hp, the same as the 1360cc gas engine, and slightly more torque, given the larger displacement. These cars had some similarities to the 2CV: Great flexibility and versatility and a soft, comfort-oriented suspension combined with good road holding and light weight to give it similar ground-covering abilities, as well as strong operating economy.
Like the 2CV, the Visa had a van derivative, known as the C15, featuring the front end of a Visa mated with the rear suspension of the larger BX hatchback, but with conventional springing. The load area was based on a box, just like the 2CV, and similarly versions with windows, a basic rear seat and a lengthened wheelbase were offered. The first series of vans sold in the UK were either red or white, and were marketed as “Van Rouge” or “Van Blanc”. Say it with your best French accent and you’ll get the joke.
These vans were in production until 2005 and over 1.1 million were built, in addition to 1.25MM cars. That’s not a bad run.
Citroen also considered a saloon (sedan) version of the Visa, and got as far as a prototype. This was better integrated aesthetically than many similar cars, such as the saloon version of the 1985 Vauxhall Nova/Opel Nova or the VW Derby, which was based on the first VW Polo. However, it was not put into production, and in reality would have been of more interest outside France than within it. The market for such cars within Europe varies by region – northern Europe will opt for a hatchback, while southern Europe (Greece, Italy and Spain) and territories further east, such as the Balkan states, may take a saloon.
One final twist to the Visa story is the Chinese connection. Citroen did not sell or license the Visa to a Chinese manufacturer, but that did not stop Wuling from producing this Wuling LZW 7100, with a Daihatsu engine, in limited quantities from 1991-1993.
In both its heritage and production development, the Citroen Visa was a very different form of Citroen. Never before had Citroen shared the engineering or power unit for a car in this way, nor gone for performance or convertible options in such a manner. Competing against cars 6-9 inches shorter in wheelbase, perhaps a foot shorter and still offering a value for money package, it was also a different sort of supermini.
And Project Y? That became, after a long and tortuous process, the Oltcit, built in Romania and sold in some western European markets as the Citroen Axel.