This car is one of the first I photographed after finding the Curbside Classic website back in 2011, as I remember I was driving home one evening when I saw a car unusual enough that I had to stop and take some photos of it. I think you can see why!
While I like the car, I don’t really know much about its story, so in learning more I thought I would expand it into a full Curbside Classic post. Having said that, I am going to keep to the GS story and not the wider history of Citroën, and only briefly touch on the GS Birotor.
The Citroën GS was the end result of 10 years of development, starting in 1960 when Citroën decided to broaden their model range which then consisted of the large and prestigious ID/DS and the small and parsimonious 2CV. The initial C60 version was like a larger version of the Ami 6, looking slightly more like a DS, with a flat-four engine. Perhaps not advanced enough at the time for Citroën’s tastes?
The next iteration called Project F nearly got to production but was abandoned for being too similar to the new Renault 16 with the suggestion there may have been some industrial espionage. Quite a decision to tear up millions worth of development, but the resemblance is there! The front end looked more like the SM.
The project was quickly revised and the GS would debut in 1970, and was arguably the most sophisticated small car in the world, winning the 1971 European Car of the Year award.
It was powered initially by the light and compact 1015cc flat-four engine from Project F that fit within the French 6CV tax bracket, sending its 55.5 bhp (41 kW) at 6,500 rpm to the front wheels in a similar package to the Lancia Flavia, Alfa Romeo Alfasud or Subaru. ‘CV’ translates to steam horsepower, incidentally.
The suspension was Citroën’s hydropneumatic system suspending double wishbones at the front and trailing arms at the rear mounted on rigid subframes, giving a wonderful ride on any surface albeit with quite a lot of wheel travel that resulted in more body roll than many people were used to but contributed to impressive grip levels given the narrow 145SR15 Michelin tires. The height adjustability was a signature feature, with a party trick of being able to drive on three wheels.
The body was compact, space-efficient and highly aerodynamic with a drag coefficient of 0.33. As you would expect for a Citroën, you could not call the styling by Robert Opron conventional, but thanks to the extended gestation I don’t think it was particularly startling. Thanks to the slippery body, top speed was 92 mph (147 km/h), which is impressive for just 55 bhp.
Interestingly despite the fastback shape, the GS was actually a sedan rather than a hatchback, as the Citroën CEO did not feel one was suitable for the company; the Citroën CX would follow. This was not uncommon at the time, with other examples being the Alfasud and Lancia Beta.
The dashboard was also unusually shaped, and fitted out. There was a rotating-drum speedometer and a fan-shaped tachometer, a single spoke steering wheel, an umbrella handbrake in the centre and a floor shift for the 4-speed gearbox.
The sedan, or Berline in French terminology, was joined by a Break or wagon late in 1971, together with a 2-door version known as a service van although it also had side windows. As with the sedan load capacity was impressive, helped by the typical flat-four location of the spare tire in the engine bay where a larger 1222cc engine with an additional 10 bhp would follow in 1972, which also brought the option of a semi-automatic gearbox.
There were two trim levels available initially, Comfort and Club, with a more luxurious Pallas introduced in 1975. The latter got you full wheel covers, chrome side mouldings, tinted glass, thicker carpet and nicer upholstery. Two sports versions were introduced in 1973, the GS X and X2. These gave the option of a close-ratio gearbox and shorter final drive ratio for better acceleration, and featured additional driving lights.
One of the iconic images of the GS is in a peculiar multi-flag livery which was used for promoting the car, most notably at the 1972 Berlin Olympic Games. A very few cars were not repainted afterwards.
A fascinating chapter of the GS story was the Birotor, which I will only just touch on here. This used a rotary engine from Comotor, a NSU-Citroën partnership, and was built in tiny numbers on an almost experimental basis. It had nearly double the power of the standard GS with 107 hp, giving a top speed of 175 km/h. A peculiarly French bonus of the rotary engine was it fit under a lower capacity-based tax bracket. This would soon be overshadowed by the poor fuel consumption however. Nearly all the cars were bought back by Citroën to avoid having to continue to support them.
Citroën was hit hard by the 1973 oil crisis, although with the spending on the GS, the 1970 SM and the 1974 CX already saw it in a vulnerable state. Fiat sold its 49% share back to Michelin, before the company declared bankruptcy in 1974 and control was transferred to Peugeot. Maserati was sold to De Tomaso in 1975, and in 1976 Peugeot would increase their stake to 90% and form the PSA Group.
The GS had an update for 1977, with some minor restyling including more conventional instruments, engine tweaks and the introduction of a 5-speed gearbox that with improved aerodynamics would see top speed broach the 100 mph mark. Sales of the GS actually built steadily through its run, and in 1978 hit a peak of just over 250,000 per year. I think this car may be from this era; the registration number is no help as it dates from 1983.
1979 saw a larger change, and a change in the car’s name to GSA. In addition to a more substantial facelift, the sedan was changed to a hatchback. Trim variants were now the Special, Club, Pallas and X3. This would carry the car through to the end of its production in 1986, following the introduction of its replacement model, the BX, in 1982.
While the car had previously been produced in a range of countries including Spain, Portugal, Yugoslavia, South Africa, Thailand, Chile, Mozambique and Zimbabwe, it actually stayed in production in Indonesia until 1991. In all some 2.47 million versions were built, and there is still a small but dedicated following for the car to this day. Given its unique qualities this is not surprising; while clearly a 45 year old design at its heart, for example the pillars are impossibly slim but the overall concept of the car is still quite modern today.
And to finish off this CC find, just as I was about to cross the road to get in my car and drive home this Rover P5 3-litre drove past too!