Cohort Classic: Citroën GS – One For The Anoraks

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Most Citroën fans will recognize this car, but to those for whom the brand is associated only with big, space age cruisers and tiny, post-war people’s cars, the GS may be a bit obscure.  Introduced in 1970, it was an attempt to gain some mass market sales in the compact family car segment, and while never imported to North America, a few examples have been featured on our pages already.

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Conceived in the same ambitious mold as the fabulous Alfasud and infamous Austin Allegro, it’s best that it remained across the Atlantic, but if I could get ahold of a classic Citroën today, this would be near the top of my list.  That’s because it was a unique attempt to bridge the gap between rustic models like the Ami and 2CV and sumptuous, space age hovercraft like the late DS and especially the SM.  To that end, it did without those latter cars’ fully hydraulic steering systems and high-pressure hydraulic brakes but still benefitted from a full hydropneumatic suspension.  It also inaugurated the kammback styling theme which would be used to full effect on the upcoming CX, my other favorite Citroën.

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Along with that car, the GS was designed in large part around a Wankel engine, with which only about 850 examples were built between 1973 and 1975.  Unlike the CX, with its ancient straight-four, the GS’s alternative to the failure of the rotary powertrain collaboration with NSU (which contributed to the bankruptcy of that company) was a free-revving air-cooled flat-four.  But while the engine in the CX benefitted from a larger displacement, fuel-injection, eventual turbocharging and all-out replacement by the Douvrin unit in naturally aspirated versions, the GS remained saddled with its small displacement unit, which topped out at about 1300cc and 66 horsepower, until the end of its life in 1985.  Not so terrible in markets with a high displacement tax, but difficult to justify in other contexts.

That hasn’t stopped a this New Zealand enthusiast from turbocharging the car, which is the most logical solution to the lack of power as it gives the GS torque to match its soft, effortless ride.  I haven’t seen another example, so this guy deserves some more recognition.  I’ll use this opportunity to submit my answer to Jason’s QOTD from yesterday: I think a Citroën GS with a turbocharged Subaru EJ engine would be a difficult combination to beat, even if it’d require a fair degree of fabrication (and having to figure out what to do with the radiator).

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The powertrain question didn’t hurt its sales on the continent, where it sold about 2,500,000 French-built units over fifteen years, in addition to versions made in Belgium, Spain, Chile, Portugal, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Thailand and Yugoslavia, but the money spent on the GS, the CX, the SM and rotary engine development meant there was little money left to update its small-car lineup which remained somewhat of a mess after Peugeot’s acquisition of the company in 1974.

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Aside from some slightly tweaked panel fitment in front (likely the result of a low-speed shunt) and a tarp which possibly covers a broken window, this car looks to be in quite good condition, as the clean, uncracked, matte-finish interior plastics show.  Robadr1, who uploaded these quintessentially Curbside Classic shots, seems to have found an earlier model.  Proper round dashboard dials came in 1977 and the GSA model, with blackout trim and a proper full hatchback arrived in 1979.  If the tarp is indeed covering a broken right-side window, it shows how replacing a simple shattered pane can turn into a royal headache. It’s obviously much easier in these days of constant global connectivity, but nevertheless remains a chore.  I wonder how many of these are left in its European homeland.

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Undoubtedly, more Renault 5s remain, and understandably so, as that car, with its more straightforward interior and less complex engineering, had the style and dynamic capability to stand up to the GS’s finesse for less money and, as one of the first B-segment superminis, was able to meet the needs of families nearly as well with its hatchback.  With the arrival of cars like the Golf, the writing was on the wall, even though the GS remained in production long after the VW’s me-too successors sealed the its fate.  The partnership with Peugeot luckily allowed for a unique interpretation of PSA’s upcoming new-age SIMCA-influence mid-sized chassis in the BX, but the lack of international mass market presence which hurt Citroën during the GS’s life continues to haunt the company today (versus Renault which has managed to weather the Eurozone recession due to their tie-up with Nissan).

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I’d bet good money that there’d be a lot for me to discuss with this car’s current owner, whose ownership of this less famous Michelin-era Citroën is a labor of love which will go unnoticed by most non-enthusiasts (maybe it’s different in British Columbia).  She or he gets their fair share of “cute car” and other similar comments to which it’d be a real challenge not to respond with a condescending harangue, but genuine appreciation is likely rare.  As a mechanically-unconventional car built with a practical, family friendly mission, a lot of people don’t “get” the GS and the challenges presented by that ignorance and the need to comb through overseas parts supplies makes this CC a true nerd’s delight.

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