Cohort Classic: 1981 Citroen CX Pallas D – Modernism’s Last Stand

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When pictures of this Citroen CX were uploaded to the cohort by Triborough some weeks ago, I noticed them immediately but let them sit.  This is one of those cars whose charms destroy any ability I have to approach a summary objectively or rationally.  Having never experienced a big Citroen first hand only reinforces its mystique, allowing me to read contemporary reviews and pretend the car’s uncommon attributes outweigh its glaring shortcomings.  That bias notwithstanding, a hurdle presents itself in dodging cliches frequently used when describing the cars.  It all conspires to make writing about the CX somewhat of a challenge.

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With other pictures of ’70s Citroens popping up in the Cohort along with Roger’s summary of the incomparable DS, the CX begged to be given some attention.  While the DS that it replaced is a nostalgic vision of the future that tugs on one’s heartstrings, the CX is more an exquisite expression of contemporary sensibilities in its day.  Rather than looking like a 1950s sci-fi relic, the CX was a design mere earthlings could relate to; its uniqueness was a matter of being fashion forward, subtly detailed and beautifully proportioned, not necessarily imaginative.  It simply is one of the cleanest, most compelling sedan shapes put into production and imparts a sense of capacity in addition to mere efficiency; a real jet-age express.

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Despite wider, more international appeal than the DS, dig under the skin and there were real compromises which we’ll address later.  In line with that, life was not easy for this last of the “real” Citroens. Hatched before the acquisition by Peugeot in 1974, it was introduced the same year with big shoes to fill, and a very wide array of competitors depending on how it was equipped.  Citroen was expected to reinvent the wheel, or at least took it upon themselves to fulfill that responsibility, but the car it was replacing was so far ahead of its time, it was difficult to know where to begin.

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Any such dilemma was hard to notice judging by outside appearances, as the CX was a clean break from its predecessor stylistically.  Following hot on the heels of 1970’s SM and GS, the CX would be the third Citroen formed in the kammback mold, as well as the third of the company’s cars styled under Robert Opron, who was hired by Citroen after outgoing design chief Flaminio Bertoni roiled him during a job interview in dramatic fashion.  Opron’s first job at Citroen was the facelift of the DS’s nose in 1967, in which he gave that car its famous swiveling headlights covered under a glass canopy.  He was seemingly given free reign at the firm until being unceremoniously fired upon the Peugoet takeover; his later efforts (Renault 25, Renault 9/11) are nowhere near as pure or dramatic, though the Fuego and Alpine A310 bear his unmistakable influence.

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The Citroen CX and its little brother, the GS, wear a shape similar to that of Pininfarina’s BMC 1800 concept car.  Whether this was the result of direct influence or coincidence is unclear, but the later Rover SD1 would more obviously share its lines.  Fuel crisis or otherwise, aerodynamics were becoming a design priority for many manufacturers (though some would continue to ignore such considerations for another decade or so); in this sense, the CX, named for the coefficient of drag abbreviation, didn’t necessarily represent a major improvement over the DS’s excellent-for-1955 figure of .37, but it certainly looked sleeker.  Certain details, like the window frames and bumpers leave no doubts as to the CX’s age and there’s no mistaking it for anything recent, but with its more integrated detailing, it’s aged better than the older DS.

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It would appear that, in spite of refining the car’s style to widen its audience, retaining the DS’s iconic dynamic qualities was Citroen’s priority.  The amazing Hydropneumatic suspension therefore remained an integral part of the experience.  And if anything, the floating on air sensation it created was augmented by a new power steering system called Direction à rappel asservi or DIRAVI, first seen on the SM. If proof of the jet-age spirit which gave birth to the car is needed, the best evidence is the joystick steering control Citroen was experimenting with while the system was being developed. Realizing that most drivers probably didn’t want to steer by joystick, the concept was refined via use of a steering wheel, but it’s best to think of it as a switch rather than an actual connection to the steering mechanism (there was a real connection but it was only in use in the event of hydraulic failure).

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Basically, high pressure hydraulics would force the steering dead ahead at all times until the steering wheel was turned.  When that happened, hydraulic force–increasing with greater application of lock–would be apportioned to whichever end the steering rack (right or left) corresponded with the direction in which the driver turned.  At about 2.0-2.5 turns lock to lock, it had a direct ratio which would have been impractical with traditional, hydraulically assisted steering (DIRAVI was hydraulically activated).

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By decoupling the steering wheel from the front wheels, and by making it such that only input from the hydraulic system could turn the wheel (and not forces acting on the front wheels from such things as potholes, ruts, blowouts, or unequal road-surface friction) the high-pressure system was able to completely isolate the driver from steering kickback and diversion from the intended course.  Even more impressively, because the hydraulic pressure acting on the system would increase with speed, the steering became very stiff on the highway, making straightline tracking was even more steady and secure than would be possible with an unassisted set up.

In addition, because the system was designed to keep the steering wheel dead ahead, it would always (and rapidly) return to center once driver input ceased.  This would catch new drivers off-guard, since it meant that one couldn’t always allow the wheel to return to center on its own, as it could occur too rapidly.  Combined with the very fast ratio, along with the brakes which operated through a giant, pressure-sensitive, floor-mounted rubber pad controlling a valve with less than one-inch of travel (in place of a regular pedal), it provoked very jerky, swerving maneuvers from new drivers until they became accustomed to the way the car operated.  No doubt, many people didn’t understand the appeal of a car which had to rise off its haunches, and which greeted bystanders with a series of hisses as the hydraulic system apportioned force to the steering rack.  But to those who could wrap their brain around it for a few days, the experience was said to be effortless and rewarding.

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It would appear Citroen aimed for an almost aeronautical driving experience, whereby one could guide the car almost by whim using the slightest flicks of the wrist and ankle.  Surely, the new steering system was in keeping with the brakes which operated in a similarly sensitive fashion, and matched well with the suspension’s indifference to major pavement imperfections.  Such a shame, then, the final component to the CX experience–a rotary engine–never panned out.

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As the front-drive Traction Avant and DS were state of the art in their day, Citroen, keen on maintaining its leading edge, designed the CX around a transverse engine layout.  That would make the CX the first large car to adopt such a layout, helping continue the company’s reputation as a purveyor of all things new, in addition to saving eight inches in length versus the DS.  We scoff at large, traverse-engined cars today, but with its hydropneumatic suspension making up for imbalances, tuning the chassis for a good ride was much easier and in a market which sold large cars with small engines by the handful, the advantage of rear-wheel drive was often minimal.  As it turned out, finding an engine to suitably tax the front-drive chassis proved elusive.

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The DS went without a suitably strong powerplant for most of its life, with flat-sixes (among other solutions) being canned as too heavy, complex or expensive.  With the compact, smooth-running rotary engine as the crown jewel to Citroen’s achievement, the aerodynamic and space-efficient CX would glide over bumps, quickly whisking its unstressed driver and his occupants to their destinations free of fatigue.  Other cars, with their coil-sprung suspensions, rattly engines and slow steering ratios, would surely be primitive by comparison.  Unfortunately, things turned out very differently.

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Citroen had taken a cautious approach to developing and introducing their Wankel engine, codeveloping it with NSU and engaging in real-world beta testing with specially fitted, limited production Ami-based coupes.  But reliability issues, not to mention exhaust emissions and fuel consumption, were impossible to adequately sort out.  Warranty costs incurred by the NSU Ro80 were deterrent enough, but the cost of developing the rotary project and the new CX bankrupted Citroen during the year of the fuel crisis (an enormous additional problem).  The three-rotor engine planned for the CX was therefore scrapped, leaving the big car with a tiny engine bay.  At this point, there was nothing to do but adapt the DS’s engine for transverse placement in the CX, leaving Citroen’s plans for vibration-free transport in the shaky hands of large-displacement, pushrod fours.

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The car was nevertheless introduced to the public with decent initial success, despite a lack of approval for US sales and no automatic transmission available.  It didn’t shock the public like the DS had, but managed to expand Citroen’s draw to a broader base of consumers.

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Engines on hand at launch were two carbureted units of 1985 and 2175 cc, respectively, allied to a four-speed manual.  At this point, the DS was available with fuel-injected 2.3 liter engines and five-speed transmissions, though until it finally went out of production in 1976, it was nominally upmarket of the new car.  A major change over outgoing DS was the introduction of diesel engines.  Initially in 1976, a 2.2 liter unit was offered, with a 2.5 liter, 75-horsepower unit joining in 1978 (a competitive figure for a naturally-aspirated, indirect injection diesel).

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By 1978, a fuel-injected 2.4 and a five-speed were also made available, along with a three-speed semi-automatic “C-Matic,” with both a torque converter and clutch activated by the gear lever, similar in principle to the unit seen on the NSU Ro80 (presumably what Citroen had in mind to be paired to the three-rotor Wankel engine).  The CX’s powertrain was slowly beginning to claw back some degree of effortlessness needed to match its chassis.

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Our New York City-based feature car, as evidenced by the side marker lights, is a grey model import.  Its chrome trim and steel bumpers highlight it as one of the earlier cars, but its rust-free condition lead me to suspect it is at least a 1981 model (rust proofing was inconsequential before these years).

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As front wheel arches became more pronounced by 1982, this car is likely an ’81.  That this is a diesel-engined variant (as indicated by this badge) also helps narrow it down since it would have likely been imported during the height of the great American diesel boom (diesels were also easier to get past the EPA at the time) which began dying out after about 1983.

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An indirect-injection, naturally aspirated diesel engine may not cut in New York these days (or any densely populated area), but with its unmatched suspension design, in some ways this now-beater would be perfect on the city’s battered streets.  This is no-doubt a tough car to operate in such an environment, but lest you think it’s because the unibody is too fragile, the CX was unique in that it incorporated front and rear subframes which were actually connected with long, flat rails.

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Given the condition of the Big Apple’s streets, this design feature must aid in secure use of this nearly thirty-five-year-old car today, but it was likely conceived as a way to engineer larger load-carrying variants without having to excessively beef up the structure of the car.  Indeed, this Pallas (that’s Greek for Brougham) model isn’t actually top-of-the-line; Prestige models used a ten-inch longer wheelbase, shared with station wagon versions, which vie with Peugeot’s and Volvo’s rear-drivers as the world’s best long roof cars.  Many were converted for hauling duty and the CX served as BBC’s car of choice for rolling shots; its dual role as both a beast of burden and a convincing luxury sedan are unique in a front-driver.

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Carrying all that weight and prestige wouldn’t do with the merely adequate engines and semi-automatic transmissions.  A fully-automatic transmission came in 1981, a 2.5 liter turbodiesel (fastest diesel sedan in the world at the time) and a turbocharged gasoline 2.5 liter came in 1984; intercooled versions of both soon followed.  Though the automatic and turbo engines were never offered together, the CX finally came close to having the powertrains it deserved.

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There were other engines added, including all-aluminum overhead cam units, but there are simply too many variations of the car to be covered here.  Suffice it to say, 2.5 liter turbocharged engines got to the to point of making the CX genuinely fast for its day, but interest in the car had long begun to wane.  Peak sales of 132,675 were achieved in 1978 and by the time engine choices were sorted out, news of the car’s fragility scared buyers away, while competition in the form mechanically conventional cars like the Audi C3-series 100/200/5000, the Mercedes W124 and even the Ford Sierra appropriated just enough of the Citroen’s avant-garde thunder to woo style-conscious buyers.  By the late ’80s, a revised interior, more sophisticated electronics, improvements in quality and ABS would combine with enhanced performance to create a highly desirable executive car for those who could tolerate the more dated aspects of its ergonomics and overall operation, but it would be slow-going until the final Familiale (that’s wagon to you and me) rolled off the line in 1991.

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Not surprisingly, the car’s biggest export market was Germany where, if stereotypes have any basis in truth, its unique engineering was appreciated by buyers.  Over the sixteen years the car was in production, 1.2 million were sold overall, but in addition to all the amazing qualities the CX represents, it also signifies the forfeiture of the luxury car market by the French to the Germans.  With unfavorable circumstances forcing Citroen and Chrysler Europe into Peugeot’s overextended embrace, the newly formed PSA fielded multiple luxury cars which competed with each other for development money and market share.  But for all the negativity surrounding the automaker’s efforts in the luxury car field, the CX’s continued development over many years of declining sales, along with the continuation of its technology into its successor, shows genuine good faith on the part of Peugeot management.

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As much as many like to characterize the CX and large Citroens as uniquely French, it would require a fair degree of intimacy with the country to know what that really means.  If we want to drag out the old French-car cliches, let’s at least try and put the car into its home country’s historical context.  We can see the car roughly coincided with the debut of the Concorde, the TGV and an unparalleled commitment to nuclear power.  All were impressive achievements in the late post-war climate which seem to be either failed or flagging prospects today (even the TGV is in a slight slump), so rather than merely attributing the CX’s character to a question of national origin, one can view the car (along with those other projects) as an embodiment of French modernism in a post-modern era.

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There was simply too much optimism and good faith involved in the car’s creation to sustain it in a disillusioned world; it’s sad when you think Citroen built an entirely new factory in which to assemble it.  One look at the social problems currently facing France reflects this idea more poignantly (though it would seem that outside of Germany, current home of the luxury car, this is the default situation across Europe).  Whether or not one views the CX as uniquely Gallic, there is a fascinating parallel between the car’s trajectory and its birth country’s recent history (then again, the same could be said of many ambitious British and Italian carmakers’s efforts).

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What dates the CX the most, oddly enough, is the society which has changed around it.  Cars like competing Mercedes and BMWs may have confounded some with their enormous steering wheels and tail-happy behavior, but they didn’t require their owners to re-learn how to drive.  And as the ’80s wore on, those interested in turbo power and uniqueness had a variety of Saabs to choose from, but even those very rationally conceived cars were eventually deemed too left-field to be desirable.  Image and status are as important as they ever were but it seems that these days, people stick with what they know, whether it’s yet another remake at the theaters or a German luxury sedan whose basic shape hasn’t changed in decades.  Compelling arguments can be proffered as to why this is the case, but as a car designed for those who lust after novelty, the Citroen CX has no place in today’s world.

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Related reading:

Car Show Classic: 1985 Citroen CX 25 GTi Series 2 – Blue Is A Warmer Color Than Grey

Curbside Classic: Citroën ID – The Goddess Storms The Bastille Of Convention

Curbside Classic: 1972 Citroen SM – Gran Touring, Franco-Italian Style

Cohort Classic: Citroën GS – One For The Anoraks

Cohort Classic: Citroën XM – Its Three Predecessors Were Hard Acts to Follow