The C15 is the ultimate myth-buster. When discussing Citroën, it’s easy to fall back on clichés and parrot “well-known facts” that are, at best, only half-truths. They went belly up twice. Their cars were complex and brittle. The designs were whacky and/or avant-garde. Well, if we’re talking about the SM or the GS Birotor, sure. But then Citroën also made vehicles that worked very well (and were not all that weird). And they made money, too. Otherwise, they probably wouldn’t have celebrated their 100th birthday last year.
Like many carmakers, Citroën always had a light van line in their range. But theirs were especially light, being based on the 2CV. In 1978, the 2CV van was replaced by the Acadiane, which wasn’t much of an improvement. It was still powered by a wheezy 600cc flat-twin and a more modern base was going to be needed in due course. And it so happened that, also in 1978, said modern base was already in production.
This was the esthetically-challenged Citroën Visa. It was a pure PSA product: a Peugeot 104 platform, clad with a caricature of Citroën styling, with a choice of either a 650cc flat-twin or the 104’s water-cooled four. From the start, the van version was on the drawing board, but PSA decided to wait until September 1984 to unveil it as the C15, probably so that the Simca 1100-derived Talbot VF van could continue to be made without being cannibalized by the Citroën one.
The front end of the C15 is indistinguishable from a series 2 Visa, but structurally, things were pretty different. The platform was lengthened and beefed up, twin-cylinder engines were not available and the rear suspension, with its horizontally-mounted springs, is the same as found on the Peugeot 305 Break. The only major fault that the C15 was born with was its rear door, which was too large and unidirectional. Two years after its launch, the van received a double-door setup that was seen as far more practical and could be used in both LHD and RHD versions.
The petrol engines powering the C15 were initially a mix of “Poissy” (i.e. ex-Simca, made by Talbot) 1.1 and 1.3 litre 4-cyl. and the 950cc Peugeot X bloc seen in the 104; later versions used the TU engine (1.1 and 1.3 litre). The Diesel was the 1.7 litre XUD, replaced in 2001 by the 1.9 litre DW. All these engines were extremely durable and widely disseminated across the PSA, Renault and other carmakers’ ranges, but as far as I know, the Diesels were the most popular by far, so much so that the petrol engine options were deleted after MY 2000.
After the demise of the Citroën Visa in 1988, sales of the C15 were still increasing, so it was just kept in the range. A mild front-end refresh was made in 1989, with a new three-bar grille featuring an off-centre Citroën logo, new lights and turn signals. Another facelift occurred for MY 1993, when the logo move back to the center of the grille and plastic cladding was added to the sides. Of the two C15s featured in this post, the clean-flanked one is a circa 1990 series 2 (above) and the other the more common series 3.
There were a number of variants available besides the bog-standard 1.5 ton van. The Familiale (top left) version had a rear seat and extra side windows, the Cabine approfondie (top right) was a LWB version with optional rear doors, the 4×4 (bottom left) was an AWD made by Dangel, the 6 roues (bottom right) was a six-wheeler made by De Léotard and Chausson, the GNV was a factory NGV conversion, the Électrique was a factory EV conversion (100km autonomy), and a number of campervan, refrigerated and pickup conversions were also available on the LWB commercial chassis.
Inside, the dash was markedly different from the Visa’s oddball arrangement. None of that pseudo-CX nonsense would have been acceptable for a van, so the end result was much simpler, sturdier and cheaper to produce. Earlier cars did keep the single-spoke wheel though – it just wouldn’t have been a Citroën without it.
I’m not sure when they changed the steering wheel to this boring and chubby two-spoke one, but it really doesn’t work well. The single spoke design had the added benefit of making the dials much easier to read, while this thing is just too big for the rest of the dash. Little else seems to have changed, though.
The C15 is still ubiquitous in France and much of western Europe and will likely remain so for a while yet. Not only were close to 1.2 million of them made, but they are renowned for their durability. The Diesel version in particular are known to be able to reach over 500,000km and are not usually pampered by their users, much like the featured examples. They are pretty light (about 800kg) for their engine size, so they can keep up with traffic much better than their twin-cylinder forebears. Devoid of any electronic gadgetry or complex suspension systems, they can be fixed by anyone possessing a hammer, a screwdriver and a wrench.
As far as PSA were concerned, the C15 was just pure gravy. It was a mish-mash of long-amortized ‘70s designs inside and out, built outside of France to keep the cost down and price below its competitors, thus ensuring its lasting success. It is claimed that it was Citroën’s most profitable vehicle ever. I’m not sure this claim is entirely substantiated, but if it isn’t the top one, it has to be in the top three.
More than most carmakers, Citroën had their peaks and troughs. While they were committing commercial suicide in the executive segment with the XM, the C15 sold like hotcakes to highly satisfied customers. One survey claimed that 97% of C15 owners were happy with their purchase, which is probably a record for the marque and explains why they just couldn’t stop making them. Frugal, rugged and reliable, the C15 is still the ideal beast of burden for many. Nice to have the words “unqualified success” and “Citroën” in the same post for a change.