To find one classic hydro Citroën may be regarded as good fortune; to find three in an advanced state of decay looks like a black swan sat on a unicorn munching on a bale of four-leaf clovers at the end of a rainbow. For once, none of Tokyo’s usual polished and pampered museum pieces – we’re talking complete basket cases, putrefied beyond salvation. Ready for a trip to chevron heaven?
Well, it’s less a heaven than it is a very small cemetery. The term “storage lot” employed in the title isn’t the most apt description, but there is no real way to define the location where these cars are rusting in peace. It’s a small car park with what looked like a tiny (closed) mechanic’s shop on one side, but otherwise, there was no earthly reason for these three French floating saucers to be left to die there. It all looked somewhat abandoned, but I didn’t spend much time on my surroundings – there were three outstanding finds to examine, so that kind of monopolized my attention.
Before I found this lot, I had seen exactly one DS in the wild in Tokyo in three years. I did not manage to take a photo (it was in motion), but I recall it was somewhat similar to this one, i.e. a higher trim, late model saloon. The DS was unveiled at the 1955 Paris Motor Show and was built for 20 years, so there were quite a few differences between a 1956 and a 1975 car. The engine, the hydropneumatic system, the dash, the trim, the transmission, the windshield wipers, the seat fabrics – everything evolved with time.
One major revision was the front end, which was given a stunning quad headlight treatment for MY 1968. This Pallas (high trim) model has these quads, with the in-board headlamps being linked to the steering column so the DS could “see around the corners.” Some lower-grade DSs and all the ones sold in the US had fixed headlights, because certain people just can’t have nice things.
The flat door handles make this a post-1971 car, so we should have a DS-23 here, as the Pallas trim was not available on the lower-tier DS-20. The DS-23 was the ultimate iteration of the DS, sold from 1972 to 1975 and sporting the DS’s largest 4-cyl. ever. It came in either carbureted (115hp DIN) or Bosch EFI guise (130hp DIN), as detailed in the 1975 brochure excerpt below.
The DS-23s were also the only ones of the breed to be available with a choice of three transmissions: the original DS’s hydro-assisted 4-speed, the new Citroën 5-speed manual (also used on the SM) or the optional Borg-Warner 3-speed auto. That last one is probably the worst option of the three, dynamically speaking.
Even at the end of the DS’s life, in the mid-‘70s, it remained very competitive in the executive segment, despite being a two-decade-old design. A rare feat for any car, but especially in that most cut-throat of segments. Pity the interior was crammed full of junk to the point that there was just no possibility of a peek at the cabin. But there was the possibility of two other classic Citroëns, which I thought was a very fair trade.
Is there anything more exciting than a Citroën SM? Space-age styling, supreme comfort, a Maserati V6 driving the front wheels and just all-around awesomeness. With only 12,920 units made between 1970 and 1975, they’re a rather rare sight. Pretty sad to see one so far gone.
So why would this be a 1974 model, knowing that 90% of SMs were built before that model year? Well, I don’t really – it could be a ’75, for all I know. But what I’m pretty sure is that this is one of the SMs that were sold new in Japan back in the day. Why do I think it’s a JDM model? There are a couple of hints, such as the turn signal repeaters on the front fenders or the license plate. But the clincher is the sealed beams.
When the US imposed 5mph bumpers in 1974, Citroën were not given an exemption. This meant they had to quit the US market almost literally from one day to the next. A contingent of 134 cars with US front ends (i.e. fixed sealed beam quads instead of the six glass-covered square headlamps seen elsewhere) were ready for shipping at the Citroën factory in late 1973 and, rather than fixing the noses, Citroën ended up shipping them to Japan. The one I found was fitted with glass covers, probably at some later date, which does look a bit better…
But as we can see from this 1975 JDM brochure excerpt, the Japanese SMs were sold without glass covers. I’m not sure whether the alleged 134 units that were shipped over in late 1973 lasted all the way to 1975, but it’s not unlikely. I don’t think any of the 115 SMs made in 1975 (production was moved to the Ligier factory for that final batch) wore the US-style nose.
It’s also a bit unclear if, as is presented on the brochure, this car has the Borg-Warner automatic that Citroën started fitting on the SM (as an extra cost option) from 1972 onwards. For 1973, automatics were mated with the bigger 3-litre triple-carb V6 (180hp DIN) also used in USDM cars, whereas Euro-spec 5-speed manual cars kept the 2.7 litre engine, but switched to EFI to provide a very similar power rating (178hp) to the 3-litre, but improved performance and fuel economy. The brochure seems to mention the smaller engine, but hat could not be paired with the slush box – and Japanese customers were keen on automatics already, by that era.
Unfortunately, that interior shot leaves us none the wiser: the shifter cannot be seen among all that scrap. Interesting addition of a voltmeter and an alarm clock there.
I’ve seen a few ripe SMs in my time, but this one was pretty amazing. They are known for their capacity to oxidize with enthusiasm — a fairly widespread and nefarious ’70s fad, like wall carpeting, quaaludes and doomsday cults. Yet even as a piece of near-contemporary sculpture, it sort of works. Which is more than can be said about the GSA.
Clearly the junior partner in this particular trio, this 1984 (or 85) GSA X3 clearly comes from a time when Citroën discovered the secret of rust-proofing. In addition, given that it seems to still have some air in all its tyres, it seems to have joined the other two at a more recent date. But it’s just as abandoned as its neighbours.
The GSA is an evolution of the GS, the mid-size family saloon Citroën only managed to launch in 1970 to plug the gigantic gap between the flat-twin economy cars and the 2-litre DS that existed in Citroën’s range since the mid-‘50s. The main innovations brought about by the GSA, which took over from the GS at the tail end of MY 1979, were a completely redesigned dash, horrid rubber bumpers front and back, and a proper hatchback. The engine, a 1.3 litre air-cooled OHC flat-4 developing 65hp, and the hydropneumatic system (self-levelling suspension, power brakes and power steering) was carried over.
The French range featured several trim levels, engine and transmission options and a wagon variant, but over in Japan, only one was imported by Seibu. Between 1980 and 1983 that was the GSA Pallas (above), but as the GSA range started being pared down due to the advent of the BX, that trim disappeared. So for 1984 and 1985, the JDM was offered the X3, the very slightly sporty trim with a 5-speed manual and a rear spoiler.
The original GS has an undeniable charm, some of which carried over to the plasticky and rubbery GSA, but this is really the least interesting car in this trio. Forever known as underpowered and impossible to repair, it seemed to combine two of the worst defects of the DS and the SM into a dumpy-looking package. Hard pass.
If I could wave a magic wand and restore one of these to its former glory, I would hesitate for a long time and probably end up picking the DS-23. With its sumptuous Pallas trim, that roomy and cloud-like cabin would probably trump the SM’s iconic styling, sadly marred in the present case by its wrong nose. And with the bigger fuel-injected 4-cyl., the DS would be the nearest thing to a four-door SM anyway. But to each their own – what would yours be?
Cohort Capsule: Pallas Is Citroen For Brougham, by Tom Klockau
Cohort Classic: Citroën GS – One For The Anoraks, by Perry Shoar