Curbside Classic: 1980 Citroën Dyane 6 – The Uglier Duckling

It’s not easy to follow a legend, especially by trying to repeat the recipe for its success. Keeping it within the automotive realm, just look at the Ford Model A, the Jaguar XJ40 or the Austin Metro: they were not bad cars and sold relatively well, but will forever live in the shadow of their illustrious predecessor. In the Citroën saga, the role of the 2CV’s redheaded (and square-eyed) stepchild was played, for 15 years, by the Dyane.

From Citroën’s perspective, the 2CV’s incredible success was never going to last forever. It was ‘40s technology and styling, so at best, it could reach to about 1970, but surely not beyond that. So Citroën spent a good decade trying to figure out what to do for an encore with their small wonder. In the late ‘50s, they experimented with outlandish egg-shaped designs that went nowhere. Then the Ami 6 joined the range in 1961. With its bigger flat-twin and dollops of luxury, and its extremely bizarre looks notwithstanding, it also sold pretty well for a 2CV derivative. So Citroën looked for a middle way between the 2CV and the Ami. Something that wouldn’t cost too much to develop, either, as money was getting scarce.

It so happened that Citroën had just taken full control of Panhard, which they had started to “collaborate” with in 1955, as the Dyane project started to gel. France’s oldest carmaker had just launched their final model, the 24 coupé, in 1963, leaving Panhard’s design bureau with little to do. The Citroën designers had their hands full at the time with the “F” car (which would be killed in utero a few years later), the DS’s new nose, the Ami 6 wagon and a gazillion other projects. This was compounded by the sudden death of chief designer Flaminio Bertoni in February 1964.

So the Panhard designers, headed by Louis Bionier, were asked to take a crack at it. They went really far out initially, as we can see above, then dialed it back quite dramatically to present Citroën CEO Pierre Bercot with a finalized model by the end of 1964 that looked like a cubic 2CV. Unfortunately, Bercot thought the front end looked a lot like the Renault 4, which he hated with a passion, as he saw this as a blatant case of Renault stealing the 2CV’s better ideas – and eschewing some the Citroën’s biggest flaws.

The ball (the cube?) was now in Robert Opron’s court. He had just been confirmed as Citroën’s new chief designer, so he took the Panhard prototype and gradually reinstated the 2CV’s separate front wings. After all, Bercot’s orders had been clear: keep the design cheap, and keep to the 2CV’s chassis and dimensions. The above design, penned by Jacques Charreton in May 1965, showing something pretty close to the final product, though Opron would rework it a number of times.

The only aspect of the original Panhard design that remained pretty much as is were the concave doors with the prominent beltline, which were intended to provide these panels with a modicum of rigidity. The Dyane was launched at the 1967 Paris Motor Show, overshadowed by the glamorous four-eyed DS that was being premiered a few meters away.

Citroën 1969 French brochure excerpt


For the first few months of its existence, it only had the old 425cc flat-twin shared with the 2CV, but before MY 1968 was out, the new small Cit had split into the Dyane 4, with a new and improved 435cc engine (that extra 10cc made a world of difference, apparently), and the Dyane 6, with the Ami’s 602cc “big” twin. That is how the car got its real start on the market —and initially, it was a pretty good one. But by 1970, when it got its C-pillar windows, the Dyane’s production numbers already started slipping behind its invulnerable predecessor’s. Or rather, the 2CV recovered from the Dyane’s attack, and both cars were to remain as the flat-twin false twins of the Citroën range for over a decade.

Citroën Dyane 6 interior, MY 1970


Citroën had fixed a number of the 2CV’s most egregious traits. The Dyane had sliding windows rather than the 2CV’s notoriously pain-inducing folding half-windows. The interior had a dashboard worthy of the name, with air vents and door cards with armrests – sheer luxury! The rear was a hatchback – Citroën had learned something from the Renault 4, it seems. The fabric roof was kept, but it was made flatter than the 2CV’s and it could be opened and closed from within the car.

On the other hand, Citroën had managed to lose one tiny centimeter of elbow room in the operation. Given how limited the acreage was in the 2CV, that was not good news. The extra padding of the seats and the practicality of the rear hatch were doubtless welcome for some, but there was something to be said for the 2CV’s more basic approach. Until 1979, the Dyane 6 had a slightly more powerful flat-twin than its 2CV equivalent, as the 602cc engine necessarily ended up under the older car’s hood in the end, but it was neither lighter nor more aerodynamic, so that counted for naught.

The extra money demanded by the carmaker for the Dyane was perhaps not as easy to justify once the 2CV also had access to the big twin in the early ‘70s. It’s not like you could hear the radio any better in the Dyane anyway: it was still a cheap car by any standard, just not quite the cheapest.

And in the end, the Dyane just lacked the 2CV’s friendly face. From whatever angle one cares to observe it, the Dyane looks like it was tortured by a sadistic car designer. I’m not calling out Robert Opron or Louis Bionier, for they respectively oversaw the Citroën SM and the Panhard 24 – two masterpieces of automotive design – in the ‘60s. But it seems the brief set out by Citroën for the “super-2CV” did not excite their imaginations quite as much as other tasks did. Opron certainly made no secret about it and told his boss that the Dyane was a complete waste of time, but Bercot thought Citroën could double the amount of 2-cyl. car sales with it.

And initially, the Citroën CEO was almost right: the Dyane did better than the 2CV in 1968 and 1969, leading some to believe the tin snail was on its way out. The Levallois factory churned out as many flat-twins as it was possible to make – some Dyanes even had to be assembled over at the old Panhard factory to keep up with demand. A just return of the older carmaker’s intellectual propriety: Panhard had copyrighted the name “Dyane” as a sort-of-anagram of “Dyna,” a name they used extensively since the prewar days.

But the early flurry of enthusiasm for the Dyane did not manage to kill the 2CV. The noticeable dip in 2CV sales in 1968 (57,000 units) was followed by a remarkable rebound: in 1974, the car hit over 160,000 units, plus 64,000 vans. Coincidentally, this was also the Dyane’s best year, but it managed only 126,000 sales. This is as close as Citroën got to Bercot’s goal of doubling small car production – the 2CV’s best year ever had been 1964 with 232,000 sales; in 1974, Citroën sold 370,000 small flat-twins (including vans, the Mehari and other derivatives), yet the company went bust before the end of the year.

The Dyane 4 was nixed in 1975, leaving its more powerful stablemate to fend for itself, and until 1978, that meant around 100,000 units per annum – good, yet always a smidgen below the 2CV. Then Dyane sales tumbled quickly: 77,000 in 1979; 61,000 in 1980; 39,000 in 1981… The curtain came down after MY 1983 with a total of 1.4 million units made, though the Acadiane (above), launched in 1978 to replace the 2CV van, kept on keeping on until 1987.

Our present example, with its black plastic door handles, revised grille and “Nevada Beige” body, belongs to the sad final years of the Dyane. It was not necessarily a bad idea to update the 2CV and it is understandable that said update had to be done on the cheap. But the Dyane probably stayed too close to its model for its own good. Furthermore, it lacked the 2CV’s round-cheeked charm, trying to pull off a sort of chiseled look that it did not have the frame for. Sorry, Dyane dear, you had your chance, but you just couldn’t cut it.

And with this little slice of Citroën weirdness ends the T87 French month. Back to our regularly-scheduled Japanese oddities from here on out.