This mid-1970s Citroën GS is something of a strange purchase. Introduced in 1970 along with the SM at a cost of some $110 million in development over two years, the GS was Citroën’s unconventional take on the small car.¹ Using hydraulics to operate many of the car’s primary functions, most notably the suspension, the GS stood out as a major departure from mechanical operation of the workings of an automobile. Hydraulic rather than mechanical systems differentiated the small Citroën from the ordinary small family car of the time.
But that was forty years ago when these pictures were taken. The car itself couldn’t have been younger than thirty-three years old. Any of the radical newness back in the 1970s just isn’t state-of-the-art anymore. The rest of the global car industry took the route of electronics in phasing out mechanical linkages. Increased digitalization and electrification have made the GS’ newness not only old, but obsolete as well.
However, a certain appeal remains for these cars, which is all the better, as it takes some enthusiasm to run a rare, old technology as a means of regular transportation. Certainly that this car is in Berlin, where there is a strong Citroën support network, and that it is in a city with good public transportation (and thus, not required to be completely faultless in its standards of reliability and maintenance) play a part in why this GS was still on the road after a third-century.
I should not find it surprising that in every account I have read on the Citroën GS, I find some mention of Citroën’s unsuccessful attempt at offering a rotary engine as an option on the GS. It was a failed bid to bring rotary power to the mainstream, outdoing the piston engine as the hydraulics would do for mechanical steering, brakes, suspension, etc. It turns out that the faults of mechanical systems and piston engines were easier to deal with than the Citroën alternative and the operation was a flop, though the context of the time certainly had a lot to do with it. Certainly the 1973 Oil Crisis put high fuel economy as a very high priority for car buyers, especially those in the small family car segment.
And this story certainly plays into the appeal of the GS – it was one vision of automotive future, and even if it didn’t realize that futurism, there are still some folks out there who seem to enjoy its alternate-reality image, style, and engineering solutions.
A tip of the hat, then, to these northern European Citroënistes, for paying what it costs to live in and parade around a Syd Mead-like reality amongst all of the ordinary steel-sprung vehicles that make automobile a dull, commonplace noun.
1. Severson, Aaron. “She Likes Whips and Chains” Ate Up With Motor, September 7, 2008, http://ateupwithmotor.com/sports-cars-and-muscle-cars/115-she-likes-whips-and-chains-the-pleasures-and-pains-of-the-citroen-sm.html (accessed March 13, 2011).
Additional information came from the ever-useful citroenet.org: http://www.citroenet.org.uk/passenger-cars/michelin/gs/gs-index.html
For more information, just find anything you can written by L.J.K Setright and there ought to be plenty of information on the Citroën you’re looking for. I went to:
Setright, L.J.K., Drive On! a social history of the motor car. (London: Granta Books, 2004), 125, 288-295.