Road impressions: about the Citroen GS

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Voiture de l’annee?

If you ask them, and they have any left, Citroën Cars of Slough will provide you with comprehensive coverage of the revolutionary little GS saloon, which deals with this remarkable example of advanced automobile engineering in remarkable detail, as well as giving a brief history of every one of the 70 or so different Citroën models made between 1919 and the present-day, a potted history of the Company and the personnel connected with it, and a guide to all the makes of car, from Aer to Westinghouse closely or remotely associated with the parent firm.

It would be imprudent of me to quote the source of this publication (mention Motor Sport if asking for one!) but I hope the fact that I am man enough to acknowledge the industry and tenacity that must have gone into the writing of it will be conceded!

In fact, why write more about the GS? Because it could be that those who set out to compile the compendium to which I refer were carried away in their wordy assessment of the medium-model Citroën, and in any case this is a car which cannot be ignored.

Having been a staunch advocate of the out-of-the-rut, technically-commendable type of car compared to the uninspiring offerings of the Big Four, it was hardly poetic justice that Motor Sport had to wait a whale of a time before driving a GS—but perhaps the Slough Trading Estate does not inspire poetry. A GS was promised, after I had asked for one. It failed at first to materialise, then turned out to be a somewhat jaded I.h.d. example whose doors couldn’t be locked and whose spare tyre was suspect. This lived with me for a considerable time, because the later, improved, r.h.d. road-test GS had a curious habit of first mislaying its ignition keys and then losing itself in Fleet Street. I ran it to earth in the end, by driving to its Bucks. habitat to make the change-over; however, this may have been all to the good, because by then I had done a four-figure mileage in this 1,015 c.c. flat-four, air-cooled, o.h.c. family saloon without any trouble and was conditioned to appreciate the later version.

The remarkable engine in the GS is said to be planned for a 60,000 or 100,000-mile stint (depending which page of the aforesaid publication your eyes alight on) without attention, rather the sort of reputation the Trojan two-stroke (another comfortably suspended car) began to achieve some time after 1922.

That makes a good aperitif to whet the appetite for more facts about the GS. Quite briefly, it has brought an improved version of Citroën’s inimitable self-levelling, all-independent hydropneumatic suspension within reach of shoppers for the average-price, average-size 4-5-seater saloon car, while adding to this desirable aspect of the specification an air-cooled engine (with a propensity to run up to 6,500 r.p.m. habitually and to 8,000 r.p.m. (!) if called upon, with a heater efficiency not normally associated with absence of liquid cooling while retaining front-wheel-drive. Are you ready for the rest of the meal?

There is no need to be verbose, to embellish. The absence-of-lean fast cornering, on dry or wet roads, the comfort of the ever-level ride (adjustable to three heights by moving the hydraulics control lever) and the high safety factor which these qualities, together with instant “dodgeability” from light, quick, taut rack-and-pinion steering embrace, have no equal. The 145/15 Michelin ZX tyres contribute to this incredible road-clinging, but are noisy over cat’s eyes or potholes.

So the GS is very safe, commendably comfortable. It has brought power disc braking and sophisticated self-levelling suspension within the family-car price-class, a peasant’s Silver Shadow! It has moreover, these individual Citroën attributes with none of the complex driving characteristics, like the sunken brake button and finger-tip facia gear selector, which diverted some of us from the DS although we were fully aware of the admirable aspects of this great French contribution to scientific motoring.

On the GS you are confronted with a normal central gear lever, one with rather excessive transverse movements and easily-beatable, notchy synchromesh, and the right foot finds a normal, small, albeit minimal-travel, brake pedal. In other words, a Citroën at last acceptable to the majority of British drivers and to those Frenchmen who formerly preferred Peugeots or Renaults. But not for one moment is the GS conventional, this control aspect apart; details match its mechanical specification, making it quite unique.

On early examples you had to accept an oddly-contrived tachometer (but the boxer-motor is so smooth and revvable you seldom consulted it) and a curious TV-eye speedometer. On the English version these have gone, a panel in simulated-engine-turned finish containing a row of neat and easily readable French Jaeger instruments—battery meter, speedometer with decimal trip and total mileometer, tachometer (no limit markings) clock and fuel gauge, the needle of the latter swinging about so avidly that I either stopped unduly frequently to refuel or ran dry.

The moulded plastic facia contains only a very shallow cubby-hole, suitable for stowing sun-glasses but not much else, a very small l.h shelf, while the handbrake is a big pull-out grip blending with this facia, its inset release trigger not repositioned for r.h.d. The commodious, illuminated 16 cub. feet lockable boot is in the form of an unusual carpeted cupboard, access to which is gained by gripping the back bumper, pressing the button and lifting, which needs both hands. But the action is light, the lid shuts decently, restrained by the gas-filled struts which hold it up automatically, and the floor area is completely unobstructed (the spare wheel lives above the engine).

Crash padding within the well-sealed body is sensibly contrived, there is the expected single- (or half-) spoke steering wheel, its thick padded rim giving the once-mystic grip only a Citroën’s wheel provided, and the front seats are sort of very comfortable arm-chairs, upholstered in stretch nylon which glues you in position and with adjustable, fully-reclining squabs and detachable head-pads. The turn-and-twist lamps-control for the left hand is retained and at right-fingertip-reach are the two controls for two-speed wipers and washers, and for flashers and horn, and the non-self-cancelling turn indicators, these controls being somewhat too close together and lightly loaded; but excellent ergonomics, nevertheless.

Any stowage space which might have been utilised on the slim central console is largely used up by the very neat Continental Edison radio, which has a roof aerial. On the facia sill press-down switches serve the optional heated back-window and the hot-and cold-air heater-fan (the latter with air-cooling, note!). The interior decor is of restrained high-quality if you do not mind plastics, with clever compact circular, rotating internal door handles but, remarkably, no coat-hooks, while the bonnet-release ring is on the passenger’s side of the r.h.d. car. There is a good r.h. door mirror but the door “keeps” could be more effective.

To the quite impeccable Citroën suspension, (which copes with hump-backed bridges without, or almost so, the consternation this causes a DS, without the slight “wallowing” or lurching of the bigger Citroëns, although sudden dips cause some thumps, odd surfaces a form of float) and which irons-out pot-holed quagmires unbelievably, until you try (as I did over Dutton Park’s Bailey Bridge approach road) must be added retention of Citroën’s wheel-at-each-corner stability dating from the 1934 Traction Avant—and the GS’s power disc brakes, inboard at the front. And the GS settles down for the night after the ignition has been turned off, like any good workhorse from the Quay de Javel (you drop it thus, for wheel jacking).

The carefully air-sealed windows eliminate 1/4-lights and gimbal facia fresh-air vents augment the adequate heating and ventilation system, with those hot- and cold-air fans; but an unwanted cold-air leak from beneath the scuttle caused the front passenger frozen feet on a warm day. The body has excellent aerodynamic qualities, but vision front and rear is impeded and the big glasses for the Cibie headlamps scarcely enhance the lines, they were quartz-halogen on the test-car.

A quite remarkable motor-car, incidentally packing all this technical ingenuity into a space 8 inches less than a Ford Cortina occupies. As nothing in this world is perfect, there must be snags? Yes!

The single-Solex 74 x 59 mm. light-alloy engine gives only 55 1/2 b.h.p. (at 6,500 r.p.m.) in a car weighing nearly 17 cwt., and although it is so splendidly smooth and well mannered that the fact it is geared so that 4,900 r.p.m. comes up at 70 m.p.h. matters hardly at all, the lack of acceleration can be distinctly trying. This is mitigated to some extent because it is possible to wind up to over 50 m.p.h. in second and more than 70 m.p.h. in third gear, but a 0 to 60 time of 18 seconds is depressing.

When the GS is referred to as The Car of the Year one can be excused for asking: “Which year”, because its performance lags behind that of current £1,000 saloons, admitted larger-engined. On main roads, if rowed a bit, it goes well enough, on twisting terrain it is superb, but in average cross-country runs in traffic or town motoring, rather pathetic. Top speed is just 90 m.p.h., quick for a one-litre car. The all-indirect gearbox emits an eternal hum, less noticeable, however, on the later car but the engine was still tediously busy. The fuel tank holds nearly 10 gallons and I got 30.4 m.p.g. using 4-star; Citroën préfére Total! As to oil, the dip-stick, accessible under the self-propping bonnet, showed that consumption was in the order of 1,000 m.p.p., in spite of a smoky exhaust for a while immediately after starting the engine.

Citroën, until the advent of the 135 m.p.h. SM, has always spoilt its futuristically-sophisticated cars by installing earthy engines. Perhaps we should bhe patient and wait for the pancake-performance of the GS to be uplifted by a 1,300 c.c-size engine or maybe a Wankel power unit. It that happens, the logical engineers who have conceived this brilliant, not easily faulted, little car will have achieved another motoring millenium. The price in this country is £1,136.82, or with extras, as tested, £1,230.32, p.t. paid.—W. B.

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