Citroën Ami 6: baroque and roll

| 3 Jun 2020
Classic & Sports Car – Citroën Ami 6: baroque and roll

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Even its creator had mixed feelings about it.

The Ami 6 had ended up looking “as if it had already run over three pedestrians”, sighed chief stylist Flaminio Bertoni of his final design for Citroën.

The intriguing lines led to pundits judging the Ami as the world’s ugliest car.

A less-controversial estate version not only outsold the saloon but did so by a factor of more than three to one.

Yet here we are in Toulouse with Bruna Chanel-Olive, and passers-by are busy complimenting us on how smart her 1964 car looks, perkily painted as it is in Jade Green with the off-white roof that all Ami saloons wore.

Classic & Sports Car – Citroën Ami 6: baroque and roll
A head-turner when new and today

Times change, values change.

Once the preserve of little old French couples who chugged to market at 27mph in down-at-heel examples, the Ami 6 is now a well-regarded classic with a lively club and a price-tag steadily advancing northwards.

But if the Citroën is currently enjoying a moment in the sun, it is not for the first time: during its eight-year currency it became France’s best-selling car.

For those of you who are perplexed that such an oddball could be created, let alone sold so successfully, you have to take the time to understand the Ami 6.

This was not a car evolved with the ruthless calculation underpinning, say, a Ford Cortina. Yet it had a coherent logic of its own, both aesthetically and commercially.

Classic & Sports Car – Citroën Ami 6: baroque and roll
When new, the Ami bridged a gap in the French-car market

At the close of the 1950s, Citroën was churning out still-increasing numbers of 2CVs and had developed the DS and ID to acceptable standards of reliability.

But there was a hole in the middle of its range: while owners of the Renault 4CV could trade up to a bigger and smarter Dauphine, Citroën had nothing above the 2CV, unless you counted the Dyna Z and the later PL17 offered by Panhard, which had been part-owned by the company since 1955.

So, in 1957, minds turned to ‘Project M’ – the ‘M’ standing for milieu de gamme or ‘mid-range’.

Early thoughts were that the car would be a stand-alone design, possibly with a new flat-four engine, or maybe with a version of the Panhard flat-twin.

But in the end it was decided to base the model on the platform of the existing A-series 2CV, with either an uprated version of that car’s engine or the Panhard ‘twin’. Citroën boss Pierre Bercot also insisted that it should be a three-box saloon.

Classic & Sports Car – Citroën Ami 6: baroque and roll
Model Sandrine Deraed-Moisseron with the Jade Green Citroën

These requirements imposed unwelcome constraints on the new model’s architecture.

Tying the proportions of the ‘AM’ – as it had become – to the 7ft 10½in 2CV wheelbase meant that achieving an elegant saloon would be a genuine challenge.

Bertoni’s answer was a reverse rake to the rear pillar, allowing a lengthening of the roof that would give the illusion of a longer glasshouse: this was a device he had first seen on a one-off Farina-bodied Fiat 600 exhibited at the 1955 Turin show.

A surviving sketch by Bertoni shows this treatment used in conjunction with a panoramic rear window, but such a solution would have been expensive and would have added to the car’s weight, unless plastic were to have replaced glass.

So it was that he used a cheap flat pane, in the process giving the roof a cut-off rear far more dramatic than that of the softer-lined Ford Anglia and Classic that shared this feature.

But Bertoni was a prizewinning sculptor, and he gave form to the wedge-shaped rear pillar by adding a diagonal pressing line.

Knowing that weight would have to be kept down by the use of thin bodywork, he also incorporated pronounced swaging on the flanks to strengthen what would be relatively flimsy panels.

Classic & Sports Car – Citroën Ami 6: baroque and roll
The swage line strengthens the rear pillar

It was the front end that caused the problems.

Bertoni’s original proposals had a plunging bonnet-line, but then it was decided to abandon the idea of using the Panhard engine and stick with the 2CV powerplant – complete with its tall air-cleaner.

There was no way that this was compatible with a low-set bonnet, so a more squared-up front was adopted, much to Bertoni’s disgust. Worse was to come.

It had been decided to use new oval headlamps developed by Cibié, but relatively late in the day the French homologation authorities expressed doubts about their efficiency, and demanded that they be positioned higher up.

Bertoni thus had to re-fashion the nose a second time, resulting in the Ami’s extraordinary wave-like dipped bonnet.

Classic & Sports Car – Citroën Ami 6: baroque and roll
The 2CV unit grew to a mighty 602cc

Meanwhile, the engineers had to magic acceptable performance out of a car that would inevitably be heavier than a 2CV but would have to rely on the same basic mechanicals.

Part of the answer was to bore and stroke the 425cc air-cooled ‘twin’ to 602cc, resulting in a power hike from 12bhp to 22bhp.

Beyond that, saving weight was the only way forward: there was a lightweight pigmented glassfibre roof; windows sliding at the front and fixed – initially at least – at the rear; plus aluminium window frames and brightwork.

Along with minimalist interior trim and those thin panels, kerb weight was kept down to 12¾cwt (1428lb) for what was a 12ft 8in four-door saloon.

In comparison, a four-door Morris Minor weighed 15¾cwt (1764lb).

Classic & Sports Car – Citroën Ami 6: baroque and roll
The Ami’s front end suffered from legislation as well as Citroën’s choice of engine

In fact, the engineers had overdone it. The panels were so thin that they dented too easily.

Apparently at the car’s first Paris show, in 1961, a rival company sent a stream of generously dimensioned chaps over to the Citroën stand to lean casually on the Ami 6s.

At the end of each day, the cars had to be replaced by fresh examples on account of the dents they had accumulated. The panelwork was rapidly up-gauged after the show.

The new Ami was announced in April 1961, and continued broadly unchanged until it was superseded in 1969 by the restyled Ami 8.

Sliding glass replaced the fixed rear windows in November 1961; engine power jumped in three stages to 35bhp; and minor trim rejigs culminated in a sober black dashboard and black detailing for 1967.

Additionally, a more luxurious Club version latterly joined the range.

Classic & Sports Car – Citroën Ami 6: baroque and roll
There are stylish details to the design, too

The key advance was the arrival for the 1965 season of the estate. This immediately changed the sales pattern.

Output of the Ami grew from 121,819 cars in 1964 to 158,067 in 1965, but what was extraordinary was that sales of the estate came within a few hundred of those of the saloon the preceding year.

Output of the latter collapsed, falling by 61% to a slender 47,574 units. Demand continued to drop, and by 1968 what for any other manufacturer would have been the mainstream model accounted for a mere 26,632 units, out of a total Ami 6 output that season of 145,101 cars.

The moment the estate became available, people bought it as much for its less eye-wrenching looks as for its extra carrying capacity.

Proof that this was the case comes from how sales balanced themselves out once the more palatable Ami 8 arrived: in its first full year, 66,706 saloons were built, against 54,254 estates.

Classic & Sports Car – Citroën Ami 6: baroque and roll
Over the years it has grown from ugly duckling to celebrated classic

Today the Ami 6 is admired for the very individuality that once condemned it, but the key question remains: can a 2CV in a party frock really cut it as a viable mid-sized saloon?

Chanel-Olive is dismissive of the association. “It’s not really a 2CV derivative so much as a model in its own right,” she says, and after a day with her mollycoddled low-miler you feel inclined to agree.

The Ami is a long way from the austerity of the Deuche, and indeed it makes a fair fist of being a poor man’s DS.

The duotone finish is a nod to the big Citroën, as is the single-spoke steering wheel. The first surprise is that, after the forget-the-customer casualness of the 2CV’s finish, the interior of the Ami is a jauntily cheerful place to be.

There’s a lot of exposed metal, including the tubular cant rail to which the roof is riveted, and the headlining (on 1962-’66 cars, anyway) is just a thin felt-like cloth stuck in place.

Nor should you expect carpets – at least until the Club came along. But the false-buttoned door pads are garnished with armrests, the deliciously soft seats have a pleasant patterned cloth covering, and the grey dashboard – albeit held in place by exposed screws – is enlivened by embossed aluminium switch panels and has a decent-sized ashtray.

The huge boot, rendered more capacious by placing the spare wheel under the bonnet, helps to make the Ami practical family transport, but the pay-off is that it has made back-seat legroom barely acceptable; on the Ami 8 the rear bench would be moved backwards by 2in.

Classic & Sports Car – Citroën Ami 6: baroque and roll
The bench seats can easily be removed for picnics; the button door trim lasted until ’65

If the very first Ami 6s were flimsy, it’s a further surprise that the doors don’t clang shut but close with a precise clack; also that the sliding glass moves easily and has solid alloy grips that would be the envy of any Renault 4 owner.

Road behaviour inevitably has much in common with the 2CV, the interconnected coil-spring suspension of which the Ami inherited with little change – although from mid-’63 hydraulic dampers were fitted and the friction dampers (but not the lead-weight inertia dampers) duly deleted.

That means that the Ami has a loping ride but at the price of dramatic lean as you tackle roundabouts.

Helped by a sizeable steering wheel, set unusually flat, the steering is direct but not heavy, and the drum brakes inspire the confidence you need in order to profit from the car’s ample reserves of adhesion.

You want the terrain to be in your favour, but on the level the Citroën rolls along contentedly at 45mph, and can be happily cruised at 50mph once it has gathered momentum.

On a small throttle opening, with a smattering of a downwards incline, the flat-twin smooths out and is surprisingly unobtrusive; only if you’re working the engine at speed does it become vocal.

Classic & Sports Car – Citroën Ami 6: baroque and roll
The Ami 6 is happy to sit at 45mph, but you must plan ahead for inclines

To keep the car on the boil, the relatively high third is the ideal ratio; fourth genuinely is an overdrive, and the Citroën can struggle if conditions are against you.

For inclines, you need to drop a gear and rely on the torque to pull you up. Fortunately, the dashboard gearchange is a honey, with a delicate, well-oiled action that has you shifting gear with very little resistance – with two fingers you can hook from second to third and there’s an easy twist into top.

The gate might be unusual to modern eyes, but it makes perfect sense, with first/reverse and second/third in the same planes and fourth out on a limb.

The Ami is a low-powered car, but it is not a demanding one to drive if you read the road.

Four-up and laden with luggage it would be more of a challenge, but with two people on board it floats along with a fluid ease, feeling lightweight but not fragile. It’s rather endearing.

Classic & Sports Car – Citroën Ami 6: baroque and roll
Round tail-lights gave way to square units for ’68

With the Ami, Citroën took what it had and made the best of it.

The car is indeed more than just a 2CV with a new body, and the combination of stylistic modernity with proven and robust mechanicals must have dealt a death-blow to Panhard, whose PL17 was looking distinctly dated by the time the Citroën arrived.

Fellow early-1960s débutantes the Simca 1000 and Renault 8 were less quirky, but were also less roomy and so more suited as town runabouts.

The French dad wanting to trade up from a 2CV or 4CV was getting a lot more car with the Ami. And what else was there?

Other than the Panhard, the next step was to a Peugeot 403; the Ami bridged that gap.

Classic & Sports Car – Citroën Ami 6: baroque and roll
The Ami 6 has long been part of French street furniture

The equation changed when the 204 and R16 arrived, but for a while the Citroën enjoyed a success it genuinely deserved.

Yes, it’s a different way of doing a medium-sized saloon. A Hillman Minx it’s not. But the way it uses ingenuity rather than ironmongery to achieve its ends has to be worth saluting.

Images: Tony Baker

Thanks to L’Amiclub de France


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