The Citroën GS: glamour, gadgets and guilt

| 8 Apr 2020
The Citroën GS celebrates its 50th birthday in 2020

For years after the GSA died in 1986, I felt guilty about my small involvement in the life and times of the Citroën GS.

I never owned one, mind you, although I do regret not getting involved in the model’s heyday. Not quite so regretful now, of course, because without taking some very expensive precautions all I’d have today would be a great-looking pile of ferrous (or is that ferric?) oxide.

No, my guilt has a different source.

And it’s still here 50 years after the GS was launched.

The GS became a mainstay, with 1.9m made, plus more than 500,000 of the ’79-on hatchback GSA

The GS became a mainstay, with 1.9m made, plus more than 500,000 of the ’79-on hatchback GSA

Back in the day, I was a road tester on what at the time was an outspoken and rather avant-garde motoring magazine.

While the overwhelming bulk of British car buyers (at least 85% of them) chose doughty Vauxhalls, Fords and BL products, we sneered at their everyman choices, preferring Citroëns, Saabs, Alfa Romeos and their ilk because they looked better, drove better and were much more technically interesting. 

The trouble was they depreciated like a piano dropping from a third-floor window.

And a few passing years soon proved that two out of the three brands named (not the Swede) rusted very badly indeed. Even worse than those popular choices.

People who followed our buying advice must have lost a packet, whereas if they’d bought Cortinas and Marinas they’d at least have had something that remained a negotiable commodity.

Hydropneumatic suspension was high-tech in 1970 and gave an impressive ride

Hydropneumatic suspension was high-tech in 1970 and gave an impressive ride

Yet I look at the Citroën GS now – more the GS than the GSA, for me at least – and I absolutely yearn for one.

To my eye it is one the most beautiful saloons ever built, and you can chuck the SM or CX into that comparison, if you like.

Robert Opron really did something wonderful with that little car, which is why I’m so glad to have strong memories of driving them.

If you haven’t had a recent refresher drive, it normally takes a feat of memory to recall what cars of the 1970s and ’80s were really like behind the wheel.

As a road tester through those years I drove virtually everything on sale, but I only have crystal-clear memories of two mainstreamers: the Alfasud and the Citroën GS.

And though the Alfa was terrific, I never loved it as much as the GS.

The Kamm tail contributed to a drag coefficient of 0.36Cd

The Kamm tail contributed to a drag coefficient of 0.36Cd

At that stage, Citroën was doing everything differently, just for the sake of it.

It seemed to me the marque looked at the mechanical layout of popular cars and took that as proof that there must be a better way. And often there was.

Because gaps between market sectors were much wider than they are now, the GS was often comically labelled as a rival for the Ford Cortina, Morris Marina and Vauxhall Cavalier, from which it could hardly have been more different.

The horizontally opposed engine, the inboard front brakes, that amazing height-adjustable gas/oil suspension, the ultra-long wheelbase, the superbly comfortable seats, the cute instrument layout, the non-cancelling indicators on a pod within a finger’s reach of the wheel rim – they all made the GS very special.

What I liked best was that one-spoke steering wheel, a wonderfully witty piece of French design.

The GS has a distinctive steering wheel and a rotating drum speedometer

The GS has a distinctive steering wheel and a rotating drum speedometer

Despite the looks, what you really wanted to do was drive. And for me, the suspension dominated everything.

The engine was compact and ingenious, but not especially refined because you had to use it so hard, even cruising. The gearbox was pleasantly short of throw, but a mite notchy.

The steering was conventional in feel and gearing compared with the super-quick CX or DS, though I did love the powerful, zero-travel brakes (which must have tricked many a new arrival to the Citroën’s driver’s seat).

But for me that suspension topped the hierarchy in a car packed with brilliant features.

The interior design is eccentrically Citroën

The interior design is eccentrically Citroën

I simply couldn’t get enough of that loping, leisurely gait, as if the wheelbase was twice as long as we knew it really was.

The car never pitched, and it didn’t roll that much in corners, either. It just glided. The wheels were doing something or other beneath you, but the car always felt composed.

Maybe the secondary ride over high-frequency bumps wasn’t perfect, but the hydropneumatic suspension’s only real foible was the weird jolt you felt over a humpback bridge taken even half-fast, when front and rear interconnected wheels tried to droop at once, and couldn’t.

But humpback bridges are only a small part of life.

When did you last see a GS?

When did you last see a GS?

Sadly, the GS is one of the many cars of the era that succumbed to the effects of rubbish steel and crummy assembly. There were so many like that in its heyday.

But look at Saabs and Volvos of the era. They may not be exactly plentiful on our roads, but they haven’t simply disappeared.

It’s such a shame effective rustproofing only arrived after the GS went out of production.

At least those that did survive, that had doting owners who stuck with them, still raise a smile when I see them on the road today.

And, do you know what? I reckon they still give a good account of themselves, five decades after the model was launched.

Read our Citroën GS tribute in the May 2020 issue of Classic & Sports Car – out now!

Images: Citroën Communication/DR


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