When you speak to fans of the French automaker Citroën (something which unfortunately happens less and less often as most of the true enthusiasts are getting old!), one of the most sensitive topics is no doubt which model of the legendary brand constitutes the last real Citroën. To a real “citroënniste”, nothing in today’s line-up is even close to fitting the bill. Some say it all ended with the legendary DS that I wrote about a while ago (see here). Others are more progressive and would draw the line at the 90’s XM, a strange, space-ship like creation and certainly a true Citroën in terms of quirkiness, but to me a car that lacked both looks and innovation. I’m rather in the camp in between the two. To me, the last real Citroën is the CX launched in 1974, notably as it was the last Citroën designed and developed before Citroën was bought by Peugeot and became a part of the PSA group the same year. Next to that however, the CX can be described as the every day version of the SM that I wrote about in January (see here), but also taking the best of the DS and modernizing the rest in a packaging that was truly Citroën. It thus forms the last chapter in the trilogy of the DS-SM-CX, reason why we’ll look closer at it this week!
It’s never easy to succeed a true legend and with very few exceptions, there’s really no greater legends than the DS and SM. The CX however did a great job, being built during 15 years until 1989 (the estate all the way to 1991) and selling more than 1.1 million times. Given that it’s surprising how few have survived until today, something that also goes for its two predecessors. Then again, quality is not the first word you think about when talking about cars from the 70’s and it didn’t prevent people from being amazed when the CX was first shown to the world in 1974. The name makes reference to the wind resistance coefficient in French which for the CX was 0.37, not as good as the SM but still much better than most cars at the time.
When the development of the CX started in 1969 as an “inofficial” successor to the DS, a clear objective was to make the car easier and thereby cheaper to build than its complicated predecessor. That goal was achieved in a Citroën kind of way, meaning that everything except the bodyparts was fixed onto the chassis, with the body being screwed onto it at the very end of the production process and fixed with six rubber-metal fixings. No one but Citroën would probably think of this construction as a good way to save costs, but it worked well in terms of rigidity and also in isolating passengers from vibrations. Here, the legendary hydro-pneumatic suspension that the CX inherited from the DS was obviously a great help as well.
Another arbuably less glamorous thing the CX inherited from its predecessor was the engine. Not that Citroën didn’t have grand plans here as well. The original idea was to fit the car with a Wankel engine which with a planned 170 hp would have given the car sportscar like performance, and also suited it well given the Wankel construction’s lack of vibrations. That plan had to be scrapped for cost reasons though and instead, the CX inherited the 2-litre and 2.2-litre engines from the DS, developing 102 and 112 hp respectively, a bit later complemented by a diesel with 66 tired horses. These engines helped sell more than 100.000 CX’s in the first year of production, more than the DS had sold in any year but one. In 1975 Citroën also introduced the CX station wagon, a 25cm longer version of the car with a cavernous luggage space in the back. It was that same extended chassis that would also be used for the Prestige model that appeared shortly thereafter but where the extra 25cm instead benefitted the back seat passengers, making it a favourite car for many heads of state. Interestingly though, it wouldn’t be so for the French president until Jacques Chirac in 1995, when the CX was no longer manufactured.
If the CX was a revelation on the outside, it was no less so once you entered it. Once you’ve taken place in the extremely soft seats, you look out over, or rather through the one-spoke steering wheel at something which at first looks like a bathroom scale, but is in fact the speedomoter and rev counter. You then notice the lack of levers on the sides of the wheel, as the CX instead had two satellites with all necessary functions that you are supposed to operate with your left and right hand finger tips. The right satellite includes the horn, but any need for it will probably have passed by the time you find the right switch. The turn signal on the left is no less surprising since you have to actively turn it off – it doesn’t reset automatically when you straighten the steering wheel. Better? Not really. Different? Bien sûr! And by the way, if you think the CX is a hatchback, think again. In fact the concave and thereby self-cleaning rear window doesn’t open, meaning it has a traditional boot below it which is quite low and small. This was one example of the CX’s success becoming its enemy: it was well known that CX owners wanted Citroën to make the car a hatchback, something that could easily have been done, but the responsible people at PSA just looked at the strong sales numbers, shrug their shoulders and put that budget somehwere else in the large group.
The first series of the CX was built until 1984 and luckily the strong sales numbers didn’t prevent PSA from improving the engines on offer with more powerful versions. The 138 hp GTI was introduced in 1983 and the most powerful CX in the line-up, the 2.5 litre turbo developing 168 hp came a year later. The turbo had an impressive top speed of 220 km/h, of course thanks to the excellent aerodynamics. When the second series was presented in 1985 the most notable difference were the plastic front and rear bumpers which replaced the previous metal ones and helped further lower wind resistance to a quite astonishing 0.28, in line with the SM. A turbo was now fitted also to the diesel engines but the most powerful version remained the petrol 25 GTI Turbo II, the “II” coming from it now having an intercooler. The interior of the second series was modernized and for the Turbo II even quite sporty with red piping on the seats and dash in some countries, but not necessarily more logical. As an example the radio was moved from the dashboard to down between the seats, next to the handbrake. Changing radio station had just become something you needed to look away from the road for a couple of seconds to do…
If the above all sounds irrestistible and owning the – perhaps – last real Citroën is something you cannot go through life without having done, the good news is that the CX remains and under-apprecitated car to this day. It’s not easy to find a good one but when you do, it will still be cheap – we’re usually talking EUR 15-20.000. That means it’s much cheaper than either a good DS or a good SM, and much cheaper to own, while still giving you a good piece of the real Citroën experience! The second series looks more modern but the first has all the coolness of the original car, and the metal bumpers resist sunlight better than the 80’s plastic. Most CX’s were sold as manual which was a good thing. It’s also good to know that cars after 1981 have better rust protection, a big issue with earlier cars. As someone who grew up in the 80’s, the thought of a Turbo II is hard to resist. Objectively though, the best one to go for would probably be a late first series GTI – less prone to issues than the turbo, and with all of the Citroën genius intact!