Essay : Oltcit, the last ‘real’ Citroën?

Romania during the 1980s was the unlikely production site for the last ever non-Peugeot Citroën to find its way to the marketplace.

But the Oltcit – or Citroën Axel in Western Europe – proved to be the wrong product at the wrong time for both partners. Even if it has a fascinating back-story.


The Franco-Romanian curio

Oltcit Club

Oltcit Club

Until the arrival of the all-encompassing AX range in 1987, Citroën’s small car range was a bit of a mess. In fact, it had been throughout the recession-riddled ’70s, when it could have done with a cool car to sell to the masses the most – think about the success of the Renault 5, Fiat 127 and Ford Fiesta to understand what we mean. Citroën’s rag-bag range below the GS never really captured the imagination of the supermini set…

But it’s not for lack of effort. The 2CV had proved more enduring than any of its creators might have dared to dream back in the ’30s, and during the ’60s, as its maker tried to come up new cars to plug the yawning gap between this and the DS, it came up with Dyane and Ami, both of which were underpinned by 2CV thinking. But it was all-change as that decade progressed – and an ambitious expansion programme led to the creation of the pioneering GS and sublime SM, both launched in 1970. The development of both cars – and the CX, which remained in the pipeline. The climate at Citroën in the lead-up to these events was very exciting.

Emboldened by the success of DS, and influx of cash from its long-term controlling shareholder Michelin, Citroën became increasingly ambitious during a period of growth, takeovers and mergers in the automotive industry as a whole. It bought rival innovator, Panhard in 1965, Beliet commercial vehicles in 1967, and Maserati in 1968. It formed the Comotor Joint venture with NSU to build Wankel engines in 1967, and most intriguingly, Michelin sold a 49% stake of Citroën SA to Fiat to create the PARDEVI agreement (Participation et Développement Industriels).

This flurry of industrial activity had all been in the name of expansion and development of high technology solutions. So, we ended up with the Wankel powered GS Birotor, the Maserati-engined SM, and the Fiat 242/Citroën C35 van. But in the background, there was a whole lot more going on that we never saw – it was hoped that the purchase of Panhard would result in the creation of a new mid-sized Citroën, and work with Fiat would spawn a supermini to stave-off the all-conquering Renault 5.

(Left) Projet Y: first supermini effort. (Right) Projet TA: replacement was powered by 2CV and GS engines.

(Left) Projet Y-2: first supermini effort. (Right) Projet TA: replacement was powered by 2CV and GS engines.

 

Projet VD in five-door form shown in 2009.

Projet TA in five-door form shown in 2009.

In 1968, work commenced on Projet Y-2. Unlike Citroën’s previous stabs at the sub-1000cc market, this supermini was a complete and total conceptual break from the 2CV. It was conceived as a two-box hatchback, and unusually for the time, designed with five-doors from the outset. Most fascinatingly, it ran on a lengthened Fiat 127 platform, and was powered in the time-honoured Dante Giacosa manner – a transverse four-pot with an end-on gearbox. It worked well for the pioneering Autobianchi Primula and A112, as well as the Fiat 127/128. For its day, this was cutting-edge stuff.

However, Citroën hit financial trouble in 1973/’74 (sound familiar?) and as a result of the huge development costs of the GS, SM and CX, combined with disappointing sales, it rapidly became unstitched. First Fiat pulled out of PARDEVI returning its 49% stake to Michelin. Within months, Citroën was all-but bankrupt, and the French government encouraged Michelin and Peugeot into merger talks, and in 1974, Peugeot took a 38.2% in Citroën, before taking a 90% controlling interest in 1976 to form PSA.

Despite all this going on in the foreground, Citroën didn’t give up on its supermini ambitions, and without Fiat’s platform and involvement, the Projet Y-2 morphed into the TA in 1974. And at that point, the Giacosa drivetrain was replaced by a combination of 2CV flat-twins and GS flat-fours, both air-cooled. From latter-day supermini orthodoxy, Citroën, through necessity had embarked on a less-obvious small car strategy.

The style was crystallised during this time, as can be seen by the TA prototype image (above). It was an appealing looking thing, which combined overall utilitarian design, like a Renault 4, but with hints of CX flamboyance in areas, especially around the front, and the relationship between the windscreen and the bonnet. But throughout 1975, Citroën’s model programme came under scrutiny from Peugeot. And that meant the end of the SM – it wasn’t selling well and the company dropped Maserati, thus losing its engine supply – and all future model programmes were reappraised with a view to component sharing with the parent company.

And that’s why Projet TA was frozen to become Projet VD (for Voiturette Diminuée) – retaining much of the older car’s styling but gaining the Peugeot 104’s underpinnings and engine range (through the four-cylinder Douvrin shared with both the small Peugeot and the ill-fated Renault 14. And in 1978, it was launched as the Visa… alongside the supplementary 104-based LN being introduced (to the disgust of dyed-in-the-wood of Citroënistes).

Citroën Projet Y was underpinned by Fiat 127 engineering

Citroën Projet TA was Citroën's development of Projet Y – receiving GS flat-four and 2CV flat-twin.

Ordinarily that would have seen the end of TA. After all, it was a failed supermini project. But it would live to fight on another day. On 30 December 1976, the Prime Minister Manea Mănescu of Ceaușescu’s Romania signed an agreement with Citroën to form a production Joint Venture. It had been the climax of more than 18 months of negotiations after the Romanians, and saw Citroën offering air-cooled, torsion-bar suspended TA a new factory and a transfer of technology.

It was a clever deal. Romania would buy a factory from Citroën at a favourable rate, and would produce Projet TA, to all intents and purposes, a new and up-to date supermini design in its brand new 350,000 square metre Automobile Craiova factory in Oltenia (hence the name). And part of the deal was that Romania would pay off the deal in cars. The new Oltcit deal was also seen as being more favourable than the COMECON Fiat transplants, Lada and FSO, because Citroën forbade the Romanians to sell its car in the EEC (EU as it was then) and rest of world, instead gaining the option to sell the car itself should it choose to.

Citroën stylishly announced the deal and its future car with a press release: ‘a new popular vehicle, a touring car especially conceived by Citroën, characterised by a very modern polyvalence and great economy of use.’ Quite.

Adapting the TA for production in Romania, the five-door body was redeveloped into a structurally simpler three door, and a higher ride height. In retained the TA’s torsion bar suspension set-up and air-cooled engines, and a typically idiosyncratic interior with satellite style controllers. In 1980, the factory was opened, and it was hoped that up to 130,000 cars a year would be built by 7000 line workers. But due to delays, corruption and old fashioned bureaucratic inertia, production didn’t actually ramp up until 1982, some six year after the Visa went on sale.

Citroen Axel could have been so appealing – especially powered by a GS engine and with five-speed gearbox.

Citroen Axel could have been so appealing – especially powered by a GS engine and with five-speed gearbox.

    Citroën Axel should have been so appealing – especially powered by a GS engine and with five-speed gearbox.

Citroën Axel should have been so appealing – especially powered by a GS engine and with five-speed gearbox.

Despite its promising beginnings, the Oltcit project proved a bitter disappointment, especially for Citroën. Annual production rarely topped 20,000 per annum, and the quality of the car was far from ideal. The need for 40% local content also meant that production was compromised. When Citroën began importing the car back into France in 1984 for sale in Western European markets (and Canada), it struggled – it joined the 2CV, LN/LNA and Visa on the market, and had few advantages over any of them. It was cheap, but confused potential customers – and in two-cylinder form, shared its engine with all three.

It didn’t last long on the Citroën model range catalogue, with the AX successfully replacing the three older cars – leaving Oltcit alone to sell its curious hybrid. As it happened, its production coincided with the darkest moments in Romania’s history, and in 1990 following the collapse of the Ceaușescu government and the imposition of a replacement interventionist regime left Citroën with little option but to call time on the deal. That left Oltcit to stagger on without two-cylinder engines and a lessening supply of parts sourced from France.

In 1994, the company was privatised to become Oltena, and shortly went into partnership. The company was briefly Rodae, and continued building its Oltcit derivative until 1996 until it was replaced by the Tico, Cielo and Espero. It was a similar end to the former Fiat models built in Poland by FSO.

Today, the car is a little known and far-from-fondly remembered member of the Citroën family, but its place in history should never be forgotten – it was the last independently design Citroën… the last true Citroën.

Gallery

Posted in: Essays
Keith Adams

About the Author:

Created www.austin-rover.co.uk in 2001 and watched it steadily grow into AROnline. Is the Editor of Classic Car Weekly, and has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, Classic Car Weekly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, and the the Motoring Independent... Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasable adventures all across Europe.

35 Comments on "Essay : Oltcit, the last ‘real’ Citroën?"

Trackback | Comments RSS Feed

  1. Michael Jolly says:

    Love the Photos I was reading about this in The cars of Eastern Europe, but there are only a few images, these above are wonderful 🙂

  2. Jonathan Carling jonathan carling says:

    Yes, the last real Citroen. They used to be quite common in France but you hardly see any now. The original Visa was a better car though, and (IMO) a thing of beauty.

  3. Simon Hodgetts says:

    I agree with Jonathan – I loved the original Visa – a typically quirky, but very interesting 70s Citroen. Shame they all turned into re-badged Pugs during the 80s. I’d still love a rotary engined GS!!!

  4. yme402 says:

    Never really got these – remember seeing them in large numbers on the Continent in the 1980s.I always thought very ugly, slow and fragile even compared to the opposition of the time (Fiesta/R5/104/Polo etc.)
    Nevertheless, a fascinating article and yet another great trip down memory lane courtesy of Keith and co!!

  5. Michael Jolly says:

    Oh and i love the new gallery feature, works good for me 🙂

  6. Mike Humble mike humble says:

    Re: Mr Carling

    I experienced a Visa GTi….. I loved it. A so French combination of fragility and fun.

  7. David Knowles says:

    Projet ‘VD’? Sacre Bleu – tous les enfants rosbifs cris ‘phnarr phnarr’

  8. didierz65 didier ziane says:

    the doors treatment on the Y pink prototype is very MK1 R5-5doors but for the swage line of the bottom windows, these cars were out of date when launched with slow 652cc(circa 35 bhp!) engine and BOTH far too thirsty, even with 5th gear on the 1,2L. They sold fairly well despite the 3 door only configuration, certainly to older people attracted to their cheap pricetag and well known engines from the Ami8/GS range they certainly owned at some point, and the Visa and BX were not “real” Citroens anymore. They were, however, badly screwed together and rusted quickly. I prefer to think that the real last citroen was the CX…

  9. Merlin Milner says:

    I used to have a Visa GTI. Probably the best car that I have owned. Replaced it with a company Mk1 Mondeo 1.6. great shame.

  10. Mr_B says:

    Theres been a UK-regd one of these on eBay this week, amazed to see one here.

  11. Will M says:

    Last ‘real’ Citroen?

    This is the kind of stuck-up nonsense that I used to get from certain Car Club members when I turned up in one of my ZXs or the Xantia and parked it beside their fleets of DSs.

    If we are defining Citroen as being independent in terms of chassis etc. then perhaps, but that Citroen died off because it couldn’t pay it’s bills.

    The Peugeot takeover and platform sharing were ahead of their time. Nowadays every car manufacturer recognises that they must share platforms to remain profitable.
    They didn’t kill Citroen off like they did Talbot.

    Some of the quirks were lost in the 80s and 90s, but they had to because they needed to shift large numbers of vehicles without scaring prospective buyers off.

    I would say that the small Citroen market was well served by the AX and later the popular Saxo.
    Large Citroens were also well served by the XM and C6, with the BX, Xantia and C5s retaining the fluid suspension (until the base models of the latest C5 – but then this was a decision to appeal to fleets).
    Family cars such as the ZX (with innovations 4 wheel passive steering and a movable rear seat), the C4 and the Picasso are all unique.

    The Axel/Oltcit is an interesting car with an interesting background, but to say it was the last real Citroen is to put the blinkers on and ignore the innovation and profit that Peugeot ownership allowed Citroen to carry on into the 21st century. Otherwise, they would be a footnote on automotive history.

  12. Keith Adams Keith Adams says:

    ‘Real’ fit the title for more easily than ‘non-Peugeot-influenced’, so I went with that.

    As a serial owner of BXs and a real softie for XMs and C6s among others, I really don’t mind Peugeot’s influence on the company. Without it, the Double Chevron would probably have gone the same way as Rover by 1976…

    /K

  13. Jerry Ford says:

    Just to put it on record the TA exterior was designed by Jean Giret who also did the CX and the Visa. The interior was done by Michel Harmand who also has the CX and Visa to his credit as well as many others.

  14. Simon Hodgetts says:

    @ Will M – At the risk of provoking a rich debate on what or does not constitute a Citroen, I would agree with your assertion that a ZX or Xantia were real Citroens – especially the Xantia, but can you honestly say that you hold a C5, or the truly awful ‘DS3’ or Picasso for that matter in the same regard as a BX, Visa, Xantia or any other pre-badge engineered modern Citroen? Peugeot may have allowed Citroen to survive, but in ‘allowing’ them to make stylistically ‘interesting’ (ie, funny looking, pastiche, but not elegant – thanks to Art Blakeslee), but technically very conventional cars, they have diluted the brand to the point at which it is impossible to make any link with the great Citroens of the past. Worse than that, Peugeot’s UK pricing policy has made sure that the Citroen brand is always sub-serviant to the parent company – unfortunately, Citroen haven’t made what I would see as a desirable car for some considerable time.

  15. Jonathan Carling Jonathan Carling says:

    @Will M : yes, I also encountered that kind of response when I turned up in my Synergie and C8

  16. Paul Taylor Paul T says:

    The Citroen Xsara Picasso is the chariot of Satan. Every one I see driven around here has something at the wheel that would be more at home in a gentleman’s underpants.

    That aside, I have always liked the quirks of Citroen cars of old. Cars such as the 2CV, DS, & SM could not be mistaken for anything else. The mechanics of them were both basic and revolutionary in equal measure, from the 2 cylinders of the 2CV to the hydraulic suspension of the bigger cars.

    While there may be some fairly boring cars in the current range, at least they are still brave enough to put out cars like the DS3 which, while looking a bit weird is still strangely attractive.

    I have never owned Citroens prior to the purchase of our Berlingo car & van, but it is a marque I have had a secret admiration for over the years and am pleased that they are still seen on our streets and not gone the way of others more closely linked to this site.

  17. Tim Collis says:

    I owned a Citroën BX many years before I could afford the Jaguars & Mercs that I have owned since and I have to say that the ride quality in terms of smoothness was equivalent to those much more expensive marques. I agree with most commentators that the current Citroën range is a bit anonymous like many other manufacturers, but hopefully that might change in the future..

  18. 406v6 406V6 says:

    Fascinating article about a car I hadn’t heard of before despite having an admiration for the marque. As this is a site with its main leanings towards British designed and built vehicles you could satisfy both camps with an article about the Slough built Citroens.

    It seems to me that there are a lot of parallels between the history of PSA and Rover as well as some notable differences like the volume of cars/year produced.

  19. Simon Hodgetts says:

    I saw a Xsara today – forgotten how odd they look – like a Beano-town version of the Xantia.

  20. alan says:

    Hey just wanted to say that I love the fact that you are including other vehicles made in the 60’s and 70’s. It helps put BL with their successes and failures into perspective with how the whole euro and british markets were shifting during those turbulent times.

    Kudos to Keith for a continuing job well done!

  21. Yes,
    the last real Citroen, or better the last Citroen designed when the french car maker used to be independent and not owned by PSA.

    some points about Axel:

    – it has nothing in common with the visa, except for the twin aircooled engine available in some countries.
    – it has much in common with GS (flat-four engine, disc brakes, platform and suspension layout even if not hydraulic)
    – the project was “freezed” when Citroen was bought (saved) by Peugeot, and sold later to romanian government. But the design of the body served as the basis for the visa built on the chassis of the Peugeot 104.

    My family had an Axel during the ’80s, I think one of the very few here in Italy. I can say it was not slow (100 Mph for a 1100cc was a very good top speed in that era) but very thirsty.

    One of the last surviving Axel of Italy was scrapped few weeks ago, there has been much controversy over this in some citroen clubs in our country. You can find some pictures of that car in this forum thread http://forum.riasc.it/public/index.php?topic=12499.0

  22. ian says:

    I’ve always thought the current Honda Civic a bit weird, but I reckon it would work stylistically with a Citroen badge…

  23. David Dawson says:

    Axel desparately needed more characterful styling – rear not too bad but, oh dear, that terribly bland front end.

  24. Michael Jolly says:

    Style wise i think all round it has a good looks to it, very much of its time and very Citroen of course but that is my view, now if it had a rotary engine …..

  25. Dan says:

    Speaking as a confirmed `70s Citroen fanatic with 2 G series, I have always liked the Oltcit as basically the last of the air-cooled cars; in contrast the old water-cooled cars I`ve had, have always caused some problems in that department. I looked at plenty of Oltcits in Romania in 2003 but 2nd hand car prices are a lot higher than in the UK so that was that…However from looking on a certain site, you can see lots of films of “modded” and “hot” Oltcits, and surely the badges must sell well to Star Trek fans!

  26. Osella says:

    Great article. I sometimes wonder if the Peugeot 104 was one of the most varied platforms ever (this is hard to quantify I know, and VW doubtless has managed Bugattis and Bentleys from Passats), but bear with me: 104 derivatives were available with 3, 4 and 5 doors (early 104s have no hatches); short wheelbases (104Z); air – and water – cooled (LN and Visa Club); petrol and diesel; 2 & 4 – door convertible (Samba,Visa respectively), long-lived van (>> C15), and various rally cars (Visa Mille Pistes) etc. Any chance of an essay getting them all?? Thanks!

  27. Buttons says:

    I had a Visa L in 83 and it was a fantastic little car. athe dealer in Swindon at that time was pretty fnatatsic too. Thge Cliutch cable broke about 30 miles away but I drove it back to Swindon and although the workshop staff had all gone home {Saturday afternoon), the Salesman who had sold us the car rolled up his sleeves, put the car on the ramp – and changed the clutch cable for us. Fine car that went much better and faster than people expected.

  28. didierz65 didier ziane says:

    @ Osella, Not to mention the 205 that saved the entire groupe PSA mid 80’s!!!

  29. Osella says:

    @ Didier Ziane cool! Didn’t know that! Any more?

  30. Keith Adams Keith Adams says:

    @Didier Ziane

    Wasn’t the 205 merely a facelifted Samba? 🙂

    /K

  31. Jerry Ford says:

    @ Keith Adams
    The 205 used the rear axle design from the original Projet TA,so Pegeot obviously thought it was good enough to pinch!!!!

  32. alexscott says:

    my mother had a GS 1220 and I had an ID19 followed by a DS20, all were nice handling cars and in my oppinion nice to look at, interestingly though they werent cheap to own -expensive to repair. also I found the DS rather noisey inside and underpowered. I was intrigged by the 2CV and would have liked to own one, but not terribly practical. the above models certainly look Citroen, but I think perhaps at the time Citroen styling was a little more weird (more than normal) and was a little dated, when tradionaly the DS and CV and GS styling were respected in the art world. I think the Diane and the Ami8 stlying let the range down as did some of the above models. in the late 60’s there presumably would be a lot of development costs happening followed by a slump in sales….probably not realy their fault. my parents bought the Gs in 1972 (new) in new zealand. I seem to recall (they were farmers) that they chose the Citroen over a Valiant…not sure abut that though – what a contrast. alex

  33. Keith Adams Keith Adams says:

    @Jerry Ford

    I know – I’ve just had to buy a wheelbearing for a very early 205GTI and it’s not shared with any other PSA products, aside from the Oltcit 🙂

    Clever that – when someone said, ‘well if you can’t find it at a Peugeot distributor, just head off to Romania’

  34. paul mcfarlane says:

    Had a Visa Cabrio once, amazing dashboard & a posh 2cv really.

  35. Will M says:

    2 years hence.

    Citroen have axed the slow selling C6.
    The C5 is pottering along until retirement, with the hydropneumatic suspension as an option, basically a 508 and unlikely to be replaced.
    The C1 – C4 and Picasso ranges are part of the new ‘budget’ ethos.
    The DS line, DS3 / 4 and 5 are the new premium range that Citroen are betting the farm on in Europe.

    Yet their most important models wont be sold in Europe – the C-Elysee and DS 5SL saloons are designed for ’emerging’ markets, including China where they got a large foothold with the evergreen ZX and derivatives.

Have your say...