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
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.
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).
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.
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.