‘Loves driving… hates garages’ they said about the Citroën BX when it was launched in the UK in 1983. And how right those clever ad people would prove to be.
Keith Adams raises a glass to this surprising sales hit here during the 1980s – proof positive that sometimes us Brits love a bit of French flair on our driveways.
Citroën BX: the reluctant winner
Launched triumphantly under the Eiffel Tower back in September 1982, the Citroën BX proved to be more of a game-changer for the company than even its most optimistic executives could have possibly dreamed. Conceived in the mid-1970s to plug the yawning gap in the model range between the GS and CX, and known as Projet XB, what would become the BX ended up selling more than two million copies between 1982 and 1994.
Moreover, it turbocharged its maker’s market share here in the UK after it went on sale here in 1983 against some pretty tough opposition. However, it took perseverance and an ever-expanding model range, combined with competitive pricing, and what was probably the best all-round diesel engine money could buy at the time. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here…
Rewind to 1982, and the BX found itself sharing headline space with the Audi 100 (C3) and Ford Sierra both of which were launched within days of the feisty new Citroën midliner. And as such, this Gandini-styled, origami piece of design found itself curiously off the pace, at a time that had seen car design vaulted into a more organic era. A drag coefficient of 0.35 looked distinctly average compared with the two aforementioned rivals – especially considering the GS X3’s Cd was a mere 0.318 in 1978…
Start small and grow quickly
There were just two basic power units at launch in 1982. A 1360cc version of PSA’s ‘Douvrin’ transmission-in-sump X-engine, and a 1580cc version of the recently-launched XU petrol engines. Inside, the BX boasted a typically-Citroën set of instruments, with the speedo represented by a rotating drum a-la CX, and equally idiosyncratic switchgear.
However, it was roomy inside, well priced, and well equipped, too. Lightweight construction (from 800kg in entry-level guise) with plenty of polycarbonate external panels gave it decent performance for its engine capacity, too. The BX also spanned market sectors, with an engine range that screamed Escort/Astra rival, and interior accommodation that rivalled the Sierra/Cavalier. As us BMC>MGR fans know, this strategy rarely works.
In order to appeal to conservative buyers put off by Citroën ‘s reputation for complexity it was advertised under the clever strapline, ‘Loves driving… hates garages’ – which did the trick more than the commercial copywriters dared to hope.
It was based on an all-new platform (that would end up being shared with the Peugeot 405) and, in true Citroën style, it boasted Hydropneumatic spheres instead of springs. It might have been a less technically ‘pure’ set-up than the GS, instead using McPherson struts upfront and a version of the 305 Break’s horizontal set-up at the rear, it was still very effective, offering a typically Citroën-smooth ride and height-adjustable self-levelling.
Expansion of the range
As the decade progressed, the BX range expanded and was improved. First by the addition of a 1.9-litre XUD diesel engine, followed by a powerful petrol boasting the same displacement of 1905cc. In carburetted GT form, it boasted 105bhp, but more was to come later. The five-door hatchback was joined by a Heuliez-built five-door estate known as the Break in France – and it was this model that really made best use of the car’s brilliant suspension system.
In 1986, the BX received a light facelift. It was given more solid-looking front wings, a conventional dashboard with – gasp – traditional analogue dials and switchgear, and a wider model range with more of a structured ‘ladder’ up the range. Out went the old 1360cc Douvin power unit to be replaced by the brilliant TU engine that also displaced 1360cc – that was all the two had in common, as this new entry-level power unit proved more than muscular enough to pull the relatively large body along with a certain elan.
However, it was at the top of the range where things got more interesting. New engines added to the line-up included a 125bhp 1905cc petrol engine, to create the GTI model (below), and a turbodiesel with 90bhp and a near-10 second 0-60mph time. Back then, this mattered a lot, especially when diesel was only just beginning to gain acceptance in the company car pool. Before you could say, ‘Andre Citroën’, and ably assisted by the clever updates, the BX was shooting up the sales charts – often finding itself in the position of the UK’s best-selling diesel model. Amazing!
Sports models add even more appeal
The GTI was an interesting and unconventional addition to the hot hatch market. For one, it had five doors and shared a splendid and level ride with its more humble brethren. Who needs stiff suspension and church pew-like seats in the name of sporting prowess? On UK roads especially… Not Citroën, that’s for sure. A hoop rear spoiler, pronounced front air dam, and a 0-60mph time of around 8.5 seconds gave a BX GTI’s lucky owners all the pub bragging rights they needed.
The following year, the GTI 16V (later renamed the BX 16 Valve) was added to the range. This was even quicker – with 160bhp from its all aluminium XU9J4 engine shared with the Peugeot 405 Mi16, and a rev cutout well beyond 7000rpm, this was an unlikely flying machine.
Despite being well equipped with a relatively luxurious interior, it was light (1070kg), which meant a 0-60mph time of around 7.5 seconds and a maximum speed of 135mph. In many ways it was more flawed than the standard 8V GTI, but that didn’t stop Citroën UK selling bucketloads of the things… call it great marketing, a competitive price and Gandini style (improved with a new bodykit in 1989) that was really beginning to grow into its own skin.
Topping off the performance line-up came the BX GTI 4×4 in 1989. Four-wheel drive was de rigeur in the 1980s following the success of Audi’s Quattro models, and Citroën joined the fun with what could have been a brilliant addition to the range. However, it didn’t sell as well as it hoped and would prove to be troublesome for owners as the years went on. Still, it was a good idea.
And on to a gentle close
Despite having styling rooted in the 1970s, the BX defied the odds and continued to sell well in the UK well into the 1990s. That’s down to great marketing, a brilliant model range and competitive pricing at a time when cars were rapidly getting costlier and more complex.
Diesel models, in particular, carried the range with the sporty-looking (UK-specific) TZD Turbo model combining GTI looks and the 50+mpg of the 1769cc forced induction XUD engine. Lively performance and snazzy looks inside and out were enough to create a substantial sales hit that would help maintain the BX’s status as popular street furniture well into the 2000s.
For a long time after its replacement by the brilliant Xantia (we’ll return to that one soon, I am sure), the BX remained in the doldrums. For too long, it was seen as cheap wheels, bought by those who didn’t worry too much about servicing it properly, and relying on its surprising resilience and ruggedness (never mistake lightweight build for poor quality). Rust ended up eating many of them from the inside out – with the external signs appearing far too late for an economical repair, leaving only the best examples with us today.
I’ve had my share of them (click on My Life in Cars to see the horrible truth) – and quietly harbour the desire to own another. I’ve many a happy memory of my time in them, and it’s a pleasure to indulge my inner Francophile by celebrating the car’s 40th anniversary. Not that I mind being reminded just how old I am these days!
The good news is that they’ve now found their feet as classic cars, with rarity and rising values fuelling further interest. Long gone are the days when bearded Citroënistes bemoaned the BX for not being the ‘real thing’ as they patted the bonnets of their 2CVs. Now the BX has a rapidly growing following, with an increasing number of crisp and mint restored examples flying the flag for future generations to enjoy!