Keith Adams takes a sideways look at one of those bangers, which once littered the streets of the UK. This one was loved and admired as a repmobile for a while, then fell into the hands of minicabbers, and bangerdom surely followed.
But we’ve always loved the Citroën BX – perhaps unhealthily so at AROnline Towers.
Loves driving, hates garages
‘My name is Keith Adams and I am a Citroëholic.’ There, I’ve said it. But in making this dirty little secret public, I feel I’ve finally had the weight lifted from my shoulders. Funnily enough, although I’ve never hidden the fact that I’ve utterly adored the SM, GS and CX from my formative of formative years, what actually was responsible for me owning well over 20 of the things, was in fact our good old friend, the Rover 214Si.
It’s 1992 and, as a young Blackpudlian who’s somehow managed to default into working in the Civil Service, I found myself with a reasonable amount of disposable income. I’d started out as a pen-pusher for the Information Technology Services Agency (ITSA) in St Annes, but soon my management realised I had something of a flair for programming computers – and sent me off into a more technical role. Within weeks, I was working shifts in a data centre, on a good salary, and in a position to buy a house – and a nice family car. It was luck, of course… but I grabbed the opportunity with both hands.
As a slightly cocky 22-year old, I walked into John Barnett’s – a large used car supermarket (which subsequently became a Peugeot dealer) looking for a nearly new Rover 214Si, the car that had been foremost on my mind since its gloriously successful launch in October 1989. However, for those old enough to remember the days, this Rover had strong residuals and, when it came to making the deal, I was talked into buying a slightly newer Peugeot 405GR Injection – which began a decade of near-continual French car ownership. The Pug was lovely, in Grapphite Grey, fully equipped, and pushing out 130bhp, and everything a 22-year old needed… and it should come as no surprise that I ended up crashing it (into a Nissan Bluebird SSS – sorry!) after a year behind the wheel. Ouch!
The insurers repaired it, but I never felt the same about that car again, and chopped it for something far more sensible – a 1992 Citroën BX 19TGD. I bought it for rational reasons – it was economical, low-mileage, economical, practical and was potentially very economical. Did I say it was economical? Well, that was my intention – I was part of a young family growing fast, and wanted to cut my fuel bills – there was nothing else for it… it would be a diesel Citroën for me.
Back in 1994, diesel cars were still a relative rarity on UK roads, and it took a little while to acclimatise myself to driving a 71bhp normally-aspirated XUD-powered example after my super-rapid Pug. But it didn’t take long for me to get my head around that – and years of happy ownership followed. The thing is, the power unit might have been super-rational, but the rest of the BX was just so charismatic, that I found myself enjoying it so much that I felt a little bit of a fraud, beating the system. I mean, this thing would go as fast as everyone else on the road, corner like it was on rails (once I slung on a set of GTI wheels and super-wide 195/60 tyres), and still go at least 550 miles on a £40 fill-up. Those were the days.
Very quickly, I ended up loving that Citroën. Poor old J554 RAV was quickly treated to a raft of improvements – a GTI 16V interior (justified as the original shapeless tweed seats were giving me back-ache), those alloy wheels, a steering wheel from a TVR Griffith (I had a mate at the factory, okay?) a big stereo with bazooka subs, 16V bumpers and bodykit, a tailblazer (so cool in the 1990s) and even a long-range fuel tank. I went on several holidays in France, as well as a number of Grands Prix in it, and it was there, that I still have one of my most vivid car memories (in 1994)… the £20 fill-up. You know, when France had Francs and diesel was half the price of petrol.
I didn’t just love going to France in the BX because of the cheap fuel, though – it seemed to go even better there, like it knew it was home, and would make mincemeat of vastly quicker cars on those lovely Routes Nationales.
I still remember a time in the mountainous Midi-Pyrénées region, on one of those lovely sweeping roads being easily able to keep a determined local in his VW Golf 16V Mk2 at bay. Three-up… With luggage… It was trips like this that absolutely convinced me of the superiority of fluid suspension over its steel counterpart.
But once my circumstances changed, and I had more space – the BXs followed. While I owned J-RAV, I picked up my first GTI, and was blown away by its performance. Then followed my first drive in a 16V, and I was blown away again. It wasn’t just the straight line performance of the 16V (of which it has plenty thanks to 160bhp and a kerb weight of 1070kg) that had me hooked, but the dive-free braking, limpet like grip and addictive engine note. Needless to say, as soon as the opportunity arose, I’d buy another. And another… And another… At last count, seven 16Vs have passed through my hands (including one that came back), two 1.9Ds, a pair of 1.9 Turbo Ds, a 8V GTI (that blew up on the way to Silverstone) and a 1.4-litre TU-engined example, which went far better than it ever should have.
My addiction was finally cured when I bought a Rover 800 Vitesse in 2003 and my head was turned by instant and devastating mid-range torque. Or I thought it was, as rather disturbingl, and thanks to a family member (who enjoyed so many of those trips to France in the 1990s) who’s selling his, I’m now umming and ahhing about buying another one…
The UK enjoyed a love affair with the BX, too. Probably not as intense or lasting as mine, but the cleverly-styled French midliner became a surprise it over here quite late in life. In 2012, the BX celebrated its 30th birthday and, when it was first unveiled under the Eiffel Tower, a bright future was predicted for it. As was so often the case, Citroën found itself with a yawning gap between the small cars (the Visa/LNA) and the large ones (the CX) that the ageing GSA wasn’t really effective at plugging. There was no Cavalier-class car that could pick up mass sales – and that was what the BX was created to do. Citroënistes bemoaned the BX’s conventionality – but, with Hydropneumatic suspension and lightweight (but not flimsy) build, it was certainly a mile away from the rest of the herd.
When it came to the UK the following year, it was offered in a limited range of 1360cc Douvrin and 1580cc PSA-powered five door hatches. The styling, by Bertone’s Marcello Gandini, was the final flowering of his ‘Origami’ phase, and hit the market just as the rest of the automotive world was going aero. It seemed outdated and out of step and, unsurprisingly hard to shift, depite the ‘Loves driving, hates garages’ strapline applied to the adverts at the time. More than that, the BX was hard to get on with because its interior, complete with bathroom scales-style speedometer (a long-lived Citroën feature), was uninviting and just a little strange. A lack of PAS on all models (which were saddled with heavy, low-geared steering as a consequence), certainly didn’t help with those customer test drives either.
However, Citroën plugged away at BX development and, year-on-year, continued launching increasingly appealing cars. In 1984, the XUD powered 1.9D arrived, followed by the delightful 105bhp 1.9GT, and then the roomy estate (cleverly converted by French carrozzerie Heuliez). Slowly, surely, the BX was becoming more desirable. But in 1986, the tipping point came, with a subtle facelift. Out went the digital speedo and baffling switchgear and in came a PSA-standard switch-set. New bumpers also toned down the styling. But the arrival of the 130bhp GTI, and a much widened range of diesel and petrol models – at VFM pricing – had the customers flooding in.
In 1987, things just got better with the launch of the 160bhp 16V (135mph and 0-60mph in 7.5s) and the 90bhp turbodiesel models while, in 1989, the wonderful 1360cc TU-engine was dropped in to created the surprisingly lively entry-level model. The range was now effectively complete and, all of a sudden, sales went skywards. For year-after-year, the BX threatened the UK Top 10, and rallied on as UK’s best-selling diesel car. Not bad for a range that strugged to gain acceptance at launch. But what of the BX itself? Why did did it end up proving so popular? As we know, a VFM price is always a good starting point, but it only goes so far.
For a start, the BX’s lightness might have had casual viewers tut-tutting at its flimsiness, but this was a huge boon on the road – all models performed beyond expectations and were exceptionally economical. My experiences back this up – 60mpg was easily achieved in any of the diesels, while at the traffic light Grand Prix, a 16V would make mincemeat of much flashier cars. Inside, it’s airy and roomy and, even though headroom is tight, there’s plenty of acreage for sprawling. And as for showroom appeal, all were well-equipped, with electric sunroof and windows being the norm – as well as that useful adjustable suspension. It was plasticky, but well-trimmed, and welcoming.
However, with the arrival of the next generation of midliners that ushered in the 1990s – such as the Rover 200/400, Nissan Primera and the remarkably impressive Vauxhall Cavalier Mk3 (you’d forgotten that, hadn’t you?) – the BX started ageing quickly. Sales remained strong, but the 1970s-looking car suddenly seemed as appealing as yesterday’s Chicken Biriani. With the arrival of the ZX in 1991, and subsequent replacement, the Xantia in 1994, bangerdom followed far too quickly… and just as quickly as it picked-up in 1986-’88, the BX fell off the motoring wishlist in 1992-’96. But it still shows that us Brits will go for a technically interesting car in large numbers, given half the chance.
Apart from my first TGD (and a subsequent TZD bought from a main dealer in 1996), all of my cars were bought at rock-bottom prices, reflecting their perceived undesirability at the time. In 1995, I remember test-piloting an F-registered 16V (with broken reverse) that the seller was desperate to sell for £300 – quite a depreciation hit over eight years – and walking away. Diesels and turbodiesels became of the budget taxicabber’s hack of choice, while the rest rapidly disappeared at the merest hint of an LHM leak or rusty pipes. By the turn of the 21st century, a mere six years after production stopped, the BX had become as desirable as a wild case of herpes – and I loved ’em.
As a jobbing IT manager, post-Millennium, I used to travel all over the country in GXI 9500 (above), a black Phase 2 16v, I picked up from the local bombsite for £195 (yes, £195). All that was wrong with that one was a couple of failed rear suspension spheres, which I duly replaced for £50… and, from there, came another lasting period of Citroën BX ownership. I’ll never forget taking it to the 2003 French Car Show and topping the rolling road figures with 167bhp. Ahead of the modified BXs… All that I’d done to mine? Put on a chrome exhaust finisher.
Coming up to fourteen years on, and these cars are beginning to pick up some classic appeal. The high attrition rate and individual styling has a lot to do with this – but there’s more to it than that. The BX used to be street furniture in the UK – and now they’re all gone. You could say the same about Sierras, Mk2 Cavaliers and Montegos, but the French hatchback now really does stand out from the crowd and is still a pleasure to drive. You’ll marvel at the lightweight plastic panels and interior now, but in terms of build quality, it’s easily as good (if not better) than the others mentioned (Cavalier aside) – and it’s actually really quite easy to work on a BX. A true practical classic, no less.
The suspension’s no great shakes to fix (Octopus aside – Google it if you don’t know what this means), and the outer panels will always look smart (faded red cars aside), even if there are some critical rust spots to look out for underneath. Finally, rear radius arms can be a worry if not properly maintained but, as Metro-loving AROnline readers, we all know this pain only too well.
In conclusion, an unsung hero, a great starter classic and bangernomics treat all rolled into one. Would I have another? Watch this space…
Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Classics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent...
Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasible adventures all across Europe.
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