The winter months are quiet ones for classic cars. Or they should be. What’s in the script is that they get put under a blanket and wait forlornly for spring, and more favourable weather. That should have been the story for my 1979 Citroën GS 1220 Pallas but, although it’s spent some time in a warm Cumbrian barn while the nasty Siberian winter did its best, in true Citroën style, all it really wanted to do was get out and be used.
I had wanted to get those annoying bits of frilliness around the edges sorted. Instead, I found myself out and about in it on sunny winter’s days more often than I’d imagined. I’d kept my road tax and classic car insurance (arranged through Hagerty Insurance) ticking over, which meant I was free to use it as and when. Luckily, for the sake of its bodywork, you don’t get many sunny winter’s days in Cumbria, so there weren’t too many winter forays in the GS. I’m sure the car thanked me for taking it out, though.
Whenever the planets aligned, and I did take the GS out for a run, it was as delightful as ever. Despite never being left on trickle charge, the battery never failed to turn it over and into life – even when left for weeks. That’s a good sign for someone like me, who enjoys an always-on classic car that you can just get in and use.
Heading for the roof of England
The most recent run in the GS involved a trip across four counties to some of the most picturesque high passes that Cumbria, Northumberland, Durham and North Yorkshire had to offer. Known as the MG Cumbria Roof of England Challenge 2018, this wasn’t a walk in the park, with a rapid 200-mile drive being the order of the day, and no real let-up in terms of pace and challenge.
The roads were narrow, twisting, rutted and pockmarked – and, at the top of the highest passes, there was still snow to remind us that the Beast from The East was a very real thing. There were valleys, picturesque villages and more than a number of dawdling SUVs to overtake along the way. But the plucky little GS just took all of this in its stride, happily keeping up with the faster cars, and proving the very real advantages of fluid suspension over the boring old steel-sprung variety.
Did the GS behave? Of course it did. In many ways, it still drives like a new car, with the most amazing combination of ride comfort, braking and handling you’ll ever find in a family car of the 1970s. It’s also tiny, which makes navigating the dry stone wall-lined lanes of Cumbria an absolute doddle. More than anything else, the GS really does seem to be the perfect car for all occasions.
And the GS: am I still impressed?
Oh yes! I still find it astonishing that here we have a car which was launched in June 1970, and its design was finalised more than half a century ago. It’s an astoundingly clever car that shows what can be achieved with a clean sheet of paper, no carry-over parts and an open chequebook. Of course, the cost of the GS, alongside the Citroën SM and CX development programmes bankrupted their makers, but that’s another matter…
To put the cleverness of the GS into perspective, I fished out an old issue of What Car? magazine (November 1974), which had a family car review in it, and the three top-performing cars (the GS, Alfasud and Fiat 128) in the issue were launched within months of each other, and show that the European car industry was going through a wonderfully fertile period of innovation that has yet to be surpassed (in my opinion) in terms of development.
The British contingent that went up against these cars were the Austin Allegro, Ford Escort, Hillman Avenger, Morris Marina, and Vauxhall Viva HC. The Hillman and Vauxhall wouldn’t have seen which way the Alfa, Citroën or Fiat went on a twisting road, while the Austin was closer to giving them a run for their money, but (sorry) certainly not in terms of style or mechanical refinement – only in suspension design did the Allegro come close.
Okay, so both the GS and the ‘Sud suffered from terrible rot, but those that did survive can be driven with verve to happily sit in the flow of modern traffic without breaking a sweat. I really couldn’t see the lumpy old rear-wheel-drive Brits doing the same – especially over those challenging hill-top roads. Of course, I’m happy to be proven wrong!
Here’s to the next 1000 miles in the GS!