The Citroën GS is the most innovative car you’ve never heard of
Cars used to be weird, man. We take for granted that for the most part, we can hop into anything in, say, an airport rental fleet, and no matter what badge graces the front, the basic controls and driving characteristics will be the same. If you know how to drive a Hyundai, you know how to drive a Nissan. But back in ye olde days, some cars were truly weird.
And nobody was weirder than Citroën. I mean, these were people who literally reinvented the (steering) wheel. I’m not kidding; theirs had but one spoke, and that spoke juts out at the 4 o’clock position when driving straight. Why? The spoke-less top of the wheel bends if you hit it in a crash, and the single angled spoke points your body towards the centre of a car in a collision.
This Citroën is at about the 95th percentile for weirdness compared to other cars, but only about the 50th percentile when compared to other Citroëns. It’s a 1978 Citroën GS in Pallas luxury spec, equipped with the bizarre C-Matic transmission (more on that later tonight).
The owner, Simon Walker, has a warm and fuzzy history with Citroëns that go back to owning a 2CV during his formative years at university. A lover of all things Citroën, he wanted one with the amazing hydropneumatic suspension like the revolutionary DS or the exotic SM. Those cars carry with them some steep price tags, however, so he had to get creative.
The GS is obscure even for Citroën standards. Never officially imported into Canada, they nonetheless sold around 2.5 million of them between 1970 and 1986. There are just 50 registered in the U.K. currently, and an estimated six in Canada as we speak. Where have they all gone?
The GS was intended to bridge the gap in Citroën’s lineup between the, um, basic 2CV and the expensive DS. A brand-new engine was developed just for the GS, an air-cooled, overhead-cam, horizontally-opposed four-cylinder making in the neighborhood of 60 hp. Mind you, this was like a lit missile compared to the two-cylinder 2CV engine.
The GS engine is smooth yet tractor-like in the Citroën tradition. It idles like a household appliance, with a reassuring warble like a kettle or a washing machine hard at work. It’s hopelessly charming. Wind up this little cartoon motor and you’ll scoot happily up to 110 km/h, but not much faster.
Corralling all 60 of those horses through the front wheels is the C-Matic semi-automatic transmission. It has two pedals like a regular automatic. No clutch. But it also has a three-speed H-pattern shifter like a manual. Basically, you drive it like a manual but without the clutch.
The transmission doesn’t have a “brain” so it can’t shift itself. So you sit at a light in neutral, then shift into 1st, accelerate, then lift off the gas, shift into 2nd and repeat for 3rd. It operates with a modicum of smoothness, but a skilled left foot would be quicker. Still, it makes this rare car even more unique.
But this car’s pièce de résistance is its magical hydropneumatic suspension. Like the famous DS and SM, the GS forgoes conventional springs in favour of an advanced and complex system that transforms the driving experience of the car.
The system might as well be pure magic because it allows complete and utter smoothness over bumps due to its responsive valving and massive wheel travel; it also allows the GS some surprisingly flat handling due to its relatively high roll resistance. Luxury car ride with sporty car handling. No other car was able to combine the two quite like Citroën back then.
Today, no one knows quite what to make of it. Walker surmises the car looks so modern, most people don’t assume it’s a 1970s classic. Nonetheless, for all its innovation and weirdness, the GS has been a very useable car for him. It served him well on a long 1,100-km drive from his home in Oakville, Ontario to Saratoga Springs, New York for an all-Citroën car show.
As it sits, the car is a perfect fit for him. The paint is shiny enough to present well in person and on camera, but not so perfect that he has to fret over it and not use the car. Best of all, it’s the perfect companion for the 2CV already in his garage. A garage with a GS and a 2CV? It doesn’t get much weirder than that, man.
Diving.Ca – Clayton Seams