An innovative and suitably quirky French car that’s become a bargain...

With Citroën’s centenary just two years away, we look back to the days when this company always offered something unique, innovative and occasionally superior to its competitors. The rule was, if they could patent it, such as the hydropneumatic suspension and braking system, they could maintain a sales advantage, too.

Citroën GS1220 Club & Estate

Packaging

Citroën took the superb aerodynamics and trick suspension from its revolutionary DS models and applied it to the smaller GS version. With this system, front and rear suspension setups are interconnected so that the car always self-levels. It also inherited the DS braking oddity of a very short pedal movement; it was a characteristic that took a little getting used to, but is not difficult to master after some practice.

Citroën’s traditional single-spoke steering wheel is another standout feature that’s practical, allowing for an uninterrupted view of the instrumentation. With the spare wheel squeezed under the bonnet (thanks to the low-lying flat-four engine), there is plenty of interior space and the square luggage trunk swallows a very impressive 425 litres, a size seldom seen today other than in big SUVs. The Estate is even bigger with 566 litres and a utility figure of 1 355. The GS came with disc brakes all-round, an unusual standard fitment at the time.

Powertrain

Originally, Citroën’s aim was to develop the Wankel engine, but that plan backfired horribly when the 1973 oil crisis dictated a need for more fuel-efficient engines. Citroën did initially produce these “GS Birotor” derivatives, but they were pricey and thirsty, and production stopped at just 847 examples. Today, of course, they are highly sought-after.

Production continued with a flat-four unit based on the 2CV’s air-cooled flat-twin. It was smooth, compact and did away with the usual requirements of a radiator, piping and water, with a nine-bladed fan at the front providing air flow. This engine was economical and, coupled with a slippery body, had a reasonable (for the time) fuel consumption index of 10,6 L/100 km and a top speed of 151 km/h. That’s despite a lowish output of 42 kW from the 1 222 cm3 engine that used Solex CIC-3 or Weber 30 DGS-1 twin choke carburettors.

Which one to get

I prefer the station wagon; it retains the sleek styling and offers superior space. If you can find a rust-free example away from the salty coast, you should be able to keep it going for many years with some basic mechanical and hydraulic-system maintenance. The first thing I do with a classic car is to remove the doors and other trim and treat the inside with a rust inhibitor such as Tectyl; rust prevention is better than trying to cure it.

What to watch out for

Not everyone likes the floaty suspension movement, but it does smooth out rough roads and you can also raise the ride height. Repairs can be complicated and costly, so either find an expert or study the system and do it yourself. There is a hydraulic pump, piping and spheres that contain both compressible gas and non-compressible hydraulic fluid. Be sure to check the hydraulic-fluid reservoir level regularly, and know that aftermarket accumulator spheres cost about R700. Access to the compact, flat-four engine is restricted, although carburettor access is good.

Availability and prices

Globally, about two million units were produced, with around 16 000 sold in South Africa, including the slightly more powerful X2 models. While those rare GS Birotors advertised in France go for €36 000 (about R510 000), you should be able to find a decent, roadworthy GS locally for between R20 000 and R40 000.

Interesting facts

When I was a student in the 1970s, I visited the Citroën factory near Port Elizabeth. Here we saw the GS 1220 models rolling along the production line while, in one corner of the factory, the stately DS models were being painstakingly hand-built by a few technicians with their wiring looms and piping laid out like spaghetti round the bodies. I was rapped over the knuckles by the production manager when I touched one of the GS bodies being readied for spraying, telling me that the oils on my finger could jeopardise the paint adhesion. Clearly the French equivalent of nicht gefingerpoken.

Author: Peter Palm