Whatever happened to the Citroën GS

When I remember the cars my Dad drove when I was growing up, the cars that immediately spring to mind are the P6 Rover V8, the Lancia 2000, the Triumph Herald and the various Saab 900s. This is strange when considering we had one particular car for a lot longer than any of the aforementioned. Undoubtedly, it also took me on more trips to the seaside or Welsh mountains than any other. As a result of this, I probably associate Simon Bates and ‘Our tune’ with this car, listening as we did at the time, to Radio 1.

I talk of the Citroen GS. Some 2.5 million Citroen GSs were sold between 1970 and 1986 (if you include the GSA from 1980). That’s more than the MK3 and MK4 Cortinas put together, yet when was the last time you saw a GS?

Citroen GS Limited Edition
So much cooler than the Polo Harlequin

There are perhaps three things I associate most with our Citroen GS Pallas. Oh yes, we had the Pallas – top of the range of course. Which effectively meant you got some rubbing strips down the side and bigger wheel trims. But back to the three things…

Firstly, was the fact that the hydro-pneumatic suspension meant the ‘car moved up and down’. Secondly, the fact that the entire interior was finished in blue. OK, so there might be a little fuzziness brought on by the past 25 years, but I’m pretty sure it was totally blue, right down to the dashboard mounted hand-brake. I remember the hand-brake very well. Finally, I remember the noise. Distinctively Citroen – a kind of gargled throatiness with a gentle humming background. I’m pretty sure William Woollard wouldn’t have described it this way. See the video here for a demonstration (wait for the end). Also check out Citroen’s party trick of driving on three wheels. A decade of TV commercials were built on this principle! Just don’t try it in a Cortina!

Looking back, being chauffeured around in the back of a GS probably singled me out as having a pretty cool Dad. At the time, I was quietly envious of my friends with their Cortina Dads or Cavalier Dads. But oh no, my Dad was a little left field. A little avant-garde. A little bit of Parisian flair in our little corner of Hampshire.

In 1971, the Citroen GS was voted European Car of the Year, beating the Volkswagen K70 (remember that?) and the Citroen SM on to the top of the podium. A good start for the gargling hummingbird. At the time, the design was unlike anything else on the market. With the SM and CX to follow, you can see why the 70s and 80s are considered to be a golden age of Citroen design. Thankfully, the company has begun to rediscover this flair with recent models, with the DS3 being a prime example.

So the design was exceptional for the time. It also meant that the car was incredibly aerodynamic, with the best drag co-efficient figures of any car of the time. The GS was also incredibly light, weighing between 900 and 950 kg depending on whether you opted for the saloon or hatchback. Zut alors! – what’s not to like about the GS?

Which brings us nicely on to the subject of power. Or lack of it. When launched, the GS came equipped with an asthmatic 1 litre engine – not nearly enough. The largest it even came with was an Autostrade storming 1.3 litre, meaning that the car’s achilles heel was undoubtedly the wheezing engines. Blame the French taxation laws for this, as they were, at the time, linked to the size of a car’s engine. Debiles!

There was, however, one very interesting engine option available, but one which Citroen would rather the world forgot. Wankel’s rotary engine is normally associated with the NSU Ro80 and the Mazda RX7/RX8, but it was also available in the GS in the special edition Birotor. Unfortunately for Citroen, the engine suffered the same issues as the Ro80 – high fuel and oil consumption and poor reliability. Oh, and they also chose to launch it at the height of the 70s fuel crisis. What’s French for “D’oh!“?

Just 847 Birotors were sold, but Citroen were so ashamed of the car, they attempted to buy them all back rather than support them with spare parts! Very few survive today, making them extremely collectable. At the time of writing this blog, I’ve found one for sale in south west France. See ad here: http://www.carandclassic.co.uk/car/C72371/

Citroen GS Birotor for sale
Ultra rare Citroen GS Birotor for sale

Like many cars of the era, the majority of Citroen GSs ended up in the scrap yard long before anyone thought of them as being collectible. Rust was a huge issue for the cars and many of these once great cars found themselves being used as cheap motoring vehicles or runarounds. When a mechanical issue ruled the car to be financially bankrupt, they were simply scrapped. The clever suspension would eventually become a lead weight around the car’s neck. A shame, as for me, the GS is a genuine classic from the period.

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ABOUT AUTHOR
Gavin Big-Surname
The chief waffler and founder of PetrolBlog in 2010. Has a rather unhealthy obsession with cars from the 80s and 90s, and is on a one-man mission to collect the cars nobody else wants. Also likes tea and Hobnobs.

21 comments

  1. March 27, 2011
    Simon Hingston

    Had a GSA (‘facelift”) for a little while about 10 years ago. It was a great little car and very entertaining, though possibly not in a good way.
    First was Citroen’s unique approach to braking with a pedal which apportioned braking by how hard rather than how far the pedal is pushed. Therefore for the first few days you bounce your head off the windscreen getting used to it as the brakes were very good.
    Secondly the GSA had a new dash which was supposed to be logical compared to the earlier mad french dash. Unfortunately what they’d really done was put a very nice blue anodised panel in and thrown a bucket of switches and lamps at it. Don’t think I ever found out what some of them did. Character you see.
    Lastly was the quiet engine. It may have been a little underpowered but because it was so slippery it was very easy to find yourself doing 80 or 90 without realising, then bouncing your head of the windscreen to rectify the situation!

    Reply
    • March 27, 2011
      MajorGav

      Ha! Life is never simple in a Citroen. Quirks and eccentricity come as standard…

      Reply
      • March 27, 2011
        Simon Hingston

        How true. Have had varying success with Citroens. GSA was fun but one of too many so had to go. Next was a BX for £50 on ebay (those were the days) which was a non runner solved by putting the HT leads in the right order. Had a Berlingo work van which was so slow it was dangerous. Lastly was the wifes Xantia which committed suicide before Christmas.
        Never had the ones I would really like though, an XM, DS or SM in that order. OK a CX Pallas at a push 😉

        Reply
  2. June 25, 2011
    Ian W

    There’s one been parked in a front drive in North Ormesby, Middlesbrough for years (red).

    Reply
    • June 25, 2011
      MajorGav

      Ooh! Any chance of a picture?!

      Reply
  3. February 19, 2012
    Steve Lawrie

    I have a 1985 GSA Spécial in my garage awaiting restoration.

    Reply
    • February 20, 2012
      MajorGav

      Ooh, excellent. When are you starting the restoration? What kind of state is it currently in?

      Reply
  4. March 13, 2012
    Roger Sleath

    I bought a year-old 1973 GS semi-automatic convertisseur in verte argente metallic green. It was an utter and total disaster.
    It was grossly underpowered, hugely thirsty and the semi-automatic microswitchery had a mind of its own.
    The worst problem however was starting the damn thing on a cold morning up here in the North East. It would crank away for hours, coughing and spluttering until it managed to start only to be strangled at birth as the hydopneumatic pump kicked in.
    A total lemon.

    Reply
    • March 13, 2012
      MajorGav

      A glowing reference for the GS there! 😉

      Funny how, for most of us, time is a great healer. We forget the issues associated with the old cars we ‘enjoyed’ back in the day. The cold starts, the inadequate brakes, the lack of safety features etc.

      Still wouldn’t stop me buying a GS though!

      Thanks for commenting.

      Reply
  5. August 25, 2012
    Lucien

    I had a 1979 GS Club 1220 from 1990 to 1993. Bought it for £50 supposedly as a stopgap while overhauling my CX, commuted London-Manchester regularly at a steady 70mph*, never broke down and had loads of fun in it. Its one major shortcoming was the bodywork – we welded essential bits back together to keep it roadworthy but the rust was unstoppable. There was a tradition on Saturday nights that passers-by would plant interesting things into the holes in the rear quarter panels; flowers, a tennis racquet, a traffic cone. In 1992 my toolbox fell through the boot; a friend carried out extensive repairs while I rewired his rally car. By summer ’93 I couldn’t justify the cost of a new clutch and re-gassing the suspension spheres on a vehicle that would soon have no bodywork left although the engine was still in its prime. We piled into it for a last drive through the city to the scrappie, Iggy Pop’s ‘The Passenger’ blaring out through the open windows. I got half my purchase price back.

    Lucien

    *Despite a reputation for being underpowered, it would go considerably faster than this. The steering became a little uncertain as it approached triple figures with the pedal on the floor. Of course such speeds were only usable on the London-Manchester Autobahn, sadly long since demolished.

    Reply
  6. August 14, 2013
    steve

    just bought an 82 x reg,yes thats correct an 82 gs and i m loving it.the paintwork is dog rough but she runs great,70-75 easily up the a1 without missing a beat.i ve had loads of bx s over the years and thoroughly enjoyed them but this gs is loads of fun.

    Reply
  7. July 22, 2014
    Andrew

    As a hydropneumatic Citroen fan, I remember these with fondness. Never owned or driven one but they were an unusual sight on the streets of Romford back in the 1970’s. It was the weird barrel speedometer and that swoopy dashboard like the bigger CX that sticks in my mind. I did once ride in an Ami 8 which felt like it was hovering but leaned around bends like a hard cornering motorbike. Actually it sounded like a bike as well.
    Today I drive an XM – Nearest thing to a CX without breaking the bank.

    Reply
  8. August 28, 2014
    Alan Hazlewood

    Hi,
    I was just reading about the Citroen GSA, I have one of thes in a shed at my father’s house. He died in May 2014 and the old car has been parked in his garage for at least 25 years I would think it is a T registration and I am not sure which model it is as I cannot get around the back of it to see properly. This car was a runner when it was put in the garage so many years ago. Obviously time has taken its toll on the old lady and the dust is deep on top of her but it would be a brilliant project for someone to get her going again. From what I understand these cars are quite rare. Do they have a value, and if so what value do you place on a vehicle like this?

    Reply
    • January 30, 2016
      Bima Teguh

      if you asked how much the value of this car in my place, sadly its worth less than £200. cheaper than a moped.

      Reply
  9. December 8, 2014
    David Guest

    A couple of GSs saw me through the 80s. The second had previously been owned by an electrician who had rewired the reversing lights to operate from a switch rather than when reverse gear was engaged. This meant you could persuade anyone tail-gating you that you’d put the car into reverse.

    Reply
  10. February 28, 2015
    keith

    Hey! Just came across this blog…

    I had a second hand GS Pallas in the early 80s. I must be a bit younger than your dad as I didn’t have a family until some years later…. 🙂

    The GS was a great car. The neighbours used to look out of their windows when I started up, to watch the suspension rise. A very comfortable ride, but I’d agree with those critics who say it was underpowered. Though French cars were getting areputation for being underpowered – damn those French tax laws!

    And mine had the C-matic semi automatic gear change. Torque converter and a gear stick. No clutch. Once, the guy ahead of be braked suddenly – I braked and tried to ram the gear into 1st, but it wouldn’t go. Waiting for the torque converter to match the engine speed to the gearbox, you see. No anti-lock braking in those days (or not as standard), so in spite of the discs on all 4 wheels, my wheels locked and I slid gently but forcefully into the car in front. Since then I have avoided torque converters.

    Then there was the hydropneumatic suspension. A very comfortable ride, but… Not everyone knew that you had to keep the engine running when jacking the car up. I had the two front tires replaced, the garage were ignorant of Citroen suspension, and just jacked it up cold. Result – air drawn into the suspension which was solid as a rock thereafter.

    I should have made them put it right, but by then I was ready to sell the car. The dealer criticised the body damage most of all. They were prone to paint flaking and rust. I bought it for £1,000 and sold it for £300 a couple of years later.

    Now I am livid to see that they are collectors’ items and sell for £2,000! But I guess they are rare now, as most were scrapped because of that propensity to attract rust.

    A pity, a nice car, of all those I have owned it is up there with my favourites. Probably ranking #2 after the 1998 VW Passat…. 🙂

    Reply
  11. March 24, 2015
    Citroen 1980Carfreewallpaper.com | Carfreewallpaper.com

    […] Whatever happened to the citroën gs – petrolblog […]

    Reply
  12. June 13, 2015
    Chris

    Thanks for the great post – I too have many memories from the 70’s in one of these – driven to its full potential (dad had a cortina mk2, followed by a fiat 125) but the gs break was the one as kids we loved best. Somehow amongst all the car restoration projects we grew up amongst this characterful little car won our hearts (amongst them were Morris minors, an early e-type roadster and Aston Martin DB2/4) but the brilliant and incredibly original engineering of the Citroen rubbed off – somehow I fell in love with 2CV’s, CX’s and an early original GS 1220 club from 74 – the year that New Zealand held the commonwealth games in Christchurch – this car was one of a number used to ferry athletes to and from events and has a small NZ flag on the boot to mark the occasion.
    Funny to read so many comments stating the GS is underpowered, I imagine the 1000cc engine must have been, but the 1220 and 1300 GSA engines certainly were not. But like everything Citroen they require a unique driving appreciation – which means thinking ahead and being constantly alert – in other words not sleeping like so many do at the wheel these days. By contrast the GS demands focus and attention which is rewarded with the fantastic engine noise at high revs which it will happily do for hours on end – better than any Alpha or Ferrari. Even Better this small car from the 70’s is still more comfortable on the open road than any car produced today (bar none) including sadly any current day citroens. The quality of the ride and handling deserves re examination – this is one of the best affordable cars ever made.

    Reply
  13. June 20, 2015
    Arjen Zwamborn

    I’v got one since 2009. A GSA X3, vert Chartreuse (metallique). Big boy’s dream. It had 42.000km on the counter then, and a lot of dents and scratches (French car “dans son jus”). Now it has 98.000, still totally rustfree, resprayed and perfectly maintained. It ‘s a fantastic car: comfortable, fast if you want it, always beautiful and special. The smile-factor is high, especially when the engines howls with its underlying deep growl. I have the luck to have a ‘mecanicien’ at a local Citroën-dealer who loves them. Otherwise you have to be very good with the spanners yourself. As for costs, maintenance is no more than any other midsized car when you drive it as a commuter’s car and behave yourself (not in winter: they spray salt on the roads in the Netherlands to make cars last shorter – they think that’s good for economic growth). Getting parts is becoming difficult. We have the GS-GSA club, and in GB there’s “Chevronics”, i belive, that try to get the most needed parts in stock. So all of you out there: save them! They’re fun and worth to save. The more on the road, the more it gets interesting fot factories to produce parts.

    Reply
  14. June 22, 2015
    brian

    Here in Canada I have a chance to aquire a 1978 Citroen GS Basalte…..wondering what a restored one would be worth? I understand,during resaerch there were only 5000 biult, all in 1978. Any info would be appreciated. Great forum.

    Reply
    • January 30, 2016
      Bima Teguh

      here in indonesia, its only worth around IDR 5.000.000-10.000.000 (too lazy to convert the currency to $, sorry) cheaper than a moped. i got a 1978 GS Club 1220 for IDR 2.500.000. still in a good shape, except the rear windshield and grille are missing. and i succesfully broke the piston and valve after towing it back home. since this is my first car project, icant wait to see this car on the road again!
      anyway, sorry for my broken english

      Reply

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