Duh-duh-duh-dum-click-click… duh-duh-duh-dum-click-click… Yes, the Cactus family is kooky. And mysteriously spooky. (Not so much of the ‘creepy’ though.) So is most of the wider Citroën family, in fact, and it’s always been this way. There aren’t many brands that enjoy such unwavering faith and devotion from their fans as this outré manufacturer of automotive weirdness; sure, they stuff the coffers with mass-appeal fare of admirable sensibleness, but their heart is always on the fringe of mainstream logic.
Ever since Andre Citroën plastered his name in lights up the Eiffel Tower in 1925, the company has been eager to shock and surprise, to encourage new and radical ways of doing things into the sensibilities of the everyday.
The Traction Avant, as its name suggests, showed everyone that front wheel-drive was actually quite a good idea. The DS proved that you could make a practical family car/executive saloon thingy that was jaw-droppingly gorgeous and looked like a spaceship. The SM had a damn Maserati engine in it, for heaven’s sake. And the 2CV? That rugged little poppet was such a brilliant idea that they ended up making it for 42 years which, as Douglas Adams will tell you, is a wholly appropriate figure for a car that answered so many questions that nobody had hitherto thought to ask. And the C3 Pluriel? Well, er… OK, so the kookiness doesn’t always pay off. But you can’t fault Citroën’s tenacity or imagination.
The Cactus, then – or C4 Cactus, to give it its proper name – is the latest in a long line of belligerently strange cars to wear the iconic twin-chevrons. And I have to admit, I really didn’t know what to expect from it. Having first had a poke around one at its debut at the Goodwood Festival of Speed last year, I was totally sold on the looks – the deliberately jarring aesthetic of the Airbumps (which, as you’ve probably deduced, are an ingenious solution to protect the doors from parking dings), the interesting combo of aggressive face and cute little bum, the glass roof, it all adds up to a smorgasbord of peculiarity that really flicks my switch.
However… I’ve always been suspicious of anything that could be described as an MPV (or a minivan/crossover/dadwagon/whatever), as they’re generally pretty uninspiring. Look at the ’98 Fiat Multipla – I loved the weirdness of the looks, but what a godawful thing to spend time in. So I approached the Cactus driving experience with a little trepidation. After all, being won over by the looks will always bite you when you find out that there’s no substance beneath.
Thankfully, my fears were all for naught. The Cactus is basically a scaled-up Fiat Panda TwinAir, photocopied at 150% and restyled by Pixar. This is a good thing. You see, Citroën have been smart with this car. They knew that quirky looks and a gimmick in the external materials and colourways wouldn’t be enough, so they did an unusual and brilliant thing: they channelled the spirit of Colin Chapman.
Yes, you read that right. The enduring legend of Lotus’s mastermind is written through the Cactus like ‘Margate’ through a stick of rock: “Simplify, then add lightness.” Pretty much all of the interior buttons and switches have been junked, with everything being controlled through one simple touchscreen. The rear windows pop out rather than winding down. You can lift the wafer-thin bonnet with one finger.
The commitment to weight-saving throughout the car borders on obsession; the basic models weigh in at comfortably under a tonne, which is amazing for something that can happily accommodate five adults and get all their clobber in the boot. This means that less engine is needed to propel the thing, so efficiency is key and mpg figures are stratospheric. I’m a profligate waster of fossil fuels, however – life’s too short to be sensible, I like to give cars a hard time. You only live once, right?
So I requested that Citroën furnish me with the brawniest Cactus they had: the full-fat 110bhp 1.2-litre three-cylinder. It’s got a petrol engine and a manual gearbox – two deal-breakers for me, generally speaking; diesel engines are for lorries, slushboxes are for my grandma – and it does weigh over a tonne. Ever so slightly. But that’s because it’s got such hedonistic trinkets as a turbo and intercooler, auto-wipers, parking sensors, DAB stereo, bass-rich speakers, a reversing camera, all sorts.
It’s stuffed to the gills with modern toys, but despite all this it still weighs less than your mum (ha, sorry – that was uncalled for, she’s a handsome woman) and it’s genuinely sprightly because of it. That three-pot motor really feels like the Panda TwinAir’s big brother, hustling the thing along rapidly with a characterful offbeat thrum. It’s not quick-quick but dammit, it’s quick enough.
So, back to the subject of the Cactus family. I felt that the most appropriate test of the chunky C4 would be to take it back to Goodwood, where I first felt the spark of passion for it a twelvemonth before, wring its neck a little on the way, and get it to introduce me to its family. And not just the flesh-and-blood Citroëns, but the full extended family, warts and all. This would be a quest for weirdness. Duh-duh-duh-dum-click-click…
Chapron ‘Le Paris’
We’ll start with a Citroën, for the sake of scene-setting. This particular DS variant is the Cactus’ eccentric uncle – the one who used to perform vaudeville skits at the Moulin Rouge, and now spends his days being fabulous in chic bars, a Pastis in one hand and a Gauloise in a long holder in the other. Henri Chapron, the mastermind behind this design, was a cross between Pinocchio and Icarus, scorning the achievements of the creator and flying too close to the sun.
He’s arguably best-known for slicing the roofs off sylph-like DSs to create elegant ‘La Croisette’ two-seater cabrios (an idea Citroën liked so much they started making their own ‘usine’ versions), but as you’ve probably spotted, ‘Le Paris’ wears a fixed roof. It’s a two-door DS coupé. Your eyes do not deceive you. This actually exists. It’s a fragile thing, though – Chapron hand-crafted just nine of these, and only three remain. Humanity should guard these as closely as the Bayeux Tapestry.
Morgan Aero 8
The shiny new 2015 Aero 8 is ‘Le Paris’s lodger, eagerly enthused and fastidiously groomed. One of those types who like to fuse olde-worlde values with cutting-edge embellishments, like reading Ulysses on an iPad. “Is the chassis made of wood?” That’s the question everyone at Morgan dreads, and they get asked it every day. It’s impressive that they never snap and say “No, you berk, that’d be madness. The chassis is made of chassis stuff. The body’s frame is made of wood, but it’s not like it’s balsa wood or anything. Honestly.”
What the new Aero 8 is, in a nutshell, is a glorious evolution. The old car was great, naturally, with its curvaceous rump and boisterous BMW V8 power, but this new one has been honed, refined, made friendlier. It’s the first car that Morgan have bothered to endurance-test at Millbrook, as they’re expecting order books to be stuffed. That wooden dash panel has deformable mounts so it won’t rearrange your eye sockets in an impact.
The suspension has been simplified. The whole car has been reworked as a true grand tourer. It’s even got a usable boot. The thing roars like an angered bear and goes like a stabbed rat, too. Factory driver Mark Reeves took me up the Goodwood hill in it, and the reaction from the crowds answered any question the naysayers may pose: every few seconds you hear someone saying “Oh, a Morgan – I like those”. You can see why ‘Le Paris’ asked it to move in.
Peugeot 404 Diesel
Peugeot’s slippery 404 Diesel Record Car is the Cactus’ crackpot cousin, who spends all of his time in the shed at the end of the garden, emerging periodically with no eyebrows, or smelling of sulphur, or tinted strangely blue. A man of science, he sees himself as a mere vessel for the truths of chemistry and physics; life is little more than Matrix-style flashing binary code in endless scrolls of green. The 404 was a reasonable seller in the 1960s in saloon, estate, coupé and convertible form, and it served as a good enough base for the company’s dalliances with mainstream diesel drivetrains.
They fancied nailing together a showpiece that could break a few records, so they ripped the guts out of a 404 cabriolet, stuffed in an oil-burning motor, crafted some gorgeously swoopy bodywork, and stumbled blinking into the Montlhéry sunlight in June ’65 with a single-seater streamliner that managed to run at an average 99mph for 72 hours. How daring! How bold!
Mad Mike’s RX-7
This is a deranged guest who attended a party at the Cactus’ house and refused to leave. It raids the fridge with gay abandon, never cleans the bathroom, and sneers at the Cactus family with frightening malice. The brainchild of ‘Mad Mike’ Whiddett, a pro-drifter who’s been doing dangerous things with petrol since he was six years old, it demonstrates the giddying heights of engineering lunacy that are possible when you’ve got the financial might of Red Bull, Mazda, Speedhunters, Etnies and Nitto behind you. He builds insane drift cars because he damn well can.
And this RX-7 effectively has two engines nailed together – its quad-rotor 26B rotary is basically two stock 13Bs mated as one and turned up to eleven. The oh-so-contemporary Rocket Bunny arches stretch endlessly over a set of custom Nessen Forged rims that wear more rubber than your mum at the office Christmas party (sorry, that ‘your mum’ thing’s happened again, it’s the angry Mazda’s fault), and it produces more smoke than the Cactus’ nephews behind the school bike sheds.
Ferrari 330 GT Vignale Shooting Brake
The Cactus’ glamorous grandmother, the Vignale 330 wagon is a true eccentric. She’s not the sort of granny that’d wipe a smudge from your face with a licked hankie or send you a card to wish you well in your Geography GCSE. She’s the kind of granny who spends all day smashed on port, giggling with camp uncle ‘Le Paris’ about the good old days. She was in his vaudeville revue too.
This outlandish design was commissioned by US Ferrari importer Luigi Chinetti Jr., more for the sake of it than anything else. He asked Vignale to build him a shooting brake; it turned out to be the last car that Vignale ever designed, and it’s a meisterwerk of spangly dodgem-paint green-and-gold, muscle car grilles and, er, sodding great B-pillars. Postmodern weirdness at its creepy-kooky finest.
The Cactus’ step-sister is an angry little misfit. Never feeling like a true part of the family, she rebels at any and every opportunity; her bedroom door has a massive padlock on it, she wears too much eyeliner, she calls parents by their first names, she listens to Mudhoney at antisocial volume. This Skyline, built by a Polish drift team, is barely a Skyline at all.
The body is largely lightweight composite, with the entire rear end being a twenty-minute job to unbolt and replace (hey, drifting involves hitting walls a lot if you’re committed enough), and that’s not a Nissan engine under there. It’s a turbocharged Toyota straight-six, throwing over 1,000bhp through the terrified rear tyres. It, like the RX-7, creates a lot of smoke. But the step-sister hates the house guest, so they never play together.
The Cactus has a pair of older brothers. Distinguished, educated fellows, they clearly share the same DNA as the Cactus – the offbeat engine choice, the unique styling quirks – but, unlike the sprightly youthfulness of their Citroën sibling, they’re fiercely aware of their age. And with the advancement of age comes the deterioration of both looks and substance.
So they’ve had what the Kardashians would call ‘a little work done’. Singer Porsches need little introduction. Take a 911, optimise every single element of the car, from sills to screws, cylinder heads to seatbelts, and make everything the best that it can possibly be. Then sell it to the customer who commissioned the upmarket spec for a vast six-figure sum. This is restomodding personified. Exquisite, no?
A smartarse like the Cactus could only have a dad like the Evanta Barchetta. It’s a proper know-it-all; old-school pedigree with a modern outlook, always wagging a finger at the Cactus and encouraging him to straighten up and pay attention at school. The work of Ant Anstead (y’know, that charming guy from For The Love Of Cars) and his super-talented cronies, the Barchetta takes the swooping style of the 1950s and stuffs it full of modern Chevrolet V8.
The 6.2-litre motor offers enough horsepower to ensure that the driver’s monocle is never properly in place, although the diamond-quilted leather gives the eyepiece plenty of safe places to land. And all the while it’s keeping an eye on the Cactus, waiting for it to catch up like a loving father on a bike ride with an unconfident son who’s just getting to grips with the stabilisers.
VW XL Sport
The Cactus has an auntie. She’s kinda boisterous, and she’s experiencing something of a mid-life crisis. For a while, she was militantly forthright about her eco-credentials, preaching to everyone who’d listen about how our fossil fuel resources are finite and dwindling, and we should all jolly well behave ourselves. She strutted around as the streamlined VW XL1, fluttering her butterfly doors and throwing otherworldly mpg figures around. “313? Sure, why not?”
But then the crisis hit, she bought a leather jacket and a Britney CD, and re-emerged as the XL Sport. There’s a 197bhp Ducati V-twin in there, for goodness’ sake, and magnesium wheels and oodles of carbon-fibre. She’s never far from the punchbowl at family get-togethers.
The Cactus’ mum is a glamorous thing. Fabulous, gorgeous, and not at all shy. She totes more jewellery than a Hatton Garden strongbox, she’s always exquisitely dressed, she keeps herself very toned thanks to an army of personal trainers. Divine DS is a design study, naturally, with Swarovski crystals in the headlights, a roof made of diamonds, and interior trimmings that look like an Elizabethan wedding dress.
Where the Cactus is restrained and pared-back, his mother is flamboyant and ostentatious. When he’s lurking in the corner at a family wedding, she drags him onto the dancefloor and throws shapes around him. He pretends to feel awkward, but he loves that she tries. Picture the two of them side by side, sharing adoring glances. Aww.
The Cactus is a wonderful car, thanks to – and, in some cases, in spite of – this disparate cast of characters. Indeed, that word, ‘character’, is key to its appeal: in a sector of increasingly homogenised and utilitarian lumps, the fact that Citroën have bothered to make their contender a) interesting, b) innovative, and most of all c) fun, is really rather heartwarming.
Crossovers sell themselves, really, so you don’t have to make them interesting. They just have to tick the right boxes and not be too pricey. The Cactus is excellent when it doesn’t even need to be, and that makes it all the better. You really should try one.