In 1925, André Citroën rented a fairly hefty piece of advertising space in central Paris: the side of the Eiffel Tower. He had it emblazoned from top to bottom with the company name in glorious shimmering light bulbs – never one to do things by halves, he saw to it that it was the world’s largest billboard, with 250,000 bulbs and 600 kilometres of electric cable.
It was so bright that Charles Lindbergh used it to get his bearings as he flew into Paris, and the sign proved so popular that Citroën kept paying the power bills until 1934… when, er, the company went bankrupt.
The two things may or may not have been related. But then the firm was saved by Michelin, at the insistence of the French government, with Pierre Michelin taking André Citroën’s place as Chairman. So that was alright then.
The Citroën motor company has a rich and varied history of peculiar behaviour, that’s very much in keeping with the ostentatious bonkersness that would lead a boss-man to write his name all over a colossal tourist landmark for the best part of a decade. This hardly needs reiterating here.
The spaceship-like DS rewrote the rules of how saloon cars should behave, with its madcap hydropneumatic suspension, sylph-like curves, fibreglass roof, and mile-deep seat foam. The brutally utilitarian 2CV proved to be such an engaging concept that it remained in production from 1948-90, for goodness’ sake, with 8.8 million of the damn things being built. (They make surprisingly good race cars too, y’know.)
The H-van is very much the stalwart of hip modern London street catering. And of course the Traction Avant gave us three key things that we’ve been lovingly clinging to since 1934; unitary body construction, all-wheel independent suspension, and front-wheel drive.
There have been countless other off-the-wall and peculiar ideas to fly out of the factory and into the annals of history: the Maserati-engined SM, the GS Birotor (complete with surprise Wankel trickery), the connoisseur-hooligan mashup of the Visa GTi, the unlikely Group B nincompoop BX 4TC… need we go on?
Oh, we need? OK, there’s the concave-windowed CX along with its spiritual successor, the C6. There’s the Xantia Activa, which looks sensible but has active anti-roll bars that sort of allow it to drift, if you push it hard enough. There’s the amphetamines-in-the-watercooler C3 Pluriel, which was about six different cars at once. And how about the sublime new Cactus? That has oversized bubble wrap glued to the doors.
In short, Citroën make weird cars. And that’s a very good thing.
Of course, with such a wilfully befuddling precedent set, it’s easy for marque fans to be uninspired by the likes of the new C4. Disappointed, even. Where’s the madness, the tomfoolery, the brightly-coloured jester’s hat? Sure, the company coffers need to be stuffed with affordable everyday fare in order to allow such imaginative acrobatics elsewhere in the range, but still – couldn’t the C4 be a bit more, well, odd?
Aha, but fear not. There is, in fact, plenty that’s weird about the C4. It’s every inch a bona fide Citroën in the truest sense of the idea, and here’s why…
Well, it does if you tick the ‘PureTech 110’ option box, as that’ll see a three-cylinder motor wedged into the engine bay. The power this produces won’t exactly set your hair on fire (try 0-62mph in a smidge under eleven seconds, leaving you ample time to peruse your immediate surroundings as you wait for the needle to wind its way around the dial), but try asking someone whose hair actually is on fire how they feel about the situation.
You’ll probably find that they’re somewhat vexed. And it’s not how big it is, as the old saying goes, but what you do with it – this wacky little motor is hungry for rasping, pop-pop-popping revs, and this also gives you an excuse to gawp at the rev counter too, which is fun because…
Phew! Phwaor! Crikey! The needles only move around the edges of the dials, with the centres being used to digitally display OTHER THINGS. This is all very cool. Sure, we’re spoiled in 2016 when every car seems to have some manner of nutso digital display, but for those of us who were raised on open-mouthed leering at the digi-dash in the MkII Astra GTE, this is fearsome stuff indeed.
And what gives the C4 the edge in this apparently oversaturated design area? Ooh, there are buttons to change the colours of the dial illumination. Two separate buttons, no less, so if you want purple outers with red inners or whatever, you have but to fiddle.
Obviously this is untrue. Escher died in 1972. But if you have particularly stupid friends, you could perhaps convince them of this “fact”. Look inside the headlights, the evidence is all there in plain sight: two separate cuboid rings with copious parallel lines curving and arching – this is surely the product of a deranged and brilliant artist, no?
And just look at the taillights – there’s at least four different textures in there. It’s like that episode of The Simpsons where Homer eats the Guatemalan Insanity Peppers and has a befuddling hallucination. Anything’s possible.
Woah. Wait. What?
That’s right, your eyes do not deceive you. The front double-chevron badge IS ALSO THE GRILLE. At the same time. What manner of fresh mindfunkery is this?
…oh wait, no, that was only in the first-generation C4. They stopped doing that with the MkII. That’s a shame.
France is, as we know, the global capital of style. Of course Citroën would fit puddle lights into the bottom of the wing mirrors – how else would a spiffy gadabout be expected to check on the brilliance of his shoeshine before climbing into his hatchback at night? This kind of feature is ESSENTIAL.
I mean, strewth. Look at it! There’s no need for it to be that shape, and that’s exactly why it is that shape. This is what Citroën has always done best – stirring in weird and unexpected ingredients into the automotive recipe that make you pause for a moment and say “Hang on, this tastes a bit funny. Why have they done that? Also, why am I licking the handbrake when there’s a tin of powdery travel sweets in the glovebox?”
But we’ll have to derail that train of thought, I’m afraid, as your nonsensical perception of metaphor is frankly all over the place.
OK, so the C4 isn’t the zaniest car that Citroën has ever nailed together. Very far from it, in fact. But despite what you might think at first glance, it’s plenty weird enough. And if you comb through the options list, you’ll find that you can spec your shiny new C4 with a kayak carrier for £220. Oh, Citroën – you’re mad, you are.