One Black Coffee

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Let it never be said that French car engineers do not know what they’re doing. As we’ve seen, the French have been responsible for some of the most clever small cars ever made. They are also responsible for, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful man-made things, in the form of the Citroen DS, which pulled a Jenna Louise Coleman in that it was both heart-stoppingly pretty and a force for good in the world. It was so impressive (the car, that is) that its highlight on Forgotten Metal caused me to briefly become a bad imitation of Herman Melville. Now though, I’m back to the regular old me (read: a bad Ezra Dyer imitation), with yet another big Citroen. This is a 1981 Citroen CX Pallas D.

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The CX first met the public’s skeptical gaze at the Paris Salon de l’Automobile in 1974. Skeptical, of course, because of one thing and one thing only: its predecessor, the DS. It was no accident that I mentioned the DS earlier, because while enthusiasts and other assorted weirdos would have been content to let the car soldier on unchanged into eternity, it did eventually need to be replaced. This was the result. Its design drew more from its smaller contemporary, the Citroen GS, than its older brother, despite the fact that the CX’s designer, a man named Robert Opron, was actually responsible for the DS’s iconic facelift in 1967. Here’s where the story gets a little fuzzy, however. The year of the CX’s unveiling, the French government forced Citroen to merge with Peugeot. By this point, Opron was responsible for the design of some of the most iconic Citroens, like the SM, so that was very much where his allegiances were. As a result, his departure after Peugeot merged with his beloved company was as inevitable as the answer to the question “what’s cooler than being cool?” Was he fired? Did he leave of his own accord? We’ll probably never know for certain.

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So how did the CX hold up to the enduring legacy of the DS? Not bad at all, as it turned out. It was named the Car of the Year in 1975, an impressive title considering it was a relic from a different Citroen-ian era. Relic is probably the wrong word actually, because a big part of the reason that the CX so comfortably filled the shoes of its predecessor was its occasionally hairbrained commitment to innovation. The CX recycled the DS’s nifty hydropneumatic suspension, meaning it offered an unmatched pillowy ride, but there was more. DIRAVI, or direction à rappel asservi, was a power steering system. A power steering system that was constantly thinking of new and inventive ways to kill you, but a power steering system all the same. Early on in the CX’s development, Citroen was toying with the idea of getting rid of the car’s steering wheel altogether, and installing a joystick instead. The idea was scrapped, but the hydropneumatic system that connected the driver’s controls to the front wheels stuck around. Effectively, powerful hydraulic motors forced the car’s steering wheel back to dead center at all times, meaning that while the car was very stable in a straight line (and all but completely isolated from potholes, uneven surfaces, or even tire blowouts), it proved tricky when negotiating the rare driving event known as a “turn.” Seriously, how scary is this?

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The brakes in the CX were of little comfort too, as the pedal that controlled them operated more like a switch than anything with any modicum of modulation. This made stopping in the CX a very dried beef affair. That is to say, jerky. Now, all of this may seem like I’m trying to say that the CX is a bad car, but I’m not: it isn’t. It just requires a bit of recalibration. People who bought and drove CXs had to re-learn how to drive a car, but once they did, they found that Citroen had come up with one of the most extraordinary driving experiences of the 20th century. Again. They learned that the CX covered distance like no other car, that instead of being controlled it had to be trimmed and left alone, not unlike a small airplane. The dashboard not only looked like it came out of a Terry Gilliam film, but it also featured digital readouts (in 1974!) and a one-spoke steering wheel. The aerodynamics of the car helped to improve fuel economy too, which is actually where the car takes its name from- CX is the French acronym for the coefficient of air resistance.

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The engine in early CXs, like the engine in the DS, are generally considered to be the least interesting part of the car. The company toyed with the idea of a Wankel engine for awhile, even going so far as to partner with NSU for the project. But emissions and fuel economy concerns shuttered that enticing prospect before it ever saw production, leaving Citroen in a bit of a cornichon. The CX was designed to be fitted with a small rotary engine, so options were limited when it came to choosing a replacement unit. Eventually it was decided that the transverse four cylinder from the old DS would soldier on in the CX. This is a diesel car, which was not an option on the DS, displacing 2.5 liters and developing between 75 and 120 horsepower, depending on if you opted for a turbo or not. The CX was actually instrumental, alongside a number of Mercedes,’ in establishing diesels in the luxury market, and the turbodiesel was the fastest diesel car in the world for a time. 1981 saw the introduction of a new gearbox for the CX as well, with a five speed automatic developed by ZF Friedrichshafen replacing the old C-matic unit.

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The Citroen CX is John Mulaney’s Comeback Kid in car form. Is it as good as New In Town? No, but then again we never thought it would be. Just like no one ever thought the CX would live up to the DS. It couldn’t. Nothing could- but then again, that’s not the point. The CX is a car that needs to be removed from the context in which it existed, with the weighty historical significance of the DS, and the Peugeot thing, and its general weirdness. Taken on its own, Comeback Kid is a fine comedy special- especially the Bill Clinton bit- just as the CX is a very special Citroen.

Additional Thoughts:

  • The CX was unique among unibody vehicles of the time in that it featured front and rear subframes that were connected by flat rails.
  • The BBC long favored Citroens as camera cars for horse races, as the fancy suspension systems provided a smooth moving platform from which to film.
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