28th July 2022

The story of Citroen CX

Replacing an icon is hard enough at the best of times. When that icon is the legendary Citroen DS, the task must seem almost insurmountable. But when time came to replace the ground-breaking but ageing four-wheeled magic carpet, Citroen’s response was to double-down on the quirk. And for inspiration, they looked to the skies. 

Developed while Concorde was tearing up the clouds on test flights, the Citroen CX pioneered many innovative aerodynamic design features. Even the name is derived from Cx, the continental symbol for coefficient of drag. Robert Opron penned a sleek design that extensive wind-tunnel testing optimised into a shape with a drag coefficient of just 0.29 – an impressive figure even by today’s standards. To achieve that, the rear wheels were covered to help manage the air flow around this traditionally turbulent area, while the rear window was concave in a move that swept it clear of rainwater without the need for a wiper. Even the hub caps were aero-optimised, while underbody ducts channelled air over the brakes to keep them cool. 

The interior wasn’t conventional, either. Traditional dials weren’t considered ‘Citroen’ enough, so a futuristic-looking instrument pod became home to a speedometer depicted by a rotating drum, while steering column-mounted stalks were ditched in favour of buttons on protruding pods that could be reached without taking one’s hands off the single-spoke steering wheel. That meant that the indicators didn’t self-cancel which, Citroen reasoned, should only occur as a conscious decision of the driver. 

That principle seems slightly at odds with another new feature introduced by the CX, that of self-centring steering, added to the speed-sensitive set-up borrowed from the Citroen SM. Also familiar was the hydro-pneumatic self-levelling suspension, made famous by the DS and French President Charles de Gaulle’s brush with an assassination attempt. 

The truth is, Citroen had intended the CX to be even quirkier than it was when it launched in 1974. Originally, the CX was to be powered by a rotary engine developed in a joint venture with the equally troubled NSU. Unluckily for them, the 1973 oil crisis drew attention to the Wankel unit’s poor fuel economy and, despite a last-minute attempt to develop a rotary-powered helicopter (no, really), the Comotor collaboration brought both companies to their financial knees. 

Peugeot rescued Citroen from bankruptcy in a deal brokered by the French government and the CX, hamstrung by a small engine bay originally intended for the compact rotary, made its debut with a carry-over four-cylinder unit from its predecessor, the DS. That didn’t stop it being declared Car of the Year in 1975, though, and over the next 17 years Citroen gradually rubbed the more idiosyncratic edges off it, with an impressive turn of speed in the CX25 GTi Turbo of 1984, followed by a more conventional interior with real instruments the year after. 

By the time production finally stopped in 1991, more than 1.1 million had been built. The XM that followed it was hardly ordinary, but for some, the CX was the last true Citroen, and the last designed entirely in-house. 

Everybody loves a weird Citroen, right? Tell us about yours in the comments below.