Why Citroen’s image is in poor taste, by Stephen Bayley: CAR+ archive, April 2008

Published: 26 November 2015

► Bayley bemons modern-day Citroen's lack of flair
► Not just in design, but in how it portrays itself as a brand
 'Latterly showmanship at Citroen looks like attention deficit disorder'

As any failed careerist knows, it is a terrible thing to have ‘promise’.

Thus the problem with Citroen and its heritage. The DS would be a sensation if it was launched today. But it was launched more than half a century ago. When Roland Barthes, the Sorbonne savant, saw the first example at the Paris Salon de l’Automobile in 1955 he was driven to his most famous line. ‘I think,’ he wrote, ‘that cars today are our cathedrals.’ That cathedral was built by Flaminio Bertoni. He was what a car designer should be: connected, wilful, artistic. Alas, Citroen has nothing like him today.

The brief for the DS was to ‘study all the possibilities, including the impossible’. It was to be ‘the world’s best, most beautiful, most comfortable and most advanced car, a masterpiece, to show the world that Citroen and France could develop the ultimate vehicle’. This brief was achieved, even exceeded, by a great automobile artist. In Bertoni’s case literally so: he regularly exhibited paintings and sculptures with de Chirico and the Surrealists, making no great distinction between his work in art and his work in industry.

Additionally, the unique oddness of the DS was systematic, organic, the expression of a belief system. The DS was the culmination of a uniquely eccentric corporate philosophy that began when, on a single night in 1934, Bertoni, using a sculptor’s tools, fashioned the bodywork for the Citroen Traction Avant in his Paris atelier. This was a bravura performance. Latterly what showmanship and oddness remains at Citroen looks like attention deficit disorder, not the madness of art. How else to explain the C6?

Face with the burdensome inheritance of past promise, today Citroen appears creatively bankrupt. Of course, the old Citroen was financially bankrupt too, since everybody had to follow Andre’s magnificently cavalier maxim that ‘from the moment an idea’s any good, it doesn’t matter what it costs’. We all know that quality is remembered long after price is forgotten. Alas, the bankers did not agree, but no-one remembers their names, although we all remember Citroen’s.

There are good Citroens in 2008, but they are Japanese. The C1 is bright, pleasant, neatly executed and a masterpiece of disciplined production engineering. Of course, it’s a Toyota. The C-Crosser is well-made, comfortable and competent (although not sufficiently exciting to require abuse of prescription tranquilisers). Of course, it’s a Mitsubishi. I explained this to my wife as we bumped up a ratted track to Hugo Blick’s windmill in West Kent. She thought for a moment and then said: ‘Do you know, I think I’d rather prefer it as a Mitsubishi.’ I thought, wow, so it’s come to this.

It’s truism of marketing that brand values endure long after the reality that created them has expired. After 50 years, it seems Citroen has spent the huge image capital created by Bertoni (and Boulanger and Lefebvre). Citroen is now, creatively speaking, sub-prime. In terms of social status, it’s even worse. Apart from French national interest, there is no real business case for the continued existence of Citroen as a manufacturing concern. If the C1 and C-Crosser can be Japanese, why not everything in between? Just buy 'em in and stick chevrons on them. Actually, why bother with that? My wife prefers them explicitly Japanese. She cannot be alone.

This predicament is made worse by one of the most brainless marketing initiatives in recent commercial history. Not the image-destructive zero percent finance schemes for the cheaper cars which have you, the owner, advertising ‘I am poor’, bad as they are. I mean Citroen’s (presumably desperate) decision to sell the more expensive C6 and C-Crosser to the elderly. Its pitch to this pastel-clad demographic is one of the most gruesomely embarrassing ever.

Stirling Moss said there are two things a man will never admit: one, being bad at sex and, two, being a bad driver. But actually, there are three. No-one wants to admit being old. Make that four. No-one wants to be poor, either.

Buy a Citroen and you risk acquiring more than one negative attribute. If image is everything, you’ll be labelled with all four. 

By Stephen Bayley

Design critic, guru, cultural watchdog, occasional annoyer of Ron Dennis