CITROËN BIJOU FORGOTTEN HERO
It was designed here in Britain for UK consumption only – yet the 2CV-based Bijou bombed with Brit buyers
Why the French manufacturer's UK division got it wrong with this 2CV-based offering.
Given how popular the Citroën 2CV once was in the UK, it’s easy to forget that there was a time when it wasn’t thought of as being a charming throwback. Scroll back to the late 1950s and the cheapest four-seater car produced in France was considered by some British buyers to be an ugly duckling, the rustic looks masking its practical virtues. Citroën’s UK subsidiary, which had hitherto assembled the
Deux Chevaux in Slough (among other models), responded with the Bijou, a uniquely British take on the theme for these shores only. This new, more sophisticated-looking variant would take the fight to rivals such as the new Austin Mini Se7en, but its maker intended it to be a more aspirational product. Citroën was thinking big by thinking small.
It was way off. The Bijou tanked. It sold in tiny numbers, the irony being that its status as a sales dud has more recently rendered it highly sought after among marque types. And with good reason as there is a lot to love with this intriguing curio, not least its nicely-proportioned styling which was, brace yourself, the work of an accountant. Yes, really.
Unveiled to the public at the 1959 Earls Court Motor Show, this brave new world bore little resemblance to the car that sired it, save for the wheels and chevron logo. The Bijou was conceived and created without any support or assistance from Citroën in France, the philosophy behind the car being explained in period by Automobile Engineer. ‘Rather than compete with well-established, massproduced family cars, it was decided to produce a vehicle to appeal to a narrower but more discriminating market’, it stated. ‘In particular, there was thought to be a market for a small, high-quality, long-lasting vehicle as a second car in families already owning a larger one. Used for shopping and local motoring, such a vehicle would not need full family accommodation or high power.
‘It should require only a minimum of maintenance and attention and be capable of resisting deterioration without the protection of a second garage. In both these aspects, the air-cooled engine and simple chassis design are advantages. The problem of outdoor storage could be met by the use of a non-rusting, non-corrodible body.’
The basis was an unmodified platform-style 2CV chassis, the new, all-enveloping body being moulded from glassfibre and mounted via four bolt-on outriggers. The attractive outline was the work of Peter Kirwan-Taylor. This remarkable man was, at various times, a soldier and a champion skier. He was also a gifted artist who dovetailed life in global finance with shaping cars after acquiring a Lotus VI and replacing its rudimentary, cycle-winged body with a more adventurous-looking one of his own.
This attracted the attention of Lotus talisman Colin Chapman, the upshot being that KirwanTaylor was roped into styling the exquisite Lotus Elite which emerged in late 1957. This, allegedly the first-ever car to feature a glassfibre monocoque, was so warmly received that he found his talents in demand and subsequently penned a one-off Frazer Nash and the Bijou in rapid succession.
The bodyshell consisted of 11 separate mouldings, with the manufacturing contract being awarded to Middlesex firm, James Whitson & Co. This coachbuilding concern had experience of newfangled wonder material GRP, having made bodies for Peerless among others. It geared up to make ‘shells at a rate of 1000 a week, this figure proving nothing if not optimistic.
Matters got off to a bad start after a pre-Earls Court Motor Show press launch was hastily convened in Slough before the prototype was fully finished. It didn’t help that the rear window fell out after a journalist slammed the door.
Following its big reveal, the press wasn’t particularly kind to the Bijou during the first run of test reports. The lack of performance was an issue, the more aerodynamic body (0.37cd compared to a regular 2CV’s barn door-like 0.53cd) meaning it had a slightly higher top speed and lower cruising economy, but it weighed 1.5cwt more than the regular car so it was even slower off the mark. The 425cc flat-twin struggled mightily, with The
Motor describing the Bijou as being ‘embarrassingly low-powered’, before going to on to add that it ‘was difficult to avoid obstructing the normal brisk flow of rush-hour traffic’.
Maximum speed was recorded at just 44.7mph, with 0-40mph coming at a glacial 41.7sec. Not even a fine 49.5mpg fuel consumption figure could placate the magazine. It concluded that the Bijou was ‘an interesting venture’ and ‘unlikely to kindle the kind of enthusiasm bordering on fanaticism with which other Citroën models inspire many owners.’
The Autocar praised its ‘admirable hammock-type seats’ and the Bijou’s visibility and ride quality, but also noted the car’s lack of performance.
‘Hills have a considerable influence on the car’s performance. When climbing a main road gradient speed it reduced rapidly and, if the hill is sufficiently steep to require second gear, the car may climb at about 20-25mph only. Once in its stride, the Bijou
will cruise on the level in top gear at 40-45mph reasonably quietly, and in effortless fashion’, it reported. And there was more to come.
‘As the Bijou is underpowered compared with the majority of small cars, the tendency is to use a fully open throttle most of the time. Driven in this way there is some resonance in the body which is an integral part of the platform chassis.’
So it was slow, but at least it was cheap, right? Not even close, as the ‘aspirational’ image existed only in its maker’s mind.
It cost £695 in 1961, at a time when a Morris Minor in Deluxe trim was £619, while a Mini weighed in at £495 in basic form. Such high pricing for a car that fell well short of the capabilities of these two homegrown favourites meant it was always going to be a loser. Add in quality control issues, with CF Taylor Plastics of Crawley taking over manufacture of the bodyshells after the first 100 or so cars had been made, and the writing was on the wall for the idiosyncratic Citroën. Nevertheless, it took an age for the powers-that-be to read it. Remarkably, the Bijou remained on sale as late as 1964, not that anyone really noticed. By the time the axe finally fell, just 211 cars (some sources claim 213) had been constructed. The amount of handfinishing required with the build process of each car, not to mention the stop-start manufacturing process, ensured that the Bijou didn’t even come close to returning a profit.
Had the car been fitted with the larger 602c 2CV engine, you could hypothesise that the Bijou might have enjoyed more success. But it wasn’t. Few wanted it then, but considerably more want it now.
‘It didn’t help that the rear window fell out after a journalist slammed the door’
The first prototype Bijou takes its bow at the 1959 Earls Court Motor Show, rear window intact. Basis for the car was an unmodified 2CV chassis, complete with 425cc air-cooled ‘twin’.
Attractive glassfibre body effectively disguised the car’s 2CV origins, but the performance from the twocylinder engine definitely didn’t.