It was de­signed here in Bri­tain for UK con­sump­tion only – yet the 2CV-based Bi­jou bombed with Brit buy­ers

Classic Car Weekly (UK) - - News -

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.

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