Axon’s Automotive Anorak: Citroën, the interior innovators
By the time you read this, a throng of the world’s motoring media will have poked and prodded most of the all-new cars and concepts unveiled at this week’s Geneva Motor Show.
As you can read elsewhere here on GRR , the Swiss Salon is hosting important debuts this week from car marques as diverse and Aston Martin, Škoda, Peugeot and Pininfarina.
One of the smaller stars vying for attention in Geneva is Citroën’s diminutive Ami One prototype, a cute and cosy two-seater electric concept, playfully described by the French centennial as a ‘disruptive all-electric object.’
As well as reviving a successful and much-loved Citroën model name, first encountered in 1961 – Ami – this boxy box concept’s close-coupled interior also resurrects a functional but less-favoured instrument ‘pod’ to control key vehicle functions such as the indicators, windscreen wipers and lights.
Any self-confessed Citroën-freak, such as myself, must have applauded the marque’s advanced use of clever ergonomics in the 1970s, when the marque dispensed with traditional, spindly column stalks to operate the wipers, lights and so on, and replacing them with fingertip-controlled rocker switches, mounted on ‘satellites’ positioned next to the single-spoke steering wheel.
Citroën’s iconic single-spoke steering wheel itself first saw action in the startlingly futuristic DS in 1956; a key benefit of the single shaft wheel, enabling the driver to see more of the car’s instrumentation for more of the time. This distinctive Citroën wheel became a signature of the brand for decades to come, the arrival of the airbag finally consigning it to the history files.
Another Citroën ergonomic driver aid appeared in 1970 with the launch of the game-changing GS family saloon, the LHD Continental markets enjoying a revolving drum speedometer, mounted under magnified glass (us Brits being short-changed with conventional round instruments, dials and pointers). This feature also made it into the later CX of 1974, with the imposing Maserati-powered SM’s instrumentation adding innovative warning lamps, and even a braking distance indicator, allied to the speed the driver was travelling at.
The Citroën DS, GS, SM, 2CV and other models retained conventional column stalks, but the CX of 1974 gave the first taste of things to come with its indicators, lights and so on, activated by simple ‘click-clack’ switches at the ends of the gently curved dome-shaped dash binnacle.
The Visa of 1978 advanced Citroën’s driver controls a further leap forward, this small five-door hatch being the world’s first car to use an innovative single pod to activate most of the key controls (lights, turn signals, wipers, etc.), with a simple slider on the opposite side of the steering wheel regulating the interior heat and air flow. It looked and sounds complicated, but once tried, the pod controls quickly became second nature; the Visa driver not having to move his or her hands from the wheel to use a function.
The revised GS of 1979 gained a fifth hatchback door, plus totally new instrumentation, to become the GSA; the model’s twin satellite pods controlling each of the car’s main functions, with buttons colour-coded to help signify their purpose.
The Citroën BX of 1983 refined the ergonomically-sound concept further still, with some range-topping models also benefitting from futuristic and easy-to-read digital instrumentation; now quite commonplace today. Incidentally, the BX was also the last ‘true’ Citroën model to feature non-cancelling indicators as standard, an idea that sounds crazy, but worked well in reality and made for safer and more considerate driving.
Far-sighted and gifted Italian car stylist Giorgetto Giugiaro took a leaf out of Citroën’s clever one-touch instrument design system by trialing this system on a number of his Ital Design concept cars. Significantly, he retained this fingertip controls and toggle switches on some of his most acclaimed and successful production designs, including the Fiat Uno in its original, pure 1983 form, plus the beautiful Isuzu Piazza (Impulse in the USA) coupe.
His 1972 Ital Design Maserati Boomerang concept did away with column stalks and fingertip controls altogether by clustering the buttons for lights, wipers and what have you within the steering wheel, which looked very cool but proved to be an ergonomic nightmare. Engineering-lead Subaru briefly dabbled with satellite pod controls as well, its weird late-1980s XT coupe using them to good effect (combined with one of the strangest steering wheels to ever make production).
So, does the Citroën Ami One concept’s straight forward instrumentation promise an ergonomic return to form and the revival of its simple but effective satellite pod controls? I certainly hope so, but suspect in reality that it’s just a clever gimmick to get people writing and talking about the car, just as I’ve done here in 750 words!