The Dictator, His Wife, and the Disastrous Saga of the Last “Real” Citroën
By Andy Bannister
Citroën is often said to be the “quirkiest” of the major European carmakers, but to many enthusiasts of the marque the company has never been the same since it was taken over by its conservative arch-rival, Peugeot, in the mid 1970s.
Peugeot soon imposed a kind of order on Citroën’s often-chaotic engineering programme, and platform and component-sharing quickly followed. One model, under development before the merger, however, managed to escape this straitjacket and emerged years later thanks to a peculiar arrangement with one of Eastern Europe’s worst tyrants.
Known as the Oltcit in its Romanian homeland and as the Citroën Axel in those western export markets unlucky enough to experience it, this car – arguably the last “real” Citroën – was sadly a milestone for all the wrong reasons.
The French company responsible for the glorious DS, the advanced GS and timewarp cars like the 2CV was living on borrowed time by the start of the 1970s, not helped by a disastrous tie-up with Italy’s Maserati. In its last independent years it began the development of a model called Project Y, a thoroughly modern small car with typical Citroën features, intended to replace the company’s ageing 2CV-derived Ami.
When Citroën fell under the Peugeot sway, it was quickly recognised that the Y had no future in France, and an emergency programme was started to give Citroën a range of new hatchbacks based on the existing Peugeot 104. This was a sensible but rather dull model which competed, with no more than average success, against the Renault 5 and Fiat 127.
Far across Europe, however, things were stirring behind the Iron Curtain, in the Eastern Bloc country of Romania. Its maverick dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, was determined to build an industrial base, in defiance of his Soviet allies who saw Romania’s role as a supplier of raw materials and foodstuffs to the COMECON trading bloc.
Productionising the last independent Citroën design in Romania, with Peugeot’s assistance, looked like a winner for the French firm. It scented the prospect of opening up new markets with this orphan model, which would otherwise have been discarded. For the Ceausescu regime, the deal gave access to what they craved most of all – western technology
Ceausescu’s grip on Romania was total and as the years went on a grotesque personality cult had developed around this seemingly unremarkable man. State propaganda portrayed him as the “Genius of the Carpathians” and his dictatorship was officially the “Epoch of Light” – an ironic comment when ordinary people in the country queued endlessly for food, shivered in the winter for lack of fuel and had every aspect of their lives scrutinised by his secret police.
Equally unpleasant was Ceausescu’s wife, Elena, a humourless and uneducated woman whose delusion that she was a great scientist of world renown was taken to ridiculous lengths, with the country’s best chemists ghost-writing learned books in her name.
“Comrade, Doctor, Academician” Elena Ceasescu and her husband Nicolae came from the Oltenia region in the south of Romania. When the ruling couple were casting round for sites for their miraculous new car factory, they naturally focused their attention on this home patch.
The venture there, based in the town of Craiova, was christened Oltcit, and a special badge was developed for the new marque, with a single Citroën chevron encircled by an O.
By that time Romania already had its own motor industry in the shape of Dacia, which made an inferior version of the Renault 12 under licence, and ARO, a manufacturer of four-wheel-drive vehicles. The Olcit, however, marked the first time the Balkan state had attempted to manufacture a passenger car of unique design.
Stylistically the car was pure Citroën, and featured a modern full-length hatchback and quite a shapely body for its day, with a streamlined nose and low drag coefficient. Unfortunately, the endless bureaucracy associated with the regime meant it took years longer than it should have to enter production, by which time the competition had caught up and in many cases overtaken it.
Under the terms of the joint venture, Peugeot-Citroën undertook to supply the know-how and certain components, and agreed to take just under half of the production for export to sell through Citroën’s own dealer network in Western Europe. Ceausescu insisted that 40% of all components be sourced in Romania, since he was obsessed with making his country as self-sufficient as possible.
Unfortunately, Romanian factories at the time were hardly watchwords for quality, and the Oltcit design ended up being seriously compromised by sub-standard parts and shoddy build, courtesy of a resentful workforce. The cars often deteriorated before even leaving the showroom, and quickly became a liability for Citroën dealers in France and neighbouring countries.
The base model Oltcit had a tiny 652cc air-cooled engine developed from the unit fitted to the eternal 2CV, whilst more powerful versions – those exported to the west – featured the GS engine in both 1129cc and 1299cc capacities. Other components including the car’s suspension were also old-school Citroën, owing nothing to Peugeot’s influence
By the time the Citroën Axel was launched in France in 1983, it joined a glut of cheap, small French-built hatchbacks already in the Peugeot group stable. These included the Peugeot 104, Citroën’s own LNA and Visa, plus the related Talbot Samba. This meant the Axel had to be priced to undercut its western stablemates.
Despite being much more high-tech it therefore ended up competing only with fellow Soviet Bloc products like Russia’s Lada, Poland’s FSO, the Zastava from Yugoslavia and the Czech Skoda – all of which had primitive designs years older that the Oltcit.
In those very early days, before reliability and build quality issues became quite so evident, the model did seem a half-tempting prospect. Looking a little like a three-door derivative of Citroën’s relatively well-received Visa model, it had a sporty top-of-the range version, the Axel 12TRS, which featured alloy wheels and a fashionable two-tone look with lower body cladding.
Inside there was Citroën interior design at its eccentric best, featuring a single-spoke steering wheel and the company’s distinctive satellite controls in place of column stalks.
A commercial vehicle version with no rear seats, the Axel Entreprise, was also offered and would have made sense as a rugged, low-cost utility workhorse, if only it had been more dependable.
In reality, the car became more and more difficult to sell at any price. Perhaps mercifully, as far as the French were concerned, the Romanian factory never cranked up to anywhere near its theoretical capacity, so Axel exports were always relatively small, and they fizzled out altogether by 1988. This meant the car was only a minor disaster rather than the total liability it could have been for Citroën if it had been forced to offload ten of thousands of the unfortunate model.
Oltcit-badged versions continued to sell in Romania and other COMECON countries, plus South America – where it developed quite a following – but by the end of the 1980s the Ceausescu regime itself was doomed. The tyrant and his wife were spectacularly deposed and executed on Christmas Day 1989, to the sound of universal rejoicing from the Romanian people.
Oltcit itself limped on, developing a prototype five-door and even a convertible, neither of which saw production. The company changed its name to Oltena and later Rodae – when the factory at Craiova was bought in an expansionist spurt by Daewoo of South Korea – and the model lingered until as late as 1996, with a strange little pick-up version being offered towards the end of its life.
More recently, the former Oltcit plant has made various old Daewoo models, but in 2007 it was snapped up by Ford, seeking extra production capacity and taking advantage one of Europe’s less expensive labour markets.
One of the odder stories about the Oltcit is that Chrysler – which had sold its own European operations to Peugeot – seriously looked at importing the car into America in the mid 1980s. If that is true and such a thing had come to pass it is hard to imagine it would have been a success except in rivalling the ill-fated Yugo in popular folk memory.
Ironically, under capitalism, Ceausescu’s dream of mass car exports from Romania have finally come true. Renault-owned Dacia’s budget models are already a huge hit, and Ford Transit Connects from the Craiova plant are set to be driving the streets of North America quite soon now.
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