Citroen Visa 17RD/ C15

You stop mid-stride, feet slamming down on the pavement. Your hand is buried in one pocket, rummaging around in the way your school teachers told you not to. Not there. Other hand, other pocket. Panicking, you try your back pockets, heart-rate beating faster as you realise these are the trousers without back pockets. You breathe in.

Don't worry, it'll be in the jacket pocket. Left side, nope, right side, come on, come on, it's got to be here somewhere. Tension mounts. You check your trousers again. You're patting yourself over like a bad mime or a cheap date. You remember picking it up, don't you. Don't you? And just as your chest tightens and you're about to utter a particularly vehement profanity, you feel it. Inside jacket pocket. You mutter a thank you to the sky, shake your head, and walk on.

It seems that the smaller the object, the more important it is, which certainly applies to house keys and mobile phones. And one need only look at the two-dimensional bank card you slipped into your pocket to understand the name of this car. All angles, large quantities of plastic and a feeling you could lose it down the back of the sofa, it's the Citroen Visa.

Poor Citroen. There was a time when they represented all that was good about French motoring. A sense of innovation that was eccentric without being incomprehensible, a sense of accessible flair, and a smattering of deliriousness. Any writer who says "a certain je ne sais quoi" deserves to be shot, as with Citroen you know exactly what it was. It was madness.

Unfortunately in the Seventies, madness didn't get cars sold, and the company found itself being bought out by Peugeot, who came to the sensible, albeit dull, conclusion that Citroen really out to start making cars instead of fantasies for a bit. They tried to push Citroen's management into doing so, and I'd like to imagine Peugeot's management walking into the boardroom at this proposal to be met with scoffs, blank looks and at least one heart attack, interrupted by an engineer running in screaming "Mon Dieu, I 'ave eet! Let's build a car shaped like a doughnut, and powered by sardines!"

This silliness couldn't be allowed to continue, and the Peugeot management kindly yet firmly led the Citroen team into some padded cells to calm down while they looked at what was available. At the time of the takeover, one of the only feasible projects Citroen had on paper was called Prototype Y, a draft of a supermini based on the Fiat 127. Considering Fiat had sold their 49% in Citroen a few years before, and had failed to answer its phone calls ever since, Peugeot shelved that project in favour of their own slightly more sober Project VD. Rather than being a plan to embarrass Citroen with some questionable diseases, Project Voiture Diminuee was a similar supermini based on Peugeot's successful 104, which had been released in 1972, prior to the takeover.

Project VD, like all concepts, took a number of years from concept to production, and in the meantime Peugeot hurriedly launched a 104 clone called the Citroen LN. This was a stop-gap car to get the ageing withered Citroen Ami out of the dealerships, and the customers in, but due to the swift conclusion of Project VD in 1978, Citroen found itself with two superminis on its hands; the now-upgraded LNA , and the new Citroen Visa. Add to that the parent 104, and PSA (as the combined Peugeot Citroen entity is known) had three exceedingly similar cars in their stable.

Line them up side by side and Citroen's real influence on the Visa is undeniable. Unlike the knock-off LNA, the Visa had some of that oddness quintessential to the brand, and this was visible from the porcine plastic snout to the coquettish lift of the rear wheel arch. Sitting inside was an equally warped experience. The dash gauges looked like two cheap travel clocks glued to the steering column, and where the indicator and headlight stalks should protrude was instead something called a "satellite"; a coffee-cup shaped device that housed all the switches and stalks needed to control the ancillaries for Rain, Road and Night, or PRN as the French acronym went. With one twist, you got washers, wipers, headlights, indicators and horn, showing the fantastic amount of thought Citroen put into their designs. They cared so much about your driving experience, they even tried to make turning on the headlights interesting.

For the 1982 facelift, the outside was dulled somewhat but to compensate, an enormous range of engines was opened up. The Visa was already available with thrifty 650, 1100 and 1300cc engines, but a 1.6 GTI version was now also up for grabs. Called the Chronos, it snorted out 135hp and was capable of pushing terrifying 192km/h on those little 3-bolt wheels. Our prettily chrome-nosed edition is something far more practical, being as it is the diesel edition, and not just that but the RD which featured pretty much every optional extra you could get on a Visa, including a rear wiper.
Like any sane man, I'm not normally excited over diesels, and the general public weren't either. A tiny tiny hatchback with five doors and a diesel engine? What on earth? You must be some sort of Romanian goatherd, desperate to get his wife, kids and flock to the market on less than a litre of fuel to demand that sort of frugality.

How contrived. How impolitic. How financially sound. Citroen (with Peugeot breathing down its neck) jumped on the chance and set up Oltcit, a Romanian brand producing cheap versions of the little Visa for the local market. But how to make the Visa even cheaper, for the Eastern Europeans? Papers were shuffled, accountants were called in, and Prototype Y was resurrected from the discard pile. Still bearing its prototype design, the Oltcit was stuffed full of unwanted parts from other manufacturers, branded, and sold to the poorest of Ceausesu's citizens.

And yet the whimsy of Citroen just couldn't let go. Knowing that they had unleashed a possibly normal (if low-quality) car on the world couldn't be forgiven, and within two years the Oltcit had two chevrons stuck on its nose, and was brought to the West as the Citroen Axel. If they couldn't make the car mad, Citroen figured, they'd make the business side of things insane.

Therefore, in 1984, the PSA group found itself selling four superminis under two brands based on three designs using two families of parts, with the end result that all four cars looked really very similar. And even worse, PSA bought out Chrysler, released a Talbot supermini called the Samba, again based on the 104. This was madness to the extreme, and the Citroen management must have been cackling in Gallic glee.

The only success that can possibly be attributed to this sprawling family was the van derivative. Considering the myriad names on offer, something had to be done to bring the unruly clan to order and, when launched, the van was called simply C15. Launched only a year after our diesel Visa, with the same "lively 1769cc engine" as the sales talk goes, the C15 went on to phenomenal van success, having a twenty-year production run of nearly 1.2million units in all. All of the outre interior was gone, the rear wiper abandoned and even the chrome trim discarded, but the plastic wheel arches that belie true dieselness were kept; one of the few style touches our Viva and C15 share.

Added up, there were nearly twice as many derivatives produced than there were genuine Peugeot 104s, yet of those the most populous was the Citroen Visa. For such a quirky little car, very few of them remain, so to see such a top-flight model (albeit a diesel) maintained with such care shows what Citroen really gave us. The smallest things really are the most important.