Wednesday September 5, 2018
There is one particular detail of the early Visa that remains in the minds of all who encountered them back in in 1978. It is not merely the styling or the choice of air or water-cooled engines but the fact that there appeared to be pods mounted beside the steering wheel. Citroën referred to these devices as ‘satellites’, and forty years ago it was obvious that the Visa was to be a small hatchback with a decidedly individualistic streak.
The origins of the Visa date from the early 1970s when Citroën collaborated with Fiat to create a replacement for the Ami, one that was code-named Prototype Y. The Peugeot take-over resulted in the project’s cancellation (although it was subsequently built in Romania as the “Oltcit Club”) and a new Project VD (“Voiture Diminué”) would use the 104’s floorpan.
While the Visa was under development, the LN of 1976 provided a stop-gap measure. A combination of the Peugeot 104Z’s three-door body and the famous ‘flat twin’ engine did not please all Citroën enthusiasts, but it did mean that dealers could offer an alternative to the Renault 5.
The Visa was launched at the 1978 Paris Salon, and it is fair to say that it resembled no other supermini in its intended market sector. Just compare the Citroën and early VW Polo or a Ford Fiesta Mk. I and you will have an idea of just how it differed from its rivals.
There was a choice of power plants – the Spécial, and the Club used a longitudinal-mounted air-cooled 652cc unit from the 2CV. The flagship Super was powered by a transverse 1,124cc “Douvrin” unit from the Peugeot 104 and the Renault 14.
Motor tested a Visa Club in 1979 and praised its ride, accommodation and refinement. They also found the performance to be ‘sluggish’ as a top speed of just under 76 mph was not overly impressive even 40 years ago. At £2,950, the Club was virtually the same price as a Chevette E, and it offered five doors, which was rare for a car in this class, a pleasant level of standard fittings and a definite sense of chic.
The Vauxhall was as sensible as a nice cup of tea and a packet of Co-Op own-brand digestives, but the Citroen hinted at a world that was distinctly chic. The Visa’s ‘French’ qualities were a sales tool, even if this advertising features one of the worst ever Peter Sellers impersonations - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zxf6UFxrZf8
The facelifted Visa II of March 1981 lost its highly distinctive nose-treatment; the appearance of the early models was believed to be harming its sales prospects. Two years later the GT boasted 1,360cc OHC engine with twin Solex carburettors and a dramatic front air dam. Car magazine thought it ‘unlikely to win any beauty awards from either the Sloane Ranger or the Silverstone set’ and that ‘its gearbox clatter sounds like a bag of false teeth’.
But the Visa was still declared the winner of a group test that includes a Fiesta XR2, Renault 5TX, MG Metro and Fiat 127GT thanks to ‘‘its superb combination of ride suppleness, handling excellence, its overall comfort, its brisk performance’.
In 1984 the Visa gained a new fascia, which was sadly now without the satellite pods and a Diesel version for the budget-minded driver. Meanwhile, for those who wanted to experience the “Club Tropicana” lifestyle vicariously, there was the four-door Heuliez-built Déccapotable.
The AX succeeded the Visa in 1988 and it would be fair to say that today its many enthusiasts would not consider driving any other car. A Citroën Visa, be it a Club or a GT, looked idiosyncratic enough to result in the neighbours twitching their curtains in alarm and provided inexpensive motoring that was enjoyable, economical - and downright fun.