Friday May 31, 2019
About forty years ago, I encountered a car that truly mesmerised my younger self. As the focus of my village was a large yachting marina, it was not uncommon to see unusual LHD vehicles used by owners and their crews – but I had never seen anything like that small ivory-coloured saloon with the French licence plates.
The frontal treatment was reminiscent of a bullfrog that had awoken from a long nap, and the side profile made the entire car look as though it was ready to launch itself into the stratosphere. As for the tyres, they were of a Charles Hawtrey degree of spindliness.
The vehicle in question was, of course, the Citroën Ami 6, and my surprise/shock/awe at its looks was quite understandable. The later Ami 8 and even the higher-powered Super were not unfamiliar on British roads of the late 1970s, but sales of the original 1961 – 1969 version were extremely limited. It was never assembled in Slough and was sold only to ‘special order’ in the UK; by the end of the 1960s, a mere 823 had found a home.
The Ami 6 made its bow in April 1961 as the 2CV formula writ large with a 602cc engine, extra equipment and coachwork by Flaminio Bertoni that ensured the new Citroën would never be mistaken for any other vehicle. It was aimed at the sort of affluent couple who regarded the Deux Chevaux as too agrarian - and who might have otherwise looked at Renault R4 or the Simca 1000, both of which debuted before the end of the year.
However, the sort of Home Counties motorist who regarded the Wolseley Hornet or the Riley Elf as representing the outer limits of respectability was unlikely to take to the Ami 6, especially as the price was inflated by import duties to £823 14s 9d. This meant the Citroen cost almost as much as an Austin A60 Cambridge while dealers were faced with the additional challenge of its idiosyncratic appearance
Even Bertoni apparently said the Ami looked ‘as if it had already run over three pedestrians’, although the reverse-slope rear screen was not unfamiliar to British motorists since the debut of the Anglia 105E in 1959.
The designs of the Ford and the Citroën were both at least partially inspired by the Pininfarina-bodied Fiat 600 special at the 1955 Turin Motor Show. Management decreed the Ami had to sport “three-box” styling and the back window maximised interior space within a limited wheelbase.
By autumn 1961, the Ami had entered full production and had gained opening rear windows and a conventional opening for the boot lid; the very first models required opening the back righthand door and pull a cable.
Across the Channel the Citroën received mixed, but by no means negative responses from the automotive press. Autocar concluded their evaluation with ‘some will undoubtedly be appalled by its appearance’, but the consensus was ‘it is one of the most comfortable cars in which they had ever ridden’. Motor Sport thought that:
‘If you need truly economical travel, appreciate real comfort, and/or enjoy unconventionality, the Citroen Ami 6 merits your support. It is the ingenious 2 c.v. dressed up in modern style and with its urge enhanced by nearly double the power. I regard it as the best of the cyclecar-type economy cars and wish Citroen every success with it’.
The problem was that during the 1950s the British motorist had not taken to the Deux Chevaux. The 1959 Bijou was Slough’s attempt at modifying the formula for the UK market with a two-door GRP body, but even that was not a commercial success. The typical Railway Cuttings style driver was even less likely to take to the Ami 6, which was a great pity as it offered many advantages.
The Citroen was lightweight; the boot space was vast; the cabin was adaptable - the front and rear benches could even be removed for use in picnics – and very well thought-out. If that was not enough, you could also boast of those ultra-fashionable Cibie oval headlamps.
In late 1964 Citroën unveiled the estate version which not only enjoyed far greater commercial success than the saloon, it became the best-selling car in France. One reason was its five-door versatility, but a slightly more conventional appearance did enhance its appeal.
UK sales began in 1967 with adverts proclaiming ‘’The chances are you’ve never seen a car like this before’ and warning that ‘Imports are strictly limited’. Citroën very strongly advise as early an application as possible’.
For £699 the Confort model offered cloth seats and a total load bay space of 53 cu ft. but Autocar still seemed mildly aghast at the Ami 6. ‘the impression remains that one has to pay rather dearly for a nonconformity that cannot always be justified by as contributing to improved utility or efficiency’.
In other words, all right-minded types should immediately place an order for a Bedford HA Beagle. The introduction of the Peugeot 204 in 1965 further impacted on domestic sales of the saloon and by March 1969 the Ami 8 offered less “distinctive” lines.
Back in 1961, Citroën openly stated:
If you believe that the characteristics of a car - performance, comfort, safety - necessarily on the number of horsepower, the amount of superfluous chrome trim or high cylinder capacity and corresponding fixed costs are to be measured, then do not concern yourself further with the Ami 6!
And how right they were. Indeed, my nine-year-old self was utterly wrong about this magnificent and truly individual vehicle and after re-watching this sales film I now crave one more than ever -