June 9, 2010

Road test: 1983 Citroën GSA Spécial.

"My father had one" is what often comes up when a conversation turns to the Citroen GS or GSA. Family vacations to the sunny south of France filled with itchy cloth seats and carsickness, either from the hydraulic suspension or from the twisty roads of yore. The GS is common in memories of family vacations but uncommon on the road today. It wasn't always so; between 1971 and 1986, Citroen built approximately two and a half million GS and GSAs. A small bit of history is necessary here: the GS came out in 1970 and won the European Car of the Year award in 1971, a little bit surprising considering the numerous problems early production cars encountered. The GS sold well but started to show its age in the late 1970s. Citroen responded in 1979 by redesigning it slightly and naming it the GSA. The biggest modification was the addition of a hatchback, a feature growing in popularity on the French market. Other modifications included a new grille, new bumpers, new taillights, new hubcaps and new exterior handles. The GSA grew ever so slightly, measuring 13'7" in length, compared to the GS at 13'5". The Citroen BX arrived on showroom floor in 1982 and slowly replaced the GSA, which saw its light burn out when the last GSA station wagon rolled off the assembly line in 1986. According to the Citroen Concours of America, Citroen brought in a couple dozen GS models in 1971 to display in US dealer showrooms and gather orders. The car drew attention and many people ordered them but new EPA and DOT laws (which in part concerned the hydropneumatique suspension) led Citroen to cancel its plans to sell the GS in the US, as well as the totality of the orders received. The few GSs they brought in were sold off. Let's leave the GS behind for now and focus on the GSA: its styling often leads to a love or hate reaction. The center of the hood is lower than the sides, a feature reminiscent of the Ami 6 from the same company. The rear wheel is partially hidden by the rear quarter panel, a feature common on Citroens from this era.

Once in the GSA the driver is faced with an instrument cluster which can best be described as aircraft-like. A diagram of the car - which in 1983 must have looked more futuristic than a Star Wars film - with lines going from one part of the car to a light on either side of the diagram is the center of the cluster. The lights indicate when something needs attention such as when the oil level is too low or when the car reaches the reserve in the gas tank. In the middle of this diagram is a big "STOP" light that may as well read "abandon ship if this turns on." On either side of the steering wheel the driver finds big pods that contains buttons and switches, a setup also used on the CX and the Visa. The left pod houses the wiper command, the headlight command, the turn signal switch (which does not auto-cancel) and the horn. The right pod has the warning light switch, the fog light switches (if equipped) and something called an econoscope which flashes a light on the dashboard when the engine uses a lot of fuel, a light that with a four-speed comes on fairly often on the freeway.

The speedometer is a rolling drum with a needle indicating the speed. The GSA Spécial being a base model, it does not have a tachometer; the one in the photos was added on by the previous owner. The only other instrumentation is a gas gauge. The radio is between the two front seats, where the handbrake usually is, and the handbrake is in the middle of the dash, where the radio usually is. The gearshift sticks out from the floor; this is worth mentioning because when the GS came out, other Citroen models had unorthodox gearshift arrangements: the DS had it on the steering column, a feature the press criticized as dated in the early 1970s, and the 2CV/Ami 8 had it going through the dash, through the firewall and down into the transmission.

(Above: the diagram of the car. The speedometer is on the bottom left and had this car been equipped with a tachometer, it would be where the Citroen emblem is. Below is the pod on the left side of the steering wheel.)

Once you've found the controls it's time to start the car. The first thing you notice after the flat-four has whirled to life is that the "STOP" light mentioned previously mentioned is on; it's normal, don't run far from the car. Since this car uses Citroen's brilliant hydropneumatique suspension (made famous by the DS), the driver has to wait for the car to fully rise before it can be driven. The rear rises first, followed by the front. When the car is at normal ride height, the light turns off and the car can be safely driven. How long the car takes to rise depends on how long it has been sitting. However, the process shouldn't take more than about ten seconds. As with all older hydropneumatically-equipped Citroens, the GSA sits merely inches off the ground if parked for longer than a few hours. Citroen supposedly corrected this tendency to drop on the 1994 model Xantia.

The suspension control lever is between the front seats, next to the radio. There are three positions: the one closest to the front of the car is normal ride height; the one in the middle sets the suspension a little higher in order to drive (at low speeds, preferably) on terrain that requires more ground clearance or over obstacles such as sidewalks; the position furthest back is for emergencies only such as to change a tire. Citroen advises not to drive with this position engaged.

(Above: a suspension sphere.) The hydropneumatique suspension system is explained in detail here. This suspension filters out bumps in the road, providing a smooth and comfortable ride, and unless the driver touches the suspension control lever, the ride height always remains even no matter what the car is carrying or pulling. A surprising feature of this suspension is that the GSA learns into a turn like a Moto Grand Prix motorcycle. This explains how the GS/GSA, CX and DS models got their notoriety for inducing carsickness in certain passengers on twisty roads. Despite the noticeable body roll the car handles well. The steering, commanded through a typically-Citroen single spoke wheel, is precise and light enough considering it is not a power unit. It responds directly to the input it is given, a trait that is all the more appreciated when one comes from a more modern car with vague steering. The braking is excellent but takes a bit to get used to: the brake pedal has a travel distance of approximately an inch and a half. Once a driver is accustomed to this, the GSA stops on a dime thanks to four disk brakes. The front ones are mounted inboard. The narrow tires (145 R15) help the GSA stay stable on wet surfaces but they also make driving it in crosswinds a hair-raising experience. GS/GSAs came in different flavors, all air-cooled, flat four-cylinders: 1015cc (anemic, also found in the Ami Super), 1129cc, 1222cc and 1299cc. This particular car features the 1129cc that puts out 56hp. Fuel enters the combustion chamber via a double barrel Solex 28 CIC4 carburetor and an overhead camshaft on each cylinder bank opens and closes the valves with the help of two timing belts. At first glance 1129cc may seem inadequate - a Super Beetle has a bigger engine - but paired with the aerodynamic design of the body the small engine does a remarkable job at moving the car along and it will cruise at 130km/h (80 mph) without complaining. It will complain when going up steep mountain roads, where the gearshift finds itself in a constant dance between 2nd and 3rd gear to go up at a steady pace. That said, the GSA's engine, much like a 2CV's, is designed to run at high RPMs. Auto-Journal hit the nail on the head when in 1974 they claimd that "the GS is a car that needs to be driven by somebody with a lead foot carrying kils of feathers." If the driver stays in the higher RPM range, the car is satisfyingly quick; it won't throw you back against the seat when you accelerate but it will pass an English tourist dragging a large caravan behind his Vauxhall station wagon. Following the tradition Citroen started in 1934 with the Traction Avant (literally translated: front wheel drive), the front wheels power the GSA. The engine is mounted longitudinally and the transmission sits right behind it.

The transmission brings us to the car's biggest drawback: being a base model GSA, it only has four forward gears, selected manually. This equates to a less-than-stellar fuel economy on the freeway, as well as increased engine noise inside the car. More expensive trim levels benefitted from a 5-speed manual box better suited for economical and quiet highway driving along with miscellaneous extra equipment such as a rear window wiper, fog lights, front headrests and a tachometer. It is often said that the 5-speed unit is not a good match for the 1129cc and is better mated to the 1299cc so depending on the kind of driving the GSA is used for, a 1299cc/5-speed combination may be the best option. Another issue is encountered with the hood opened: working on this car is much less enjoyable than driving it. The engine is crammed in the engine bay, making certain repairs a bit of an ordeal. The suspension can also cause problems if routine maintenance is not performed: the LHM fluid becomes corrosive over time, causing problems of astronomical proportions if left unattended. The system is generally problem-free if maintained properly. Overall, the GSA rides like a less-plush DS and drives like a more powerful 2CV. Early GS models are starting to become scarce since rust ate away part of the population and shoddy maintenance paired with government incentives to scrap cars in the 1990s took care of the rest. GSAs are a bit more common due to being a newer but are nevertheless an endangered species. The GS Birotor, a rare version equipped with a Wankel engine, is worth a small fortune for a GS; the Birotor aside, GS/GSAs needing significant work range from "tow it away" to about €500 while examples in better shape usually top out at €2,500, making them an affordable and original way to get into the classic Citroen hobby. Below: exterior photos of the GSA show the aerodynamic shape of it. The window deflectors are not original but are a period-correct accessory. And, careful observers will notice the exhaust is from a GS, not a GSA.

Below: this car has optional leather seats.

Below: the GSA's engine bay, which has room for the spare and the jack. The LHM fluid container is positioned on the top left of the engine bay. The two suspension spheres are also visible.
Below: a side view of the 1129cc flat-four.

Below: another view of the GSA's instrument cluster. Note the handbrake, pulled out on the right of the steering wheel.
Below: the oddly-positioned radio and the suspension control lever. The clock visible to the left of the gearshift is not original.


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