Sometimes I wonder about my sanity. My problem is that I can always justify my odd behaviour so it looks like I am not mad, merely eccentric. However I might have gone too far this time. Judge for yourself. For a couple of years now we have had the BMWi3 electric car and have driven over 25k kms in it. It has been a joy in so many ways but best of all it means we are not at the mercy of petrol prices and we do not pollute when we travel which is fantastic. I vowed I would never buy another ICE car. hhhmm. Well that vow didn’t last long, enter a 1979 Citroen GS Pallas.
My business Woodenwidget sells plans for people to make a range of clever wooden creations from bicycles, to folding boats to telescopic caravans. The latest project will be a small and aerodynamic curvy wooden caravan. It’s going to look quite retro and it dawned on me that I don’t have a vehicle to tow it with. You can’t even fit a tow bar to an i3 which is the most stupid thing I have ever heard but hey ho, it is what it is. In any case the look would be all wrong. When I designed the Slidavan caravan I used my Panda 4×4 and it was a good match. It demonstrated that even a small car could easily tow one but Bernie was sold to help finance the i3. My partner has a 2004 Honda HRV which is a very good and practical car, perfectly suited to towing a small caravan but it lacks the look I’m after and it has far too many dents to be up to being used for publicity shots which will be shared online globally. What was needed was something a bit special and a bit different. And so began my search.
My first issue was a lack of funds. I really did not want to spend much money on a car I really didn’t need, in any case I didn’t have much to spend. I set myself a limit of 2000€ which actually isn’t very much these days for a tidy running car. I also set myself a radius of 100 kms from my home so it wouldn’t be that hard to go and see and collect a suitable candidate if I found one. In France the site for secondhand stuff is called Leboncoin. I set my search parameters and started the hunt. I found some funky stuff. I found a tatty tiny Honda Kei car but it was probably too small and in any case the seller never replied to my requests. I found a very cool two tone Ford Zodiac with a straight 6 engine. It was probably too big but looked very cool with its chrome and fins. In any case that seller never replied to me either. I spent some days looking and looking without much success until I came across a white Citroen GS Pallas advertised for 2000€. It even had a tow bar already fitted.
It was important, I felt, that the car I chose was white (if possible) because there is a theme running through the Woodenwidget site and so it would fit in well. Plus, white paint doesn’t show up dents and problems so readily as darker colours do. And here’s where the insanity comes in. Aware that there weren’t actually that many eligible cars out there for my meagre budget I lowered my expectations quite a lot. I confess even then I was disappointed in the car when I saw it. It was filthy. The seller had made no attempt to clean it or make it look good which is actually a good thing. He wasn’t trying to hide anything. It even had a flat tyre. I had a little look around and here’s what I saw.
The car had been resprayed fairly badly at some point. many of the panels were not perfect, panel gaps and door alignment not great. All the bumpers were dented. The interior was in a right state but in my insane way I saw that as a good thing. If the seats were eaten by the sunshine it suggested that the car had spent much of its life in a warm and dry place. This is a good thing as old Citroens rust prolifically and despite Citroen making 2.5 million GSs over a 16 year span there are very few left and most of them are basket cases so finding one that wasn’t terribly rusty was already quite something. Talking to the seller it turns out that the first owner lived in Marseille so I was right. There wasn’t actually much to say good about the car. Everything worked except the heated rear window and the rev counter and the tyres were ok. It had had a recent new starter motor, an exhaust pipe, battery and fuel pump. The cam belts and plugs had been recently changed he said. We put some air in the tyre and went for a test drive.
It actually drove quite well which surprised me and also helped me to justify the fact that I was about to spend 2000€ on probably the worst car I had ever bought for that kind of money. But these days things are expensive and despite the hundreds of problems I knew I could fix it up and so I bought it and so began a learning curve as steep as any I have ever encountered. What a bizarre car the GS is. maybe all Citroens are like this I don’t know but the GS is on the one hand, brilliant and clever and sensible and on the other, ridiculous, over complicated and hard to work on. I handed over the cash, loaded two spare doors into the boot (which is massive) and drove home. A fairly uneventful albeit smelly journey home. There were so many oil leaks from the engine and box that it was impossible to know where the oil was coming from but some was surely dripping on to the hot exhaust pipe!
There was only one way to do this and that was to remove the engine and box and clean everything up properly and then replace all the joints and seals. Luckily there are a few specialist sites online and I used one in Germany who had a good site and a prompt service. Now that the GS is 50 years old many companies have started making new parts for them. Maybe ten years ago it might not have been so easy to fix one up but I managed to find everything I needed albeit at a price. In the end I spent about 1000€ on all the bits I needed which is a lot but at the end of the day 3000€ isn’t so much for a road legal and mechanically sorted vehicle with class. I always wanted a Citroen SM but they are too thirsty, expensive, fragile and big for me so the GS is like a poor man’s SM and shares the same awesome hydropneumatic suspension system.
I guess now is as good a time to discuss that famed suspension. For those who don’t know, the GS uses a special green mineral oil for its suspension and brake system. It’s called LHM and is literally the life blood of a Citroen. It does not have shock absorbers but instead uses nitrogen filled metal spheres which are controlled by the LHM oil which is controlled by the anti roll bars. The car is self levelling so if you put weight in the back it compensates and cleverly, the more weight you put in the harder the rear brakes work too. It’s a very clever system and not as complicated as some will have you think. The plus side of this unusual system is an extraordinary ride that no modern car can come close too. Despite its thin tyres the GS can be seriously hussled through the corners. It handles amazingly and deals with bumps, pot holes and undulations in the road as if they are not there. There is a lever between the front seats that allows you to raise the car to go off road and a second setting which allows the car to be raised to almost a foot off the ground to go over rocks or tree roots or any other massive obstruction in the road. You can’t go fast as there is NO movement in the suspension on this setting but if needed it could be very helpful. And like the silent rush of acceleration on the i3, going up and down in a car never gets old I can tell you.
One of the reasons I bought the car was because the suspension seemed to work. I couldn’t test the going up and down as the lever bracket was broken but i figured I’d sort that out easily enough and I was right. One of the easiest fixes on the car was the replacement of a simple plastic bracket under the lever which once changed allowed the car to go up and down in a most amusing way. Since then I have replaced a few parts, like the bellows which cover the suspension arms and cleaned the filters and replaced the LHM oil but apart from that the suspension remains untouched and working. Most of the work I had to do was cosmetic and to do with the cleaning and adjustment of the engine.
The engine and box came out easily enough and it took me three whole days to clean it and the engine bay which were as dirty as any car I have ever seen. Once clean I began the slow process of taking it all apart and replacing all the gaskets and seals and painting a few bits here and there to make it look nice. The cam belts and plugs had not been recently changed so I did that too. The clutch was ok so I didn’t bother to change that but i did do the seals on the gearbox which must have been leaking for years if the state of the gearbox was anything to go on. The GS has inboard disc brakes which is fine I suppose until the gearbox starts leaking as then oil gets sprayed over them reducing their efficiency somewhat. Now that the oil is gone I can report that the brakes are ferocious! Discs all around. The pedal is hard to press but the brakes work exceedingly well. It must have astonished when it came out in 1970. Even by today’s standards the car feels up to date. In some ways I even feel we have gone backwards. I wonder why more cars don’t use this suspension system. Rolls Royce actually licenced the system for their cars from Citroen. That’s how smooth it is. Very impressive.
The GS was car of the year in 1971 and I’m not surprised. It’s an excellent car in so many ways. When French people see it they always say ‘ My dad had one, my granddad had one’. It’s the first thing people say. They used to be everywhere in France as it was a very successful car for Citroen but now they are as rare as rocking horse shit. You don’t see them. I guess they all broke or rusted away and as they were a cheap car no one took any care of them.
So 1000€ and one month of hard work later Jess as we call her is now looking and driving pretty well. She’s far from good but good from far and that is all I need for my publicity shots. I have thoroughly enjoyed the process. Having a workshop and tools helps of course. I have come away from the experience with more respect for the Citroen engineers who designed this car. I also think that they were quite mad in some respects. Under the bonnet is just an ugly mess with cables and wires going all over the place. It’s like they designed the basic engine and box and suspension and then realised they had to connect it all up. No one makes cars like this anymore.
To add a bit of class I made up some wood trim which will contrast nicely with the caravan which will be all varnished. It works really well on the GS. I believe the look of the GS will go beautifully with the caravan. I wanted something white and funky with a tow bar and honestly, I don’t think I could have done better in my choice of car for the job. In addition to the funkiness is the fact that the GS is a very aerodynamic car and that allied to an aerodynamic caravan makes a great combination. The GS is a forgotten classic but I’m glad I found one to play with. As for my sanity, what do you think? Am I mad or do you accept my justifications as freely as I do?