Most of the classic French cars that have made their way to the U.S. are ones that even those who don't collect them will recognize. There is the sleek DS, a futuristic sedan that showcased the marque's suspension technology, and the SM coupe that paired a Maserati engine with a still-futuristic exterior design. Beyond these two models, there is, of course, the Deux Chevaux, a postwar economy car that stayed in production all the way through 1991. In short, these are the three Citroen classics you're likely to see at classic car events in the U.S. -- just about all others are outliers. After all, Citroen was known for its plush and comfortable coupes and sedans, so it makes sense that only the better-known classics make their way to the States.
But the classic Citroen community is much more diverse than the cars you're likely to see at concours events on the two coasts and the Arizona in January auctions. And as those who grew up with the cars of the 1980s and 1990s start looking for the classics of their youth, it makes sense that we're starting to see more and more diverse machinery come to the U.S. This is the era that the classic car show Radwood celebrates, and we're now just in the early years of '80s and '90s nostalgia that will, perhaps inevitably, displace the muscle car culture of the 1960s and 1970s.
In fact, if muscle car auction numbers are any indication, we've been seeing a generational shift to the "youngtimer" classics of the 1980s that, with the exception of Miami Vice-flavored 1980s supercars, have been overlooked as too recent or too "eighties."
One such recent French classic is the Citroen Visa, a small hatch that debuted in 1978 just as Citroen completed the transition from the long-serving DS to the much more modern CX.
Despite being famous for its plush sedans at home and abroad, the French marque's bread-and-butter was still in small and midsize cars with which it battled Peugeot and Renault in its home market. With Peugeot's takeover of Citroen in the late 1970s, the company's new corporate owner let Citroen continue its own engineering tradition -- and this included the Visa hatchback that replaced the long-serving Citroen Ami, in production since 1961.
The Visa II Chrono offered a sporty exterior to match the sporty interior, complete with a very noticeable color scheme. PHOTO BY AUTOWEEK
So much time had passed between the debut of the Ami and the Visa that several epochs of automotive design had effectively come and gone. The Visa combined modern city car proportions with incredibly compact "suitcase" inline-four engines, in which the gearbox was located in the sump and shared oil with the engine. Designed by Robert Opron, the Visa coupled an aerodynamically efficient hatchback body with Citroen's forgiving suspension, though without the complexity of larger models like the CX. The Visa featured a fully independent suspension with coil-sprung MacPherson struts up front and trailing arms in the back. Due to the fact Peugeot took over Citroen before the car's engineering was completed, a few parts from the Peugeot 104 hatch made it into the Visa as well, including the engine and the floor pan, among other items.Despite the Visa's humble beginnings, the model won a wide audience in Western Europe, staying in production in France all the way through 1988. The spiritual successor to the Ami, the Visa offered a modern if modest interior with plenty of comfort, even if the roads by this time did not really need a suspension so plush.With most budget hatches, 10 years in production with small gas and diesel engines would have normally been the end of the story -- but this is the 1980s we're talking about. And in Europe, this meant an absolute craze when it came to various special editions with wild exterior and interior embellishments.This brings us to Dr. Brian Peters' 1983 Visa II Chrono, a special-edition version of the Visa that paired sporty elements with a color scheme that is unmistakably Eighties."Citroen was interested in reinforcing its name in the racing world while broadening its appeal to young successful people who had an interest in motorsports," Peters explains. "Citroen also wanted to breathe new life into its Visa line by introducing the Chrono.""The Chrono was based on the Visa II Super X, designed as a civilized version of the Visa Trophée, the competition version of the Visa homologated into Group B. Various features of the Trophy’s bodywork and interior were used, but the Chrono was road-car comfortable for fast-paced commutes."
GALLERY 1983 CITROEN VISA II CHRONO INTERIOR
Powered by a 1,360-cc four-cylinder engine coupled with a five-speed manual transmission, the Visa II Chrono churns out 93 hp and 89 lb-ft of torque -- quite a lot for something this size in Europe at the time -- along with a feathery curb weight of just 1,874 pounds. The Visa II Chrono is filled with special items including Amil alloy wheels, front and rear spoiler, flared fenders and Cibie fog lights. The French coachbuilder Heuliez was responsible for the body upgrades. Offered only for the 1982 and 1983 model years, just 2,160 Visa Chronos were produced for France and another 1,650 for other Western European markets, so even among well-preserved collector Visas, the Chrono is a rare bird. Many were raced back in the day, or used to the full extent of their abilities, so clean examples are extremely rare. And when we say raced, we mean in Group B events such as the Monte Carlo and Acropolis rallies, before an all-wheel-drive version of the Visa took its place.
"The Chrono was competing with the Renault 5 GT, Peugeot 205 GTI, Autobianchi A112 Abarth and a less expensive alternative to the Golf GTI and Ford Escort RS," Peters explains. "After an initial launch of 1,000 cars for the French market, Citroen marketed the Chrono in Austria, Germany, Holland, Belgium, Italy and Switzerland as a response to market demand outside of France."
Advertised as Un Monstre in period ads, the Visa II Chrono could make the sprint from 0-60 in 9.6 seconds -- not bad for something of this size and output. For comparison, a 1983 BMW 320i of the time took a leisurely 12.5 seconds, while the Audi Coupe GT got to the same speed in 11.8 seconds. Even the W210 Mercedes 190E was slower (weighed down by all that German steel), requiring a watch-glancing 10.8 seconds to reach 60 mph.
"The Chrono was designed to be a sporty car and thus enjoys being revved and tossed around. While it handles quite well, the suspension is geared a bit too much towards comfort," Peters says. "The suspension, however, makes it a surprisingly comfortable cruiser for trips. The car feels best at about 75 mph, at which point it still has plenty of speed available and tracks as straight as an arrow. I have to admit being very pleasantly surprised at the overall competence of the car."
The Visa's output was under a hundred horsepower, but then again the car didn't weigh all that much. PHOTO BY AUTOWEEK
A Visa II Chrono may be a collector car back home in France or one of the neighboring countries where Citroen had a sizeable presence, but it's not exactly a common sight even at French car meets in the U.S. In fact, we've only seen about six or seven different Visas stateside, and that's perhaps 50% of America's entire Visa "holdings."
So how did this Visa make what is a major contribution to our nation's Visa stockpile?
"I regularly (obsessively) look on multiple European car collector sites and found this particular car on mobile.de, a German site that has a wide range of cars listed across Europe," Peters says. "The car was being sold by Gina Collections in the Netherlands. This is a one owner car, I am the second owner. The car was kept as part of a large Citroen collection, hence, its 12,000 original kilometers. The car is in original condition with the exception of the rear bumper which was repainted, as Waxoyl applied for rust proofing by the owner had discolored the paint.
Buying a Visa sight unseen is one thing, but getting it here without issues is quite another. Luckily, Peters already knew a gent at a Citroen restoration shop in the Netherlands who was familiar with Gina Collections, who helped coordinate the transportation. The car was shipped to the Port of Baltimore, not too far from its current home in Washington D.C.
"When I purchased the car, it has been preserved in storage by using large amounts of Waxoyl," Peters explains. "The first thing that it needed was a serious cleaning, particularly the engine bay. Before being shipped to the US, the car was serviced from top to bottom by André Pol of Citroën André. André checked every function to ensure that the car would live up to its legendary reliability and mechanical robustness."
The Visa might still seem like a niche collector car even for those who own Citroens in the States, but there is plenty of support for this model. Just not on this side of the pond. There is a Visa Chrono Club in Europe, in addition to the Visa Club itself, though the model does not have the same following as some of its contemporaries like the Peugeot 205 or other small Citroen classics like the ubiquitous 2CV.
Special equipment made it inside as well, helping transform the compact family hatch into something more daring. PHOTO BY AUTOWEEK
Still, owning a Visa in the U.S. (especially in such a hard-to-not-see color scheme) is an experience different from owning a 2CV, which even those who do not know its name may recognize as "that old French car."
"So far, the Chrono has not been confused for another car but has caused confusion as people scream 'What is that?' on the road," Peters says. "I have had mostly positive responses with some people even knowing the car or at least knowing Citroen."
"The car is so much fun to drive that I find myself craving to take it out for short spins," Peters adds. "It is just about a perfect example but it would be shame not to enjoy using it on the road. I have taken it to Cars and Coffee where it gets lots of smiles from people who know Citroens or just think it looks like a fun little car."