Citroen's AX factor
The 1986 Paris Motor Show saw the launch of Citroen's cult supermini, writes Brian Twomey
On the surface there is nothing exceptional about the little Citroen AX. Sure, it is a pretty car with sharp unadorned lines and a neat overall appearance blissfully free of the focus-group-enforced clutter of more modern designs but certainly it does not look exceptional or groundbreaking. Look more closely, though; this is a car that was introduced 30 years ago. To its credit, the AX does not look like a car of that age, a car that predates the internet and the Clinton presidency. Virtually extinct now, the anniversary of its introduction is worthy of note simply because it was a much better car than history would have you believe.
Development work started in 1983 during a period of upheaval for Citroen. Having come under the ownership of Peugeot, Citroen's designers were originally tasked with replacing two cars, the Citroen Visa and the Talbot Samba. However, early in development the PSA group decided to drop the Talbot brand so the AX would not get a Talbot-badged derivative. The French government gave grants to domestic car makers to design ecologically friendly cars under the Eco2000 scheme as Citroen focused on making the AX as light and efficient as possible from day one. Original prototypes had a one-box design that bombed with design focus groups, so Citroen simplified the shape but not the technology. Peugeot's influence on Citroen was taking hold but it was still a Citroen, so the AX had a massive door pocket big enough for a full-sized mineral bottle while the steering wheel was a suitably off-the-wall one spoke design.
Engines were low-friction 1.0-litre, 1.1 and 1.4 TU OHC engines from the Peugeot-Citroen stable while fully independent suspension was novel for the class, so the AX ensured Citroen's reputation for comfort was intact. Where the AX really differed from its rivals like the Peugeot 205, Fiat Uno and Mk2 Ford Fiesta was in how it was built. Plastic panels were used extensively when metal was unnecessary; the rear tailgate was almost completely plastic, for example. Thinner metal was used in areas where the load was not as great and the body-coloured bumpers were dyed rather than painted, as this method was thought to be more environmentally friendly. The dash plastics were thinner, no unnecessary trim was fitted and the AX had only one wiper. The diet was Citroen's attempt to improve fuel economy and the results were dramatic. An early basic version of the AX weighed in at 640kgs. The lightest current Ford Fiesta is 1040kgs and a large BMW touring motorcycle can weigh around 300kgs. All of this combined with reduced friction engineering on the engines and gearboxes and excellent aerodynamics meant that the AX was amazingly economical. In 1989 a 1.4 diesel AX drove into the Guinness Book of records by achieving 100mpg during a cross-continental economy run.
Combined with pleasing dynamics and chic, modern design, the AX trundled onto the marketplace in 1986 and right-hand-drive examples arrived in 1987. Owners took delight in the cars' comfort, handling and low running costs even if the interior, while modern looking, was almost depressingly stark and the lightweight construction lent the AX a flimsy feel. Not that the AX was all about economy. The 1987 AX Sport churned out 95bhp from its 1.4-litre engine and the weight put it to good effect while the later AX 14GT was a well-priced, fun and economical alternative to the stablemate Peugeot 205 GTI.
For those still pursuing economy, Citroen introduced the 1.4-diesel in 1989. While late to the diesel supermini party, the AX was well placed to scoop up sales as the TUD engine was smooth and refined while the AX was naturally economical anyway. 1991 saw the AX receive a mild facelift, losing the funky steering wheel and gaining a one-piece dash to try and stop the rattling. A 100bhp GTi version replaced the GT and, like its predecessor, became something of a cult car.
The writing was on the wall for the AX when the Peugeot 106-based Saxo went on sale in 1996. The AX range was slimmed down but the little Citroen soldiered on until 1997, when right-hand-drive production stopped. Left-hand-drive cars carried on into 1998 but by then the Saxo had established itself as a firm favourite among the throng of late-Nineties superminis. The AX would live on until 2000 in Malaysia, rather bizarrely, as the Proton Tiara, a locally produced and Proton badged version. Despite selling over 2.5 million examples, the lightweight and frugal AX was quickly forgotten as buyers mopped up Saxos and Citroen moved upmarket. But the AX was one of the last small cars to truly embrace simplicity and lightness and one of the last Citroens to be genuinely innovative. It was and remains ahead of its time.