A lot of people don’t know what a Citroën Ami is. Those that do are divided distinctly into two categories; love and hate. And a lot of people fall into the latter of the two.
Paul Rand once said “”Simplicity is not the goal. It is the by-product of a good idea and modest expectations.” And that seems a perfect summary of the Ami.
And there’s no denying its appeal, if only for its ability to take us back in time; and pique or pangs of nostalgia.
It’s also 60 years since the launch of the Citroën Ami on the 25th April, 2021. Here’s its story.
The Middle Child
The ’50s were somewhat of a curious time all over Europe as the continent slowly found its feet after WWII. Cars were a necessity, but not something easily justified by the millions of citizens who were struggling financially. As described in A Brief History of Car Design – Part 2 , it created all manner of funky and innovative, low-cost solutions to ensure Europe was motoring once again; and the Citroën 2CV was certainly one of the most prominent.
In 1955, Citroën launched the remarkable DS19, the long-awaited replacement for the equally remarkable Citroën Traction Avant, a car that had pioneered mass-produced unitary body construction, hydraulic brakes and rack and pinion steering, as well as being an early adopter of independent suspension and front wheel drive. Citroën were not ones to shy away from innovation.
I could rave about the DS all day, as could a lot of people, but that’s not why we’re here. We’re here to discuss the the car chosen to sit in the gaping hole between the basic, almost agricultural 2CV and the premium, sophisticated DS; the Citroën Ami.
Two years into the DS’ production, in 1957, Citroën kicked-off “Project M” – M for milieu de gamme or ‘mid-range’– and though they wanted a car that would stand alone within their range, financial constraints limited the foundations of the car to the 2CV’s underbody and powertrain, albeit uprated from 425cc to 602cc which gave a 10hp hike to 22hp. Huge numbers, I know.
In fact, that was one of the key challenges: design an elegant, three-box saloon whilst maintaining a 7′ 10.5″ (2.4m) 2CV wheelbase and the tall package of the 2CV engine, yet somehow minimise vehicle weight to account for the increase in size over its cheaper sibling. It was going to take some serious design work.
The man tasked with this seemingly impossible challenge was Flaminio Bertoni, the man appointed by André Citroën in 1932 to take over Citroën’s “style” department. Having already designed the Traction Avant, 2CV and DS, the former sculptor was the only man for the job.
Bertoni’s initial proposals were remarkable considering the limitations on wheelbase, but the wraparound rear-window and low-slung bonnet were soon rejected due to cost and underbody limitations respectively. Bertoni had his hands tied.
What did remain was the reverse raked “C” pillar and overhanging roof that he’d used to give the illusion of space, although once again it wasn’t as first envisioned. Clever sculptural work was required to provide stiffness in the upper corner whilst keeping the roof panel as simple and flat as possible; for costs, of course.
He didn’t even get his way with the front headlamps because Citroën wanted to be first-to-market with the oval style headlamps developed by French supplier Cibié. Not only were they included, but French authorities demanded they be raised to avert concerns with their performance; Bertoni must’ve been pulling out his hair.
Friend or Faux-pas
And this was the result; the Citroën Ami, which translates literally as friend.
Project “M” became “AM” so it wasn’t a difficult leap to Ami, but it was also a divergence away from the letter and number combinations of the other Citroën’s in the stable. And it definitely looked nothing like them as well.
When it launched in April, 1961, it came with windows that slid in the front but were fixed in the rear, a lightweight fibreglass reinforced plastic roof, aluminium frames and a minimalist, albeit pleasant, interior that kept the weight down to only 80% that of its British competitor, the Morris Minor.
One story, true or not, tells of its Paris Motor Show debut requiring a daily replacement of vehicles due to a rival hiring sizeable visitors to spend time on the stand leaning on the cars; the result was a regular denting of the panels and a subsequent up-gauge of panel thicknesses across the range.
The Citroën Ami, or Ami 6 as it was known at launch, was a conservative success (just over 19,000 models were sold in 1961), debuting four months before its bitter rival, the Renault 4. With several upgrades made to the vehicle in the build up to, and in the aftermath of, the Paris Motor Show in October 1961, 1962 was its first full year of sales; and it still undersold the aging 2CV, shifting 85,358 units in comparison with 144,759 for the utilitarian legend.
The consumer reticence hinged on a few points, most notably the price point for something still exceedingly basic; it was 35% pricier than a 2CV. But Citroën responded quickly, not just with regards to additional “luxuries” like sliding rear windows and an engine power hike, but with updated bodystyles, most notably the “estate” introduction in November, 1964.
The estate, or “Break” as it was known, transformed the range, bringing additional practicality and space to the line-up, plus new taillamps.
By 1966, sales had reached 180,000 per year, and when the Estate Club Model launched in 1967, it brought additional luxury and visuals to the range, most notably interior carpet!
1968 saw the engine upgraded, delivering a full 32hp, whilst the front window functionality had now doubled to slide in two directions, and the overall design became more conventional. Which was no coincidence, seeing as Flaminio Bertoni was no longer in charge of design, having passed away in February, 1964.
In 1969, the Ami 6 was replaced with the Ami 8, its modest fastback design far more conventional than the 6 Berline (saloon variant), and though sales remained strong, it was the estate taking the majority of purchases.
By 1970, sales had declined, although they hovered at around the 105,000 p/annum mark. 1973 saw the introduction of the Ami Super alongside the existing 8, the main difference being the flat-4 engine from the GS under the hood. Whilst it was popular overseas, France’s vehicle classification system meant the tax was deemed too high by many for such a compact car.
The Ami was also built in Spain (under various alternative names), Yugoslavia (modern day Slovenia), and Argentina, more specifically Buenos Aires.
Production of the Ami lasted from April 1961 until Spring, 1979, selling 1,840,396 in total.
By the late ’70s, Europe was firmly back on its feet and cars such as the Ami, never mind the 2CV and Renault 4, were deemed too basic for a discerning public with sufficient disposable income to justify simple luxuries in their motor cars.
But there’s no denying that the Citroën Ami , in all its guises, deserves to be remembered, not just for its quirky looks – Bertoni once said that the Ami 6 looked “as if it had already run over three pedestrians” – but for its approach to motoring.
It was peerless in its approach, single-minded in its design and provided the motoring public with something to aim for, something practical, useful and just about within reach if they saved a little each month.
And like all great products, it’s still desirable now, arguably even more so now than it was 60 years ago. Whether that’s for its unique appearance, acting as a reminder of a bygone era, or for its minimalistic approach in an age of growing complexity, who cares?!
It’s a legacy worth celebrating.
Well, that was fun, a little trip down the tree-lined memory lane inspired my a wonderful piece of French automotive design. And there’s plenty more to come from CLT, so be sure to subscribe below to avoid missing out.