MOTOR MOUTH: The saloon as salon

MOTOR MOUTH: The saloon as salon - Montparnasse cemetery is one of the least melancholy accident blackspots on earth: there's no place better to spend a reflective half-hour before a jolly lunch at nearby Thoumieux or the Dome. It's a perfect exposition o

by Stephen Bayley, an author and design consultant

Montparnasse cemetery is one of the least melancholy accident blackspots on earth: there's no place better to spend a reflective half-hour before a jolly lunch at nearby Thoumieux or the Dome. It's a perfect exposition of the French method: quirky, grandiose and stylish. Here you find French culture interred, but monumentalised. There's Serge Gainsbourg! Hey, Dreyfus! Then it's Baudelaire. And it's not long before you come across Andre Citroen, buried in a magnificent black marble tomb whose jagged angles suggest the helical gears that inspired his famous double chevron logo.

Citroen was an engineer of genius, a gambler and a chancer. The Type A was Europe's first mass-produced car, the deux chevaux a Bauhaus-inspired contraption of ineffable charm, while the elegant Light 15 brought unitary construction and traction avant to the middle classes. Citroen died, all but insolvent, before his company's greatest product, the 1955 DS, was launched at the Paris Salon de l'Automobile. So astonishing was the shape of this car that its debut was on a pylon, with wheels removed and wheel-arches filled, so as not to compromise the public's perception of it as sculpture. The conceit worked: shortly after the motor show, France's greatest post-war intellectual, Roland Barthes, said 'cars are our cathedrals'. Quite.

But audacity costs: Citroen never made money. For a long while the company was owned and subsidised by Michelin, which eventually tired of an ingenious symbiosis and sold it on to Peugeot. This dour firm was at first a poor custodian of a precious inheritance, and in the later '70s and '80s Citroen declined into a mediocrity of shared components and blurred image.

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