1980s / Citroen / French / Personal car / Road test

Road test: 1983 Citroën GSA Spécial

citroen-gsa-vehicle-passport“My father had one” is often what comes up when the Citroën GS / GSA is mentioned in a conversation.  The quirky mid-size sedan is common in distant memories of family vacations but downright rare on the road today.  It wasn’t always so: Between 1970 and 1986, approximately two and a half million GS and GSAs were built in France and abroad.

Starting in the early 1960s, Citroën experimented with several different prototypes in order to fill the abyss between the flat-twin-powered 2CV / Ami 6 duo and the majestic DS.  The projects were all gradually abandoned for miscellaneous reasons and the last one, called Project G internally, was rushed into production and finally presented at the Paris Motor Show that opened its doors in October of 1970.  The GS was born.

An all-new Citroën was a rare and noteworthy occasion and journalists anxiously awaited the GS as it had been delayed several times.  The car drew positive reactions from show-goers in Paris and its launch turned out to be a bigger event than most had anticipated.

A panel of journalists elected the GS European Car of the Year in 1971, the same year that a station wagon was added to the lineup, but that wasn’t enough to mask the fact that early models were plagued by a wide variety of mechanical problems.  Once the issues had been sorted out, the GS became one of the most popular family cars in Europe during the 1970s.

Citroën considered selling the car in the United States and according to the Citroën Concours of America, several dozen examples were imported in 1971 to display in U.S. showrooms.  Upcoming EPA and DoT regulations regarding bumper and headlight height coupled with deep financial troubles led the automaker to cancel its export plans, but it reportedly received an encouraging number of orders.citroen-gsa-14

Citroën redesigned the GS in 1979 and rechristened it GSA.  The most important modification was the addition of a hatchback, a feature that was growing in popularity on the French market.  Other changes included a new grille, plastic bumpers on both ends, new tail lamps, new hubcaps and plastic exterior door handles.

The boxy BX landed in showrooms in 1982 and it slowly replaced the GSA, which saw its light burn out when the last station wagon was built in 1986.

Sci-fi interior

The driver is faced with an instrument cluster that can best be described as aircraft-like.  A diagram of the car – which in 1983 must have been more futuristic than Ronald Reagan’s infamous Star Wars speech – is located at the center of the cluster and flashes when something vital needs attention.  In the middle of this diagram is a big “STOP” light that might as well read “abandon ship if this turns on.”

On either side of the steering wheel, the driver finds big pods that contain buttons and switches, a setup also used by a number of CX, BX and Visa models.  The left pod houses the wiper command, the headlight command, the turn signal switch (which does not auto-cancel) and the horn.  The right pod is home to the hazard light switch, the fog light switches if equipped and something called an econoscope which flashes a light on the dashboard when the engine is using a lot of fuel.

The speedometer is a rolling drum with a needle indicating the speed.  The Spécial is the entry-level trim so it does not have a tachometer and the one visible in the photos was added by the previous owner.  The only other instrument is a gas gauge.citroen-gsa-15

The radio is located in between the front seats, where the handbrake is generally found, and the handbrake is sandwiched in the middle of the dash, where the radio usually sits.  The gear lever sticks out from the floor – this is worth mentioning because when the GS came out, Citroëns were notorious for their unorthodox gearshift arrangements.  The DS had it on the steering column, a featured written off as dated by the press in the early 1970s, and the 2CV / Ami 8 duo had it going through the dash, through the firewall and down into the gearbox.

At the wheel

The first thing that sticks out when the flat-four has whirled to life is that the aforementioned “STOP” light comes on.   Since the GSA uses Citroën’s hydropneumatic suspension, the driver has to wait for the car to fully rise before driving off.  The rear rises first, followed by the front.  The light turns off when the car has reached its normal ride height.

The suspension control lever is between the front seats, next to the radio. There are three positions: The one closest to the front of the car is normal ride height; the one in the middle sets the suspension a little higher in order to drive (at low speeds, preferably) on terrain that requires more ground clearance or over obstacles such as sidewalks and the position furthest back is for emergencies only such as to change a tire. Citroën advises not to drive with the highest position engaged.

The hydraulic suspension gives the GSA roughly the same amount of body roll as a Moto Grand Prix motorcycle, but it also provides an unbelievably quiet and comfortable ride.

The steering, commanded through a typically-Citroën single spoke wheel, is precise and light considering it is not a power unit.  The four disc brakes provide excellent stopping power but they take a bit to get used to because the pedal has a travel distance of approximately an inch and a half.

Under the hood

A vast majority of GS  / GSAs were powered by an air-cooled flat-four.  Over the years, the sedan got a 1,015cc (anemic, also found in the Ami Super), a 1,129cc, a 1,222cc and 1,299cc. A twin-rotor Wankel engine with an adjusted displacement of 1,990cc was offered very briefly and is rarer than hen’s teeth today.

citroen-gsa-19Our test car features the 1,129cc that puts out 56 horsepower and 58 lb-ft. of torque.  Fuel enters the combustion chambers via a double barrel Solex 28 CIC4 carburetor and an overhead camshaft on each cylinder bank opens and closes the valves with the help of two timing belts.

At first glance 1,129cc may seem inadequate – a Super Beetle has a bigger engine – but paired with the aerodynamic design of the body the small engine does a remarkable job at moving the car along and it will cruise at 80 mph (130 km/h) without complaining too much. However, it will complain when going up steep mountain roads, where the gearshift finds itself in a constant dance between 2nd and 3rd gear in order to go up at a steady pace.

About our test car

We purchased this 1983 GSA in early 2008 from the grandson of the original owner.  At the time the odometer read just 76,000 kilometers (47,000 miles) and we have added about 10,000 kilometers (6,000 miles) since.

It is not a perfect example of a well-preserved car because it has a lot of odd aftermarket add-ons, including plastic molding on the body, a third brake light, a tachometer and a clock, just to name a few.  However, we were drawn by its relatively rare Rouge Vallelunga color and its low miles.

We used this car as a daily driver for nine or ten months so a lot of the pictures below were taken during our commute or while running errands.

15 thoughts on “Road test: 1983 Citroën GSA Spécial

  1. While of course a a perfectly preserved car, that looks like it has just rolled of the production line, has an undeniable appeal of its own, all these little add-ons add a certain a certain kind authenticity. I remember adding more or less useless gimmicks like an electric antenna to one car, or fog lights to another – as long as it is not some 12-inch subwoofer on the hat rack or an Japanese after-market rear wing, these little things say this was a car that was once dear to someone.

    One other thing: I remember as a child in the early eighties we once visited a garage and there was a car with a tire under the hood, in the engine compartment – I thought as a child back then “How odd”. Somehow it has produced a lasting memory. I think it was an small to medium sized French or Italian car – might have been an GS/GSA. Do you know other such cars from that era with the spare tire under the hood?

    • Hey, lots of French cars had the spare tire under the hood, including the Renault 14 and 5, the Peugeot 104/Citroen LNA/Talbot Samba, Citroen Visa, etc. Where did you see it, out of curiosity?

      • If my memory serves my right (which is doubtful) I think I saw it in a garage in Czechoslovakia. I lived (and still do) in (West-)Germany, but most of my relatives live in what is now Czech republic and we used to visits three times or more per year. Smuggle stuff like hifi sets and kitchen appliances to them, and smuggle cigarettes and lead glass back to the west… So if I don’t mix up child hood memories (which is possible) it was doubly odd, as seeing a western car was a bit unusual (not totally, but a bit), so it stuck to me, I guess. I remember I was keenly aware that we were traveling in a BMW 520i (E28) back then, and the instances were a Trabbi overtook us with dangerous 120 km/h on narrow roads equally stuck with me…

        If I had to guess, I’d say it was a Citroen Visa, but it might have been some other somehow similar make and model…

      • I just see on Wikipedia, the GDR used to import the GSA Pallas, and the GSA was even manufactured in Slovenia and Rumania – but for how long I can’t tell from the Wikipedia entries.

      • The smuggling we did until the end of communism. 🙂 It was actually easy, at the border they came with a table on wheels, you had to empty the trunk and they would look into the suitcase that was the lowest in the trunk – and only in that one.

        The garage thing was early eighties, something along 1983 give or take, I would say. My memory is really hazy here.

  2. I wonder if it might have been a Citroen Axel – these were available in Czechoslovakia at that time and are a cross between a Visa and a GS to put it simply and possibly more common than a GSA east of the Iron Curtain

    • Yes, it might have been an Citroen Axel, or maybe a Visa.

      And I am trying to really think hard whether it had Czech number plates or foreign ones … It could have been foreign plates, either Italian or maybe Yugoslavian plates. It was definitely not the black French plates – that I would have remembered! – and I think it did not have yellow head-lights.

      It was a small car that somehow didn’t quite belong there, and it was odd with the wheel under the hood – but I’m leaving the territory where I can trust this little child hood memory of mine.

    • I checked regarding the plate colors, and it is all off… Italy had black ones back then, so it wasn’t Italian. But France had the white ones for a long time already, so it might have been a French car. Or a Yugoslavian one. Or my memory is off. 🙂

  3. By the way, Ronan, you were right- I did enjoy your brief test. I adore the GS- a near perfect combination of A Series and DS. I’ve had 2- difficult here in the US- and would love another, preferably a break this time. I have to ask: the seat covers on your GSA- are those leather? Looking at the shots, the way the material breaks and folds lets me think it is.

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