The Citroën Axel is often described as two-door Visa with a GSA engine. That description is more or less correct but it overlooks the fact that the Axel actually came before the Visa. In reality, the Visa can be considered a four-door version of the Axel.
Citroën started designing the Axel in the middle of the 1970s as a successor to the Ami 8 and the Ami Super. Called Project Y internally, it was initially developed jointly with Fiat and underpinned by a modified 127 platform but the two complanies split and Citroën was forced to start over and develop the car on its own. To save money, the Axel was designed to use a large number of components sourced from the Citroën parts bin including engines and transmissions borrowed from the GS.
The Axel project was canceled when Peugeot took over Citroën in 1974. It decided that the company’s Ami 8 successor would ride on a modified Peugeot 104 platform and use either Citroën’s venerable flat-twin or a straight-four, water-cooled engine mounted transversally. The new guidelines spawned the Visa, which was introduced in 1978.
The decision was a big blow to Citroën because it had spent a considerable amount of money on the Axel project. George Taylor, a Romania-born executive, was convinced that there was money to be made by selling cars east of the Iron Curtain and he brought up the idea of resuscitating the Axel to spearhead the project. It was controversial but it was ultimately given the green light, and Citroën signed a deal with Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu on December 30th, 1976, that called for the production of a small economy car.
Citroën and the Romanian government started a joint-venture called Oltcit, a porte-manteau of Oltenia, the region where the cars would be built, and Citroën. The two partners aimed to gradually reach a cruising speed of about 130,000 cars annually. Half of the production was supposed to be allocated to Citroën and distributed in a number of Western European countries.
As it turns out, setting up shop in Romania was easier said than done and the first Oltcit didn’t roll off the assembly line until 1982. In Romania, the Axel was christened Oltcit Club. It was offered with either a 652cc air-cooled flat-twin borrowed from the Visa or a 1,129cc air-cooled flat-four pulled from the GSA.
In Europe, the lineup was made up of three models: The Axel, the Axel 11 R and the Axel 12 TRS. Truly Spartan, the base model was equipped with the same 1.1-liter engine as its Oltcit-badged counterpart. The 11 R featured the same engine but a better-finished interior with more equipment, and the range-topping 12 TRS gained a 1,299cc version of the flat-four that developed 62 horsepower. All engines sent power to the front wheels via a four-speed manual transmission.
In Europe, the Axel was a flop. The built quality was terrible and many buyers were unwilling to accept the flat-four engines’ relatively high fuel consumption. To make matters worse, the Axel looked and felt decidedly outdated compared to most of its competitors. It was more popular in Romania but production remained far below expectations, peaking at 37,000 units in 1984.
Citroën quickly lost interest in the Axel so it never significantly updated it. For years, its only real selling point was its low price. In 1985, the base Axel retailed for 38,000 francs, making it cheaper than a base LN and only 2,000 francs more expensive than a 2CV6 Charleston. In 1989, the Axel was actually cheaper than a 2CV.
The last Axel sold on this side of the Iron Curtain was built in 1990, but production carried on in Romania until 1996.
Today, the Axel has become so rare that the French equivalent to the British website Howmanyleft doesn’t even list it as a model. A look in the national classifieds reveals there are precisely five Axels for sale and all of them are listed at €1,000 or less.
We don’t know what the story is behind the Axel pictured below. We photographed it in a tiny town located about an hour and a half outside of Paris, France. It looks like it hasn’t moved in at least a couple of months and the registration stickers on the windshield indicate it hasn’t been on the road for a few years. Here’s to hoping that it’s a recently-acquired project that will be gradually fixed up and put back on the road.
Here are pictures of prototypes from Project Y that prefigured the Axel and ultimately led to the Visa. We took the photos a couple of years ago in the Citroën Conservatoire.