Some years ago, I read an article in the magazine “Classic & Sportscar”, about the Citroën Ami 6. It was jade green with an off-white roof and several of the pictures were taken “en route”. It made quite an impression on me, and those pictures have stuck in my mind ever since, as I really can’t think of many things better than a French Route National in the summertime, casually cruising along under the shade provided by the green plane trees lining the road ahead.
Already now, it’s probably obvious that “my mission” today is to stand up for the controversial and at times ridiculed Citroën Ami 6. The question is of course, whether the task might be too difficult – perhaps even impossible. Plenty of negative words have been written about this particular car. For example, in an article on the Danish side of ViaRETRO titled “Failed Aesthetics – Citroën Ami”, our very own Søren Navntoft wrote: “I can’t find so much as one single beautiful angle on the Ami, and doubt others can” (naturally, translated from Danish).
The designer behind the Ami, Flaminio Bertoni, who at heart was probably more of an artist and sculptor than a designer, had designed both the Citröen Traction Avant, Citröen 2CV and as the jewel in his crown, the iconic Citröen DS. But before his death, Bertoni also added the Citröen Ami 6 to his portfolio, and it was subsequently launched in 1961.
With its 602cc engine capacity fractionally above the limit for the French 2 CV designation, the Citröen Ami 6 was nicknamed the 3CV in France, differentiating it from the long established and much loved Citroën 2CV. 3CV stands for Trois chevaux, or “three horses” – CV originally being the abbreviation for “chevaux-vapeur” (horsepower), but used here for “chevaux fiscaux”. The whole “cheval fiscal” was a French fiscal unit based on engine size with the smaller CV designating economy cars. The tax horsepower rating was often used as the car model name. For example, the Morris Eight got its name from its horsepower rating of eight; notfrom the number of cylinders of the engine. British cars of the 1920s and 1930s were frequently named using a combination of tax horsepower and actual horsepower – for example, the Talbot 14-45 had an actual power output of 45hp and a tax horsepower of only 14hp. In the end, the Citroën 2CV was the last car to use the taxable horsepower as its model designation.
Now, back to Flaminio Bertoni and the design story of Citröen Ami 6… He was reportedly not entirely satisfied with the result in the first place, because there were some inevitable compromises, since the starting point was the 2CV frame and its engine. Technically, it was not difficult to increase the engine capacity, but the whole layout – with carburetor and air filter placed on top of the engine – made it impossible for the new Ami 6 to have a low bonnet, which Bertoni originally had planned for the design. He therefore ended up with the rather special and shapely bonnet, where the association which first pops to mind… if we stay in the French department so to speak… is a thinly rolled dough, softly wrapping itself around a filled pie dish before being baked and thus transforming itself into a wonderful classic Quiche Lorraine.
At the same time – and in the eleventh hour – one of the leading lighting manufacturers in the world: Cibié, from France, launched the rectangular (or lozenge-shaped) headlights, and the Citröen Ami 6 was one of the first ever to utilise this new shape of headlight. The German lighting manufacturer, Hella, had equally introduced an oblong headlight, which in turn was used by Ford for the German Taunus 17M known as the P3 – or simply by its German nickname: “Badewannetaunus” (which translates into “The Bath Tub Taunus”).
Oddly though, on the Citröen Ami 6, there were originally two different trim levels: the base trim Ami 6, and the upscale Ami 6 Club model. For the domestic French market, the Ami 6 Club’s main differences were a more upmarket interior, different grill, and… 4 ordinary round headlights!
To add strength to the thin sheet metal of the body, a contour was pressed into the side of the car. A detail used on many modern cars. But the Ami 6 was perhaps most famous for its unusual reverse-raked notchback rear window, similar in style to the 1959 Ford Anglia 105E, which was manufactured by Ford UK. It was not just a design gimmick, but had a practical function as well. As mentioned, the Citröen Ami 6 was built on the Citröen 2CV frame and due to the wheelbase distance, there was limited leg space in the rear. This could be compensated to some extent by letting the rear seat passengers sit very upright, but inversely that required more “head room” at the rear seats… and that’s the simple reasoning behind that controversial reverse-raked rear window, since its extended line allowed the roof to continue further back.
With all of that said, you would be excused for thinking that the Citroën Ami 6 was a car which only appealed to a limited audience – the creative class and the intelligentsia. But that was not the case, at least not in France, where it was a great seller… a car for the middle-class family. And if there was any doubt about that initially, it definitely changed, when the Citröen Break (the Estate model) was launched.
When the time came for a facelift, the Citröen Ami 8 was launched – with a bigger engine and the “pie dough” front evolved into a more integrated design. Furthermore, the variant with the reverse-raked rear window disappeared from the line-up and it became a more conventional hatchback design instead.
In 1970, the Citroën GS model was launched – a compact car with the hydropneumatic suspension from Citröen DS, a new idiom by Robert Opron and, not least, a brand new engine. The engine, a 4-cylinder air-cooled boxer – and as something all new from Citroën – with overhead camshafts, also found its way to Citröen Ami, which then became Ami Super.
Was this to be “the crown of the Ami-era”, thanks to it finally having a decent sized engine? Well, almost – but still not quite enough, because now something truly exciting happened… Citroën had entered into a joint venture with NSU based around a new Wankel engine, also called the Comotor. Before this Wankel engine was to be broadly released into mass production, Citroën wanted to have it tested under realistic conditions in daily operation. There was a need for a rolling test laboratory and the result was the Citröen M35. The car was planned to be built in 500 examples at Heuliez (Heuliez was a French company that worked as a production and design unit for various automakers), but it never got that far, with only 267 cars produced. These Citröen M35 were exclusively offered to selected Citroën customers with an annual driving requirement of at least 30,000 km – would I have been happy to have been among those customers? Definitely…
Including the Wankel engine, almost everything differed from the ordinary Citröen Ami, except for the front bodywork, which when it came down to it, actually was slightly different as well. And as if that wasn’t already enough, it also had hydropneumatic suspension.
The plan was for Citroën to buy back the cars, examine them and (deep sigh!!!!) then scrap them. Though, luckily this was not quite what happened, as many owners were very fond of their innovative M35’s, and perhaps some of them had even figured out that it eventually could become a coveted rarity. So… is it rare? Oui M’sieur!Approximately 80 cars are still well preserved, and the enthusiastic Citröen M35 owners even have their own website – see more in the references below (#1).
Before we leave the Citröen M35 part of the story, someone might ask: Did the Wankel engine do well? And the simple answer is: Yes, it did work out very well. So well in fact, that it was launched in the Citröen GS model as well under the name Citröen GS Birotor. Unfortunately, the timing was not the best, because at the launch in 1973 the oil crisis broke out. The Wankel engine’s notorious “petrol thirst” and, moreover, the quite high price of the car, “killed it” after less than 1,000 examples were sold.
Around 4 months after Citröen had launched their Ami 6, in April 1961, Renault followed with their long-awaited 4L “Quatrelle”, the successor to the Renault 4CV (with the Danish nickname: “Rynkerøven”, which translates into “the Wrinkled Butt”). I too admit that it’s difficult to find sound arguments for the Citroën Ami being a pretty car in any way, but I honestly encounter the same difficulties when it comes to the Renault “Quatrelle”. The “Quatrelle” was not an action, but a reaction to what Citroën had already done with their 2CV, and which they followed up with their Ami. As we have seen, the Citröen Ami evolved continuously into various variants and with engines it might not have deserved – while in stark contrast, the Citroën DS never received the engine it deserved! But that’s of course another story for another day…
Personally, I would like to own a Citroën Ami 6… the “ur-Ami”… also due to its interior door trim, as seen here in one of the Tintin stories (from 1963), “The Castafiore Emerald”, in a scene with Professor Calculus.
The Citroën Ami 6… the attainable dream – mon ami… was part of Citroën’s golden age, where their cars possessed much more flair, elegance and innovation than does any of their current models, such as today’s superficial Citroën C4 Cactus. It seems as if they believe, that to make a car stand out nowadays, it only needs to have something reminiscent of “the golden age”, e.g. the interior door trim in Ami 6, but now placed on the outside of the door – almost like a bath mat – on a what is otherwise a very ordinary car.
Well… the Cactus might be attainable, but it is neither a dream nor a friend to me.
- “The Castafiore Emerald” from 1963 (in its original language, French, it was called: Les Bijoux de la Castafiore); the 21st volume of The Adventures of Tintin, the comics series by Belgian cartoonist Hergé (birth name: Georges Prosper Remi)