“I want to make this clear. To me, the Berline Bulle represents Citroën and it represents the future.” So said Arthur Blakeslee, head of the Centre Création Citroën (CCC), talking about the surprisingly simple and well-received concept car presented at the last Paris auto show.

1712199602_Citroen_BerlingoAt a time when some Citroën executives are striving to see the once-audacious French company become a mainstream, middle-of-the-road “generalist” purveyor of ordinary automobiles that can be sold at a profit, Blakeslee sees an opportunity to distinguish the company’s products through visual design, even though most contain conventional mechanical elements shared with Peugeot.

The Berline Bulle has a curious history. Mechanically it is identical to the Berlingo utility vehicle introduced last year, and even a few of the body panels, particularly hood and front fenders, derive from that little truck. True, the truck itself is based upon a passenger car floorpan, that of the ZX/Peugeot 306, but it is clearly and definitely a commercial vehicle in concept.

Citroën stylists and engineers had absolutely nothing to do with the conception of the Berlingo product; it came to them as a non-marque vehicle developed by the PSA advanced design studios at Carrière sous Poissy, where Chrysler and Simca products were developed long ago, and its outside suppliers. The job of the Centre Création Citroën was to prepare the design for production, including the Partner version for sale in Peugeot dealerships.

Once the truck was productionized, it was clear that it could be developed in a wide range of body styles with little difficulty. The Bulle was a CCC internal concept, executed by Heuliez Torino once Citroën management had signed off the concept. Blakeslee says that concept cars like the Bulle are presented to management in exactly the way volume production cars are, but there is only one showing, not several.

There are sketches, renderings, a few “ambience boards,” with painted metal sections and swatches of trim materials, all the elements necessary to see how the car will be presented, and of course a 1:5 scale model of the concept. In the case of the three Berlingo-derived concept cars shown this year, the complete pres-entation packages were taken to the outside suppliers who made the show cars, along with a Citroën stylist who followed the project as it evolved in full size.

The CCC pickup truck concept was quite heavily modified by Carrozzeria Bertone in the course of its construction, as you can see in the accompanying drawings. Italian-born Citroën stylist Alessandro Riga created the wavy line that was to define the entire project in a simple sketch early in the process, and the feel of his idea was retained as the concept evolved into the Coupé de Plage. Bertone has a long history with Citroën, having created (with Italian Marcello Gandini) the BX, the Xantia and the XM (the latter two with Frenchman Marc Deschamps).

For many years, French practice has been to use the forward part of a superseded passenger car as the cab of a light truck. The longest-lived example of that is the Peugeot 504 truck, still in production 29 years after the launch of the 504 sedan, but the Citroën C-15 van that will eventually be replaced entirely by the Berlingo is no youngster itself, having been on the market for 15 years. It uses the hood, front fenders, bumper and windshield of the Visa II sedan, long out of production.

The Berlingo is something new in France, then, even if it is no more than what the Americans used to call a “panel truck”. Indeed, the truck-based Chevrolet Suburban, identical in concept to the Berlingo with windows and rear seats, has been produced for 62 years now. Citroën cars have typically embodied extraordinary engineering and unusual styling since the “Traction Avant” or 11 CV appeared in 1934. In much of that time, the company made little or no money, and of course many people find it easiest to place blame on the unusual shapes and advanced technical content of the cars rather than on poor marketing policies and the incoherent model line-ups from which the company suffered.

For many years Citroën was in the paradoxical position of offering products at the very top (the DS) and very bottom (the 2CV) of the market, with nothing at all on offer in the vast area in between where most people look for their cars. The two-cylinder 2CV chassis was not really suitable for increased dimensions or power, and cars like the Ami 6, Ami 8 and Dyane never gave real satisfaction as mid-range models; they were simply fancier entry-level cars. The 1970 GS was a brilliant design, but it was really a two-liter car with a one-liter engine and more technical content — the hydropneumatic suspension and high-pressure powered brakes — than its price could bear.

When, finally, a solid range was established after the Peugeot takeover, extreme conservatism reigned so far as style was concerned: the mid-range LN and Visa cars were simply Peugeot 104s slightly reskinned, The AX that replaced the former and the ZX that effectively replaced both the underpowered GS with its air-cooled engine and the top Visas is also a relatively austere and conventional design.

But, as Chairman Jacques Calvet pointed out during his December press conference, Citroën now has, for the first time in its history, a complete range of cars that are relatively young and scheduled for timely renewal, rather than the twenty-year lifespans of the Traction and DS.

Today’s range includes the AX, its putative replacement, the Saxo, the ZX, the Xantia and the XM, built in tiny numbers because the market for big sedans has essentially collapsed, and the Evasion minivan, Citroën’s version of the four-power people mover shared with Peugeot, Fiat and Lancia.

In light trucks carrying the Citroën badge, there is the soon-to-disappear C-15, the Berlingo, the Jumpy, a commercial development of the Evasion with raised roof, and the Jumper, a big front-wheel-drive van made by Sevel in Italy and shared by Peugeot (the Boxer) and Fiat (the Ducato).

Although there are versions of the Jumpy and Jumper with windows and seats they have little application as private vehicles. The Berlingo, on the other hand, has been chosen for extensive development, starting with the station-wagon-like five passenger version already on sale. It is thought that there will soon be a model with a single-piece lift-up back door, as in the Grand Large show car, and there is a lot of support, both inside Citroën and from the public, for a production version of the Berline Bulle.

The Bulle can only be appreciated to the fullest extent when you are inside it. Those who were able to sit in it at the Paris show were captivated by its airy spaciousness and the sense that it is at once comfortable and tough… the exact combination of characteristics that made the 2 CV such a success for such a long time, long after its on-road performance was surpassed by every other small car on the market. The Berlingo of course is right up to date in performance, and given its ZX roots, there is ample potential for increasing its power should the market require it.

The article continues in Auto & Design no. 101