Citroën is one of the most innovative car makers in the world, and one of the most French. Renault are French too, but their cars have a sort of European homogeneity that means you could mistake them for, say, Spanish. No such dangers with Citroën.
Citroën the Innovator
The statement that they are innovative obviously requires some support. Let's start with the Traction Avant. First manufactured in the 1930s, this was the first mass-produced, front-wheel drive car. It was still in production 20 years later and even then made many of its contemporaries look dated.
And what about the famous deux-chevaux, the 2CV? Conceived in the 1930s but not launched until 1948 (something about a problem with the neighbours), the 2CV was in continuous production for over 40 years, during which time the design was never compromised. The seats could be removed for use as picnic chairs, the roof rolled back (less of a blessing in permanently-wet England) and the French farmer could drive it to market over a ploughed field with a basket of eggs remaining intact, and climb aboard for church on Sunday wearing his best tall hat. Front-wheel drive and mechanically brilliant, these cars famously take part in hilarious endurance races where they are thrashed mercilessly round a track flat-out (71mph) until they either expire (rare) or overtake (rarer).
And the legendary DS, with its trademark hydraulic suspension - a car more comfortable even than a Rolls-Royce, and gifted with the ability to lift a wheel to assist you in changing a flat tyre.
Citron - French for 'Lemon'
The penalty for innovation is often failure. Big firms are in denial about this, but the old maxim that 'if you never failed, you never tried' is as true in the commercial world as in sport.
So it has been with Citroën. Some were obvious: the Dyane, for example, was a crude attempt to update the 2CV and make it more comfortable. The 2CV represented perfect, no-frills motoring. Add the frills and you have an ordinary car whose design is 40 years out of date.
The XM should have been good (indeed, devotees insist that it is) but the oxymoron of 'French prestige car' was its undoing and depreciation was so fast that, at three years old, a failure of the hideously complex automatic transmission put the car beyond economic repair.
The BX was nearly a great car. Really. It was certainly innovative - the use of composites (plastics) in its construction was revolutionary in a mass-market car, and it used Citroën's unique hydraulic suspension system. The designers attempted to bring the minor controls to the driver's fingertips with a space-age binnacle, while ensuring good visibility of the instruments by using a single-spoke steering wheel. It was anything but anonymous.
The Bad Bits
Unfortunately they paid the price for this innovation. The composite bonnets and boots, while tough enough, did not take paint well, and the action of UV and the elements soon faded and dulled the paint. Plastic rear quarter lights also crazed over in short order.
Roll these two words around your head: 'French' and 'Engineering'. Never the happiest combination, they combined in the BX to produce an unfortunate mechanical fragility. Fuel economy in the petrol models would vary between the acceptable (but still not really good enough, given the lightness of the car) and the jaw-droppingly bad, for no apparent reason. Doors might fall off. Engine fires were a problem and so was failure of the hydraulic system, which also operated the brakes.
The cutting-edge interior design also dated quickly and the quality of plastics used was not the highest. Colours matched the trim... until the sun got to them, and the switch-gear failed with monotonous regularity. Though certainly not as bad as the Alfasud, the BX began to earn a reputation for gremlins.
And the seats. Oh dear. They were soft, unsupportive and seemingly designed for hunchbacked midgets. One long drive in a BX and you might never stand upright again. Not that lateral support was a requirement in this car: its lightness made it skittish in almost all conditions, a real handful to drive on twisty roads and too tinny to be quiet enough for motorways. Around town it would have been fine were it not for the heavy clutch, clunky gearshift and dreadful handbrake.
The Good Bits
The BX definitely had its redeeming features. The estate especially was incredibly spacious. With the rear seats down, it was possible to stand two standard-size refrigerators in the back. And close the boot1. The rear floor of the estate was very low and completely flat (no lip at the tail end), making loading a breeze, and there were strong rubber strips to stop loads slipping about or gouging the carpet.
The hydraulic suspension system, when it worked, was incredible. Notwithstanding the novelty value of being able to vary the ride height from low-down mean machine to 'tiptoe through the tulips', you could drive over speed ramps as though they weren't there. You could fill it with stuff and, if it was overloaded, the suspension would refuse to lift. Take stuff out until the suspension lifts and bingo! - you're not overloaded. And the hydraulic suspension powering the brakes meant that the more weight the car had in it, the more power went to the brakes.
Not power-assisted brakes, but power-operated. They were staggeringly effective - perhaps too good, as it was perfectly possible to induce a four-wheel lock-up on a dry road at 70mph. ABS2 should have been standard on these cars.
The Peugeot-sourced 1.9l diesel was a very good engine, probably the best small-car diesel on the market at the time. They were renowned for lasting indefinitely. Sadly the petrol engines were uniformly dreadful, which is hard to understand because in the Volvo 300 and 400 series the same engines seem to go on for ever. A 2.0 injection model was available: this seemed better.
But Did It Work?
The BX was a bold statement in a company car park full of jelly-mould Ford Sierras. The car looked different and more modern. But, like the Renault Fuego, it dated fast. And, with the paintwork looking tatty after only a couple of years, the BX soon fell from favour in the lucrative fleet market.
Ultimately, the BX was too bland to succeed as a cult car and too quirky to make it as a mainstream model. Which would be a shame if it wasn't for them being so unreliable and god-awful to drive.
Should I Buy One?
As the BX has not been in production for some years, they are only available second-hand. If you are offered a diesel estate in reasonable condition with under 100,000 miles on the clock, you could consider it. The cavernous boot makes it a fabulous student car. The saloon and any petrol versions should not be touched with a ten-foot barge pole, as you can almost certainly buy something better for the same money.