Features

Peugeot, Citroen, Opel, and Vauxhall in the U.S.

In which the past is not necessarily prelude

It’s difficult to picture the struggles of the post-World War II European automotive market now, but at the time, recovering manufacturers considered import to the U.S. necessary to survive. Virtually every European brand, from Armstrong-Siddeley to Wartburg tried to make it here. Only a few thrived. The brands of PSA Peugeot Citroen are not among them. Which is most likely to return? Their histories here provide few clues.

Peugeot

The Peugeot family began manufacturing with a cotton mill in the 18th Century, says “The Standard Catalog of Imported Cars, 1946-2002,” citing another book, “World Guide to Automobile Manufacturers.” The Peugeot family began bicycle production in 1885, and built four gasoline-powered automobiles starting in 1889.

Peugeot imported automobiles to the U.S. from late 1958 to August 1991. It acquired Citroen from Michelin in 1976, then bought all of Chrysler’s European operations in 1978, renaming itself Talbot until 1980, when it became Peugeot S.A.

In late 1958, you could buy a new Peugeot 403 four-door sedan in the U.S. for $2,245-$2,295 on the West Coast, or $2,215 on the Gulf Coast, according to the “Standard Catalog.” Peugeot peaked at 20,007 cars sold here in 1984. By August of 1991 however, it had sold just 2,223 cars calendar year to-date, among a relatively hefty 151 dealers in the U.S.

Citroen

Founded in 1919 and on the brink of bankruptcy a decade-and-a-half later, Citroen was sold to Michelin in 1934 at the strong behest of the French government. France embraces Citroen design and innovation as the embodiment of the country’s culture.

Citroen sold “approximately 10 cars” in the U.S. in 1949, according to the “Standard Catalog,” then 13 in 1950, five in ’51, 11 in ’52 and 40 in ’53. Citroens were officially sold in the U.S. through 1975, ending with the Maserati-powered SM coupe and coinciding with Michelin’s sale of the company to Peugeot.

“Standard Catalog” does not list U.S. sales for every year here from 1949 to 1975, though in 1958, after the advent of the DS model, sales had climbed to 1,145. Citroen sold 2,364 in 1959, and “approximately 2,000” in 1963. By 1964, the catalog says, “Citroen had about 170 dealers in the U.S.” Two years later, Citroen acquired another storied French automaker, Panhard.

The “Standard Catalog” notes there were rumors throughout the 1990s that Citroen would soon return to the U.S. market. It hasn’t, so far.

Opel

General Motors bought 80 percent of Opel in 1929, then the remaining 20 percent in 1931, and sold it with Vauxhall to PSA in 2017. Founded in 1862 to make sewing machines, Opel was ranked the largest bike manufacturer in the world by the late 1920s before selling that part of its business to NSU in 1936. Its first car was the Opel-Lutzmann of 1898, then shortly after, Opel-Darracqs. Opel built GM’s first unibody car, the Olympia, in 1935.

GM’s Buick Motor Division began importing Opels to the U.S. in late ’57 for the 1958 model year, though Vaughn Imported Cars of New York City brought the brand in from 1953-57, according to “Standard Catalog.” The 1.0-liter-powered Kadett began import to the U.S. in 1962, though no Opels were shipped here in 1963 thanks to inter-showroom competition with the compact/midsize Buick Special. Opel sales in the U.S. peaked at 93,520 in calendar year 1969, including 11,880 two-seat GTs.

While top-trim Opel Senators competed with Audis and even BMWs in Germany in the 1970s, Buick switched to Japanese-produced models in 1976, marketed as “Opel by Isuzu.” A short while later, it was badged “Buick Opel,” and then left the U.S. market after 1978.

Vauxhall

The British brand began building boats, then, in 1903, cars. Due to what “Standard Catalog” calls “financial ills,” Vauxhall was sold to GM in 1925. The 1932 Vauxhall Cadet came with what the catalog says was the first synchronized gearbox, and in 1938, the Vauxhall Ten sedan was built with unibody construction. After WWII, the six-cylinder 1955 Cresta, featuring a wraparound windshield, brought deluxe American style to the recovering British market.

We didn’t get that model in the U.S. Instead, GM sold the compact Vauxhall Victor in Pontiac dealerships here from 1958 to 1962. A four-door sedan was $1,988 at port-of-entry, and a four-door wagon was $2,400 according to “Standard Catalog,” which did not publish U.S. sales numbers. Like Opel and the Buick Special, Pontiac dealers apparently didn’t want the Vauxhall Victor to compete with its Tempest compact introduced for 1961. Some ’62-model Victors were sold into the 1963 calendar year as leftovers, according to the catalog.

A year later, the 1964 Vauxhall Viva launched. It was a badge-engineered, right-hand-drive second-generation Opel Kadett, and marked the beginning of the end of Vauxhall as a GM brand with Vauxhall-distinct models.

(SOURCE: “Standard Catalog of Imported Cars 1946-2002” Second Edition, updated by Mike Covello. Published by Krause Publications, Iola, Wisconsin.)

OUR PICK: Citroen

Though it’s just one “e” and an umlaut from the French word for “lemon,” Citroen is the obvious choice for PSA’s return to the United States. Citroens have shared platforms with Peugeot for decades, but after 20-some years of rather boring, look-alike models between the two, Citroen has broken free with the most daring designs from any mainstream, commodity nameplate.

While the luxury subbrand DS takes its name from the revolutionary Citroen sedan of 1955, Citroen doesn’t need that name to sell its own cars with high trim levels here. Like Mini—or Volvo, which has moved steadily upmarket during the last three decades—Citroen can re-launch here as a premium brand commanding relatively high margins at low sales volumes and be successful.

The Citroen C3 compact picks up where the Mini Cooper left off, with premium, avant-garde styling and a wide array of personalized color and trim options. The C4 Cactus is a funky looking crossover, roughly similar to the popular Subaru Crosstrek in size and layout, but with soft exterior door panels that serve as both a remedy against parking lot dings and a design motif. The C4 Aircross is a much more conventional looking, compact sport/utility vehicle that would shore up the U.S. market effort.

All three will be redesigned, if not replaced with something all new by the time they’re ready for import here. PSA is designing all future platforms to be “protected” to meet U.S. safety, crash and emissions standards, North American chief Larry Dominique says. It’s clear that all next-generation Peugeot, Citroen, DS, Opel and Vauxhall models will share common platforms, generally in the subcompact, compact and midsize car and SUV categories, plus delivery vans.

This will cut cost-per-car by 700 euro (US$812) by 2020, PSA CEO Carlos Tavares said in Opel’s hometown of Russelsheim, Germany, according to a report in Bloomberg. There’s already a common platform head start—GM and PSA established an alliance in 2012, five years before the French automaker bought Opel/Vauxhall.

A bit further out, Tavares says, Opel will offer electric and hybrid powertrains through its entire lineup by 2024. The key words here are “and hybrid powertrains,” which means that anything with a conventional internal combustion engine could be available with hybrid, or plug-in hybrid power. With all the brands on a common set of platforms by then, Citroen, or any of the other brands, could offer hybrids or full EV models in its U.S. lineup.

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