The Citroën Ami is a French classic – a highly distinctive B-segment supermini sold from 1961 to 1978. The original Ami 6 was characterized by its chunky massing, a reverse raked rear window, and distinctive rectangular headlamps. The Ami 8 was introduced as the successor to the 6 at the Geneva Motor Show in 1969, and though similar, featured a more conventional fastback shape.
But as the Ami 8 was introduced, Citroën decided to produce a limited run of prototype 8s employing an experimental Wankel engine that was built by Comotor, a joint venture between Citroën and NSU. Like the Chrysler Turbine profiled last week, it was decided to construct a bespoke car around the new engine. The project, both design and manufacturing, was contracted to Heuliez, the French coachbuilder which specialized in limited production runs.
The car that was wrapped around the experimental Wankel engine was a coupe version of the Ami 8, which came only in four door variants. Although the profile definitely looked like the Ami, there were, in fact, shared few components beyond the front fenders. The fastback that had debuted on the Ami 8 was continued here, but in a more pronounced rake, creating a coupe that was noticeably shorter than the standard car.
The interior is a four seat configuration, but with a more 2+2 arrangement than the standard sedan, due to the fastback. The steering wheel was a classic Citroën single spoke, with instrumentation and an IP formed of various pieces raided from the parts bin. The front seats reclined just above the waist, a feature that would be carried over to the legendary SM.
The Wankel on board was a 995cc engine that produced 49bhp with 50ft lbs of torque; it could power the M35 from 0-100km/h in a leisurely 19 seconds (10 seconds faster than a standard Ami 8), and had a top speed of about 140km/h. It was a smooth-running engine; so much so that an audible alarm had to be added to the tachometer to warn when the engine approached the red line of 7000rpm. The chassis included the trademark Citroën hydropneumatic suspension, which assured the stance of the car could vary from tippy-toe pothole jumper to groundscraping low rider.
Citroën had initially thought to try to conduct the testing program in secret, but it was finally decided that a quiet publicity campaign was the best approach. The original idea had been to build 500 cars and sell them to select Citroën customers. An application had to be submitted, and a potential buyer had to be a loyal Citroën customer, drive 30,000 kilometres a year, and be able to afford the high price of 14,000 Francs, roughly the equivalent of an entry level DS of the time.
In the end, only 267 of the 500 cars planned were actually built. The new owners were generally pleased with the cars, which were festooned with prominent numbers on their front fenders, and a sign on the rear window that read, “This Citroën M35 prototype fitted with a rotary piston engine is undergoing long term testing at the hands of a Citroën customer.” So even if you were not near the car, passers by could look over the strange little coupe and learn about it from the decals on the car. But like the Chrysler Turbine cars, many owners were stopped in the street and in car parks and interrogated at length.
Drivers reported smooth and quiet running engines and (relatively) quick acceleration. Others reported gratitude for the larger 43-litre petrol tank, because, as Citroën already knew, fuel economy was poor. Citroën, recognizing the experimental nature of the car, offered a two year warranty on the motor, roadside assistance, and even loan cars if the M35 had a prolonged stay in the repair shop. The shops for their part were asked to file maintenance reports directly to the manufacturer as the cars came in.
The program ended in 1971, and Citroën deemed it a success. To limit the company’s liability, Citroën offered to buy the cars back from the owners under very favourable terms. Some took the company up on its offer, especially if it meant being in a position to move up to a DS. Others, either out of love for the car, or sensing a collectible in the making, refused the offer. As the result, approximately a third of the production run survived. The number will never be positively known, as Citroën tried to hide the fact that the full 500 production run was not achieved by some ‘creative’ numbering, and some numbers, like Number 1, were repeated.
Today some 100 M35 cars survive although only a very few are in running condition. Most are in private collections, in Citroën’s Conservatoire (including some unused body shells), and one unnumbered car rests in Volkswagen’s Zeithaus museum in Wolfsburg.
Collectors bemoan the opportunity lost in the program: a limited edition M35 coupe with a standard engine, perhaps supercharged or otherwise modified, and with racing suspension? That would have been a fabulous little road racer. But it was not to be. Citroën was already looking down the road at new cars, and especially to the legendary SM, destined to become the flagship of the Citroën brand in the 1970s.