After a few decades of Cold War, it was apparent that the Iron Curtain was not as solid as the Soviet Union had originally hoped. One of the weaker links in the chain was thought to be in Romania, where by the 1970s, Nicolae Ceaușescu had been investigating various tie-ups with the West.
Oil, loans, and exports were main areas of attention, with the Romanian government soliciting for partners in a new automotive venture.
Volkswagen, Renault, and Citroën responded. Volkswagen dropped out, Renault began a partnership with Dacia, and after 13 months of negotiations, Citroën was awarded with a manufacturing agreement. Even considering the negative points of dealing with a Communist country, the potential to have Romanian-manufactured vehicles on roads from St. Petersburg, Russia to Kabul, Afghanistan—with a portion of the profit returning to the West—was too good to pass up.
Well, sort of. The terms of the deal meant that Citroën was obligated to purchase and re-sell Romanian-made products in the West. I'm not sure how that all worked out.
In 1976, Oltcit was formed. It was a syllabic abbreviation of 'Olt'enia, a province in Romania and 'Cit'roën. The French carmaker got 36 per cent of the available shares, the Romanian government got 64 per cent, and both parties agreed that 40 per cent of the production could be exported. (Those cars were sold as the Citroën Axel.)
Despite wanting to begin production by 1980, Romanian construction firms, government corruption, and other problems meant that the facility was only ready late in 1982, with (nearly) full-scale production beginning in 1983.
The Oltcit Club began life as a proposed badge-engineered 5-door Citroën-Fiat compact but the project was shelved—in the early 1970s—after Michelin had sold the French carmaker to Peugeot. Deciding on specs was pretty easy; the Oltcit would be a 3-door version of that project, code name TA, as the extra two doors just increased cost and manufacturing complexity.
It would need great ground clearance, a soft (torsion bar!) suspension, a robust electrical system, and great insulation for coping with Romanian weather. Powered by a flat 2-cylinder engine from the Citroën Visa in Spécial trim, the 11 R trim was fitted with a flat 4-cylinder engine from the Citroën GS.
Top speed? 150 km/h (93 mph), with fuel consumption at 6 L/100 km (40 US mpg). A 4-speed manual was the only transmission available in the 11 R & 11 RL models, with a slightly upgraded engine and 5-speed manual offered in the Oltcit Club 12 TRS.
Rather strangely, because the Oltcit was born from a scuttled Citroën prototype and featured almost exclusively Citroën components, it was in many ways the last Citroën made without interference from Peugeot.
Even though it's considered by many to be just a crappy economy car, inside, buyers were treated to the full Citroën experience, including PRN satellites—something it has in common with the very first #bcotd, the 1980 Citroën Karin concept.
PRN satellites are cylinders on either side of the steering wheel that control just about everything: turn indicators, washers, headlights, fog lights, wipers, and horn. In case you were curious, PRN stands for Pluie (rain), Route (road), and Nuit (night). In some ways, the Oltcit PRN modules were the purest forms of this design quirk, and worked well with the model's single-spoke steering wheel.
My favourite part? The car's seat fabrics, which look like their were lifted from a couch left at the curb.
Even though I think it'd be fun to have an Oltcit as a commuter car, at the time they weren't exactly flying off of the assembly line—or selling well at dealerships.
Quality control was atrocious, which was less of a problem in Romania but the 40 per cent of vehicles produced and offered in Europe as the Axel had to be steeply discounted. From the start of production until 1988, only 60,000 were made—a far cry from the target of 300,000 per year the facility was apparently capable of.
Near the end of production, upheavals in Romania eventually led to Ceaușescu and his wife meeting their maker via firing squad on Christmas Day in 1989, with Citroën taking the opportunity to pull out of the deal by 1990. Control of the Oltcit factory reverted to the Romanian state. Citroën enthusiast website citroenet.org.uk explains a few of the proposed model variations under new management:
"Oltcit had developed a cabriolet but was unable to get this homologated for road use – there were major structural problems which were not helped by the lack of a roll bar and the use of a horizontal piece of veneered wood between the rear wings did not do much for rigidity."
The venture was renamed Oltena in 1994. With Dacia components and various other "models"—including a two-door truck not unlike the Suzuki Mighty Boy—the history of Oltena is even more convoluted and bizarre.
Ever heard of Rodae? From the ashes of the Oltcit / Oltena venture rose a partnership with Daewoo—Rodae is another syllabic abbreviation: 'Ro'manian 'Dae'woo.
I can't imagine those were very good cars. Maybe one day we'll fall down that particular rabbit hole together…