Musings on the Past

10 years on from the Citroen that changed the game with a game

Though always intended as a showcase of future technology and visionary styling that might someday find its way into a production model, concept cars are rarely influential beyond the badge from which it came from. With technology being proprietary and design being its identity, concept cars rarely inspire followers.

Perhaps the only truly influential concept car was General Motors’ gorgeous 1938 Buick Y-Job, which started the whole genre. Since then, there have been countless concept cars, from the realistically futuristic to the purely fantastical that have come and gone, but the formula has barely changed from it being a platform to tease its audiences of a future that will likely never materialise in its original form. Concept cars were always going to be a static showpiece for audiences to imagine rather than experience, that is until the 2008 Paris Motor Show when Citroën rolled out a groundbreaking supercar, the GT by Citroën.

Grandiose in its appearance, gratuitous in its proportions, nothing in Citroën’s backlog of creations could match the GT by Citroën’s sheer sense of theatre, but it wasn’t its looks that made the GT stand out. Citroën, after all, is no stranger to creating impressive but implausible concepts, and neither was the concept’s proposed hydrogen fuel-cell drivetrain anything revolutionary when it came to concept cars.

Rather, the GT wasn’t created as yet another concept to draw motor show crowds, but a collaboration between Citroën and Polyphony Digital, the good folks behind the Gran Turismo video game franchise. Unlike most concepts that will be relegated to a museum of a private collection once its time in the motor show limelight was over, the GT was meant to be a car that could be ‘driven’ by anyone with access to a PlayStation 3 and a copy of Gran Turismo 5.

Racing video games and car makers have always had a cooperative relationship since Electronic Arts teamed up with Road & Track magazine to bring real-life cars to the virtual world in 1994 with The Need For Speed. Furthermore many video games since have also featured concept cars and one-offs, but no game had ever had a car sanctioned by a full-fledged car maker built specifically for it. That intent is further evident in the design of its menacing rear end, which was a focus since it is the view most players would see while playing the game.

Considering Citroën propensity for plush cars and a c’est la vie attitude to lackadaisical small cars, the choice of having Citroën design the first Gran Turismo exclusive concept car seemed odd, but the collaboration was thanks in part to the GT’s designer, Takumi Yamamoto, who had served as an exterior designer for PSA for the past seven years and was a good friend of Gran Turismo founder Kazunori Yamauchi.

Adding to that it wasn’t as though the Gran Turismo series was just ‘some video game’. By 2008 the Gran Turismo series was one of the most popular games which itself grew into an influential form of motoring media and played a pivotal role in shaping the opinion of a new generation of potential car buyers.

If it wasn’t for its appearance in 1999’s Gran Turismo 2, the RUF CTR ‘Yellowbird’ and Walter Röhrl would have likely remained an unknown curiosity outside the inner circles of snooty Porschephiles. More noteworthy was the series’ role in facilitating the rise in popularity of the Nissan Skyline R34 GT-R in the United States and the Honda DC-2 Integra Type R in the UK.

With such a captive audience of motoring enthusiasts, it isn’t surprising that the GT by Citroën became immensely popular amongst an audience who previously thought of nothing more of Citroën other than being a maker of esoteric small cars. The car’s popularity grew well and truly beyond the game with Citroën announcing plans to produce six examples, all of which were to be fitted with a “V8 capable of 412kW”. These plans were later shelved as the world economy continued to implode, but the GT by Citroën’s popularity with pundits and the Gran Turismo fans alike had already inspired followers.

Not only would Yamauchi later go onto invite manufacturers to create virtual Gran Turismo exclusive concepts for the series’ 15th anniversary in 2013 with the Vision Gran Turismo series, he would later work with legendary Formula 1 engineering maestro, Adrian Newey, on creating a futuristic Formula 1 race car with no racing regulations limiting its potential. The end result was the 1103kW X2010, which made its debut in 2010 and later spawned updated versions known as the X2011 and X2014.

It isn’t to say that these Gran Turismo exclusive creations were merely relegated to the virtual world. Some concepts from the Vision Gran Turismo series previewed and even lent their styling cues to real-life production counterparts. Bugatti’s Vision Gran Turismo was nothing more than the then-unsee Chiron being dressed up in racing-paraphanelia, Nissan’s GT-R50 borrowed its taillight design from the 2020 Vision Gran Turismo concept, and rumours have it that McLaren’s MSO division might build a bespoke commission known as the BC-03 that is based on their Ultimate Vision Gran Turismo concept.

Strangely, despite being the trailblazer in the genre, a decade on and the GT by Citroën has left little to no influence on its maker’s product line-up, though that isn’t entirely unexpected as Citroën’s parent company PSA emerged from the 2008 financial crisis properly shaken and would very much prefer if Citroën continued to focus on its mainstream offerings of funky city cars and trendy SUVs instead of embarking on high-risk performance car projects.

In a traditional sense then the GT by Citroën failed to live up to a concept car’s purpose. However, rather than bear its influence within, its groundbreaking presence in the virtual medium had left an industry-wide mark that opened up a whole world of possibilities for others to explore, much like the Buick Y-Job did eighty years ago. If concept cars are truly more art than car, and the metric for artistic success if to live up to the old adage of “life imitates art”, then the GT by Citroën is truly one of the most influential of its kind.

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