Recently I came across this ad for a Volkswagen Iltis, the interesting VW jeep that was the starting point for Audi’s legendary Quattro all-wheel drive system. While I was sliding down the Iltisian rabbit hole, I learned about something really odd: there was a version of the Iltis badged as a Citroën. From there I learned about a whole bizarre trio of badge-engineered cars, all of which owe their origins to politics and national pride and other related nonsense. Join me in this tedious voyage of badge-engineering discovery!
The three cars involved here are all military, jeep-like vehicles, because they were all built to please one customer, the French Army. It’s the early 1970s, and France is looking to finally replace the Jeeps (yes, like actual Willys-style jeeps) that Hotchkiss had been building under license in France for years.
For political reasons, the army only wanted to use a French vehicle. The problem was that, at that time, no French manufacturer was really making a suitable 4x4 vehicle that the army could use.
Sure, Citroën had their 2-wheel drive but rugged Mehari, and while the army bought 9,000 of those as a temporary measure, the little plastic two-banger derived from the 2CV just wasn’t going to be a good long-term solution.
While the big three French carmakers (Renault, Citroën, and Peugeot) were all certainly capable of producing the sort of vehicle the army needed, the army only needed about 10,000 of them, and none of the companies felt that such a small order was worth a full development program to create such a vehicle.
With a cavalier dismissiveness fitting of a bad caricature of a Frenchman, the carmakers just couldn’t be bothered.
Still, the carmakers weren’t totally uninterested, and instead found a clever loophole: if a French company could, say, take some other company’s suitable vehicle, and maybe throw in one of their own engines and slap their own badges on it, that’s close enough to having a French vehicle, right?
Of course it is. And that’s what they did.
Each company partnered with a different foreign manufacturer: Citroën teamed up with Volkswagen, Peugeot teamed up with Mercedes-Benz, and Renault warmly embraced Fiat.
Nobody really seemed to care that all these companies were part of the Axis back in the day, which speaks well for the French ability to not hold grudges.
Citroën’s offering was called the C44, and it was basically a VW Iltis with the 1.8 inline-4 from the Citroën CX. That engine actually gave the normally 70 HP Iltis a nice bump in power, all the way to a mind-julienning 102 HP, though some sources say it was just making 75 HP.
Unfortunately, the French army didn’t end up picking the Franco-Iltis, but two were entered in the Paris-Dakar rally, which neither managed to finish. That is sort of weird, considering that the VW Iltis won the Dakar rally in 1980.
The next entry was the Renault-Saviem TRM500, which was a re-badged and re-engined version of the Fiat Nuova Campagnola. The Fiat was probably best known in white, when it was Pope John Paul II’s Popemobile. The Campagnola normally made about 72 HP, but the TRM500, fitted with the inline-4 from the Renault 20, shot that number to a stratospheric 75 HP. That’s three more, people.
Actually, I take back my sarcasm – it looks like some sources peg the TRM500 as having 88 HP, so, my apologies. Still, it doesn’t really matter, because they only made about ten of them, and the French army wasn’t interested.
What the army did end up picking is in some ways the best, because it’s based on what’s by far the best-known car of the three, so seeing it dressed differently is nice and strange. It’s the Peugeot P4.
The Peugeot P4 was actually a Mercedes G-Wagen, that archaic, sharp-cornered SUV that’s mutated into a ridiculous, expensive leather-gorged toy for rich people. Of course, the G-Wagen started as a very capable spartan, rugged off-roader, and it’s not surprising why the French army picked it.
The Peugeot version used the engine from the legendary Peugeot 504, a transmission from the 604, and Peugeot handled the car’s electrical systems, body welding, and paint. The rest of the car came over from Benz, and the end result was said to be about 50-50 French and German, the most French content of the bunch.
Visually, it’s clearly a G-Wagen, but its got different lights and that big lion right there on the grille.
Interestingly, Peugeot was allowed to make a civilian version of the P4, too, but it couldn’t be sold outside of France. Even inside of France, it didn’t sell well, being pretty expensive and heavy and kind of sluggish with its 83 HP (gas) or 75 HP (diesel) engines.
So there you go: three very weird badge-engineered cars that had no cause to exist, save for abstract political and logistical reasons. I’m pretty sure there’s never been another Citroën-badged VW, or another Peugeot-badged Mercedes.
It looks like Renault/Nissan has some deal to supply Fiat with commercial vehicles, so there may be some payback happening there.
These kinds of things are always delightfully freaky to me.