Cobée’s departure feels like a blow that has landed at just the wrong time, even if his replacement is top-drawer
I can tell you to the day when I last spoke to departed Citroën boss Vincent Cobée, because I was by that point a matter of hours from having a wisdom tooth removed, an electric saw making sounds in my mouth that I’ll struggle to forget.
It was in a cold NEC show hall the afternoon of 26 January – just 28 days ago – and there wasn’t the remotest hint that he would be gone less than a month later.
He had flown into Birmingham the night before, charmed the Citroën UK team and then gone on stage (no notes or autocue, as always) and delivered a pitch-perfect address to the dealership body.
I spent half an hour in the hall with them; they were ecstatic at what they had heard, and while that’s the purpose of such moments, there must have been times in Citroën’s recent history when it was hard to buy into such moments.
After lunch, Cobée strolled from one hall to another, chatting, laughing and joking with those around him, and then talked me around the fascinating Citroën Oli concept car, a take on a stripped-back but fun motoring future.
I had met Cobée before, and there was no way my impending surgery was going to stop me from meeting him again. For a journalist, at least, he’s one of the best of the best, a free-talker with a grasp of the big picture and an ability to express his thoughts with an eloquence and passion that only the very biggest and most confident of leaders can. His career trajectory suggests that all those superlatives apply to his ability to run a car company, too.
It was, as I had hoped, mesmerising. So much so that I decided to write the subsequent feature in his own words, better to ensure the feature expressed exactly what he had said, as he had said it, and give the reader an opportunity to enjoy some of the magic I had enjoyed.
— Jim Holder (@Jim_Holder) February 17, 2023
If there was any hint that he was going to leave, perhaps it was that he invited me to drive the Oli, something that had been expressly forbidden by the support team. Even then, he seemed to rather enjoy (politely and kindly) reminding them that he was the CEO and so his invitation would stand regardless of what they thought.
So what has happened to make him leave? The announcement points to “personal projects” – which can mean anything from a new job at a rival company to a boardroom coup. Either way, he’s gone, and I can’t help feeling a sense of loss, both personally and for car buyers.
To be clear, I’ve met his successor, Thierry Koskas, and he’s top-drawer too. Stellantis’s strength in depth is frankly extraordinary. He may well pick up where Cobée left off. But be in no doubt that Cobée was special.
He seemed to embody Citroën’s most progressive and fascinating leanings and to be willing to inspire his teams away from building ‘me too’ vehicles and towards a future that embraced its avant-garde past perhaps more fully than previously.
If I felt energised from an hour or so with him, imagine how his inner circle was being driven to greater things.
So too Cobée knew the importance of building affordable vehicles – something that vast swathes of the car industry appear to be running from – and on top of the need to ensure that they too needed to bring joy into owners’ lives, regardless of that price tag.
I felt inspired for Citroën’s future, and I suspect everyone who came into contact with him did too – something that would surely have translated in time to even better vehicles and even better sales.
To quote the dentist who no doubt sensed my fear, pain is only temporary. But in Citroën’s case, this feels like a blow that has landed at just the wrong time.