This month, France’s Citroën DS
When car production resumed after the war, raw materials were in short supply and income from exports was so desperately needed that the majority of UK car production went abroad. Most of the few new cars available for purchase were little more than thinly-updated versions of what had been available before the war; imagine going to your local dealer today to buy a new car, and what you get is something that was designed at the turn of the millennium. To cap it all, petrol was rationed in the UK until as late as May 1950 too.
Now imagine you were at the Paris Motor Show in October 1955 and stumbled across the Citroën stand, proudly displaying their new flagship model, the DS. You’d probably think either the Martians had landed or that you’d been transported to the future. To say that the DS – often referred to as the Goddess (Déesse being French for Goddess) – was a huge leap forward in terms of technology and style is a massive understatement. The DS replaced the “Traction Avant”, made famous as the car driven by French detective Maigret, which was launched in 1934. The Traction was itself an advanced car for its era, although its styling was pure 1930s and by 1955 it was somewhat dated, especially seen alongside the DS.
The Goddess clearly captured the imagination of the French public – it is said that over 700 orders were placed within 15 minutes of the show opening (that’s not far short of one a second – staff on the stand must have been rushed of their feet!) This increased to around 12,000 by the end of the first day alone. To put that in perspective, Volvo and MINI each sold a little over 12,000 cars in the UK in the first four months of 2014.
Now, it’s clear that the futuristic, aerodynamic (some would say Flying Saucer) styling of the DS was a big influence in its sales success, but it was also a technological tour de force. The DS saw hydraulics taking the place of simpler mechanical systems for not only the suspension, but also steering, brakes, clutch and gearbox. In the late 1940s and early 1950s many family cars weren’t even using a hydraulic system for the brakes, let alone everything else. The “Hydropneumatic” suspension system – briefly trialled on the DS’s predecessor, and technically “oleopneumatic” (using oil) rather than “hydropneumatic” (using water) despite Citroën’s own terminology – became a unique mainstay of Citroën technology for the next 45 years; longer in some of their larger models. It and developments of it featured on the GS/GSA, SM, CX, BX, Xantia and C6 ranges and can still be found on certain models of the current C5 range.
At a time when many cars didn’t even have independent suspension on the front axle, this system is fully independent (where each wheel’s movement over bumps or in cornering has no affect on the attitude of the other wheels); it gives a genuine “magic carpet” ride, maintains an even keel no matter how many people or how much luggage the car is carrying and can also be lowered to assist access or raised to increase the ground clearance of the car for progress over rough terrain or for changing a wheel (no jack needed). The DS offered a ride quality equal, or even superior, to today’s best. It was so good that even Rolls-Royce licensed Citroën-based suspension for the Silver Shadow, available from 1965 to 1980.
It’s not all about comfort though; Générale de Gaulle credits this suspension system for saving his life; when 12 terrorist gunmen shot 140 rounds of ammunition at his car, puncturing its tyres, this suspension prevented the car from entering an uncontrollable skid by keeping the car level and so his chauffeur was able to continue driving almost as if nothing had happened, making good their escape. This very DS – complete with bullet holes – is on show at the de Gaulle Museum in Lille. De Gaulle repaid the French marque handsomely – he subsequently only travelled in Citroëns and when the company faced bankruptcy (caused by the 1973 oil crisis and the spiralling costs of developing the CX to replace the DS) in the 1970s, he blocked the company’s takeover by Italy’s FIAT, arranging for the company to be merged with Peugeot so that it would remain French. Those with good memories might also remember an advert in the early 1980s for the similarly-engineered Citroën GSA aiming for a gap between two oncoming lorries. The GSA runs over some broken glass and suffers a puncture, yet the car continues its trajectory between the two lorries without deviation – a feat that would almost impossible in any other car even with a skilled driver at the wheel.
The brakes were also phenomenally efficient for a car of this era, again thanks to their hydraulic operation and with the DS being the first European car to employ disc brakes all round, they can easily take a driver inexperienced in Citroën ways by surprise. Another innovation unique to the DS, part of the 1967 facelift, was that the headlamp units were linked to both the suspension and the steering; to the suspension so that the beam always remained parallel in relation to the road and to the steering so that when driving at night on a twisty road, the headlamp beam would “steer” around the bends. This remained unique and only in the last few years have systems offering similar benefits become common on new cars.
Sadly financial constraints meant that the DS never received the engine for which it had originally been designed and that it so clearly deserved – and indeed needed. The designers’ intentions had been to propel the DS with an air-cooled “flat six” engine, where six cylinders are opposed horizontally in two banks of three cylinders rather than in a vertical row. This would effectively have been three engines from the iconic Citroën 2CV combined into one unit, and enlarged. Instead of this, it was launched with a slightly updated version of the 1.9 litre overhead valve engine from the Traction Avant. This engine first appeared in 1934 so was already over 20 years old at the time of the DS’s launch. Over the DS’s lifetime, the engine was improved and enlarged, with 2.1 litre and later 2.3 litre versions. The latter was also available with electronic fuel injection, which, while not a first, was still a very advanced and unusual technology in 1973. However, especially come the late 60’s and early 70’s, the DS’s rivals were powered by more modern overhead camshaft engines that in many cases offered more cylinders – even if they hadn’t all yet adopted a fuel injection system.
Clearly all this technology came at a premium price and to make the DS experience more accessible, the “ID” range was also introduced, which had a more basic specification.
In addition to the ID range, the DS was also produced in “Safari” and “Familiale” estate versions, the latter offering a row of occasional seats between the front and rear seats, enabling it to seat up to 8 people. The estates made a popular basis for ambulances. Furthermore the DS was also produced as a “Décapotable” – convertible; these were manufactured for Citroën by coachbuilder Henri Chapron. The DS also spawned many other rare convertible and limousine versions. While all DS models are sought after these days, the convertible models and the coachbuilt versions can fetch sums of money that could still buy a not-so-modest house.
If you fancy treating yourself to even a run-of-the-mill DS saloon (if any DS could be described in such terms) you’d better have at least £10,000 going spare. And with all that technology, now up to 60 years old, they can be expensive to maintain – luckily there are a number of Citroën specialists throughout the country. However every DS owner in the world would surely say that it’s a price worth paying. From personal experience, a DS still turns heads, even in its native France.
The Goddess is indeed an icon of motoring history and without a doubt counts as one of the most influential and important cars of the 20th century.
A few key points…
- Produced from 1955 until its replacement by the CX in 1975
- Winner of the “Most Beautiful Car of All Time” accolade
- Total production of almost 1.5 million
- Manufactured in France; Portugal; United Kingdom (Slough); Australia; South Africa; Yugoslavia
- Designed by Italian sculptor and industrial designer Flaminio Bertoni and French aeronautical engineer André Lefèbvre
- Placed third in “Car of the 20th Century”, behind the Model T Ford and the Mini
- Won the 1959 Monte Carle rally
- Drag co-efficient of Cd 0.38 – better than most cars even into the 1980s