Today is July 14th, the 225th anniversary of the French Revolution, celebrated as a national holiday akin to Independence Day in the US. A key moment in that revolution was the storming of the Bastille, a medieval fortress and prison in Paris that represented royal authority. That act that has become an synonym for the sudden enforcement of great change to a standard or convention, leading to a consequent rapid change in the perception of what the future should be. This car could be seen to have done exactly that.
The Citroën ID was, of course, a close relative the better known the 1956 DS, unveiled on October 5, 1955 at the Paris Auto Show to great acclaim and amazement. It is widely considered to have been the most technically advanced car available on the mass market at any given time in the twentieth century.
Only the availability of cars such as the Tesla Model S prevents us saying “ever”. No wonder it was named the Goddess. (In French, the pronunciation of “DS” is very close to the word déesse, or goddess; similarly, ID pairs with idée, or idea.)
This car is also a great–maybe the greatest–example of the variation of the presentation of the future or more precisely, the presentation of the progress towards future technologies around the world. We’ve all seen concept cars which offered exciting visions of the future, and this car did exactly that. The key difference was that it was actually for sale.
Consider a list of the advanced features you might expect to see in a modern, progressive saloon car.
Modern, attractive and distinctive styling? Check. Aerodynamic efficiency? Check. Clutchless semi automatic gearbox? Check. Independent and self levelling suspension? Check. Standard disc brakes with power assistance? Check. Composite and lightweight body? Check. Class leading ride and handling? Check. Motor sport capability and success? Check. Immediate showroom and on-road appeal? Check. Enduring style? Check. Unparalleled recognizability? Check. All these features were deeply integral to the Citroën DS experience, at a time when the great majority of cars were essentially updates of the concept and technology popularized by the Ford Model T.
The DS was the successor to the Traction Avant, and took the challenge of producing the most advanced car in the world to a new level. These innovations, taken together, have defined Citroën for over 50 years, to the extent that the company has never been able to fully recapture the impact of the car.
That first impression came, of course, from the styling. It was the work of former sculptor Flaminio Bertoni and Andre Lefebvre, who had an aviation engineering training. The pair are also credited with the 2CV, Traction Avant and H van–quite a list!
Work on prototypes and styling that would lead to the eventual production began at the end of the war, picking up on earlier pre-war concepts, and evolved steadily. Put the DS next to any contemporary car and the contrast is clear. It shouted “space age” in a way no quantity of Detroit chrome and tail fins could.
It is still one of the most distinctive, charismatic, elegant and downright gorgeous shapes on the road, and with a drag coefficient of just 0.37 in 1955, way ahead of the pack. Even the airflow under the car was managed.
Perhaps the other best remembered and recognised feature of the car was the suspension, known as hydropeumatique,or Anglicised as Hydropneumatic. Each wheel was connected to a hydraulic suspension unit consisting of a hydraulic accumulator containing pressurised nitrogen, a damper valve between the piston and the sphere with a cylinder containing hydraulic fluid above it. A piston inside the cylinder connected to the suspension arms and movement of wheels translated to a motion of the piston, which acted on the oil in the nitrogen cushion and provided the spring effect. The damper valve took place of the damper in a conventional suspension.
The height corrector, a valve fed with hydraulic fluid and controlled by the mid-position of the anti-roll bar connected to the axle, worked to maintain a constant ride height. The driver had a lever to select one of five heights: normal riding height, two slightly higher riding heights for poor terrain, and two extreme positions for changing wheels.
The result was perhaps the best riding car ever built. Yes, it rolled a bit, but it didn’t pitch and the ride was superbly comfortable at low speed, high speed, smooth roads, rough roads and even French D roads. It is rarely bettered, even today. The car needed no jack–instead the suspension was raised to its highest, a simple metal pole inserted into a slot, and the suspension lowered. So, the suspension going down was actually the wheel going up, off the ground. Simple! This even permitted driving short distances with a rear wheel missing.
The hydraulic system also covered the steering and braking systems, at a time when powered steering in Europe was almost unknown. It would be the 1970s before the DS’s European competitors offered power steering, and then often as an option. Even the six-cylinder Rover SD1 2300 of 1977 did not have standard-fit power steering.
The front brakes were in-board mounted discs, (five years before Mercedes-Benz offered front discs), and controlled by a pressure-sensitive, mushroom shaped button which apportioned braking force according the driver’s application of pressure rather than the distance travelled by a traditional pedal-and-lever. Citroën were offering disc brakes all round five years before Mercedes-Benz offered front discs.
The DS and ID had a conventional four speed manual gearbox. However, on the DS, this was controlled by a hydraulic gear selector and clutch. To change gear, the driver moved the lever to the required gear, and eased back on the throttle. The hydraulics did the rest–disengaging the clutch, changing gear and re-engaging the clutch. The gear selector also controlled the engine starter, so there was no risk of starting in gear, and all movements between second and fourth were single steps from left to right to go up, and right to left to go down. The ID19 made do with a conventional column change, and automatic and five-speed gearboxes were offered from 1970.
Given the relaxed nature of the whole car, you can soon see how the image developed of the casually dressed driver, one arm in the open window, the other resting easily on the top of the steering wheel close to the gear selector, Gauloises on his lips, returning from a rendezvous with his paramour….
The DS and ID had innovative construction as well–a welded “caisson” (inner frame), on which external body panels were bolted or screwed, including an aluminium bonnet and glass fibre roof, usually painted in a contrasting colour, and in some versions, a plexiglass rear window.
I accept it’s not an all-aluminum Jaguar XJ, but it’s a bit more than a body on frame in steel, or a woody station wagon conversion, with a useful weight saving above the centre of gravity. Many panels were easily unbolted for repair as well.
These features are combined together to build a car that was without doubt the most comfortable car in its class, in Europe and probably the world. It was also a car that handled surprisingly well, for a softly sprung, nose heavy car, with a capacity to cover ground quickly through good road holding, which allowed speed to be carried into corners, and superior cruising ability, aided by the aerodynamic efficiency of the car.
Motorsport may seem a long way from the DS’s image, but the car achieved significant success in rallying. The long travel suspension and front wheel drive gave it advantages in rough terrain, matched with its ground covering ability on the long distance rallies across Europe still prevalent in the 1950s and 1960s. It started with the 1956 Monte Carlo rally, with a class win, and continued to the 1975 Rally du Maroc. Not quite the Lancia Stratos, but a lot more than you’d expect, and all because of the inherent dynamic qualities of the car.
There were a full range of safety features too, over and above the benefits of (twin circuit) disc brakes and self leveling suspension. A single spoke steering wheel, crumple zones, safety door handles, centre point front wheel geometry, high level rear indicators and narrow screen pillars all added together to contribute to one of the first cars to take safety seriously.
The only weak point on the DS was probably the engine. The original plan was to use a six-cylinder boxer engine, located ahead of the front wheels. This engine shared aspects of the 2CV’s boxer twin, and was initially planned to be water cooled, but then switched to air cooling. The 1806cc six was deemed to be lacking in power, too thirsty and too heavy, and was abandoned.
So an extensively updated version of the Traction Avant’s straight four was used. This was 1911cc and offered around 80bhp initially, and was mounted well back with the gearbox ahead of it, in what became a typical French front wheel drive format. Citroën then considered many replacement engines, including a two-stroke V4, a V6 at 2.1 litre and 3.0 litre V8 (that sounds ideal for a DS, but expensive under French taxation) before settling in 1966 on a revised straight four at 1985cc and 2175cc sizes. This eventually grew to 2347cc and was fitted with Bosch fuel injection to give 140bhp by the early 1970s.
Of course, Citroën did an estate version of the car as well. With compact and self-leveling suspension, it was at least a generation ahead of anything comparable in Europe in the 1960s and 70s. Indeed, when it was discontinued in 1975, it was still arguably the best large estate car available. This 1970 car may need a little TLC but is certainly safe and legal. The car had a split tailgate (Range Rover style), often with a second number plate usually fitted to the lower part, on a surface that was horizontal when closed but vertical when open, so the car could legally be driven with the tailgate open (lower only or both parts) to accommodate really long French baguettes. This was yesterday’s CC Clue.
And the impact of the DS on the public? Citroën sold over 700 in the first 15 minutes after putting it on display at the Paris Motor Show in 1955, and 12,000 before the day was over, more than the first year’s production. Ultimately, 1.5 million were built.
The featured car is a 1964-67 Citroën ID19, with the 1911cc engine and conventional column change, and the additional driving lamps added in 1964. I saw it for sale by the road in France last summer but please don’t try to call the number, as it’s been sold (yes, I wish it were mine as well……there is a special space for it in my fantasy garage). Later cars had the familiar twin headlamps under the aerodynamic cover, with, on the DS, a steerable inner headlamp. Yes, active lighting in 1967.
As a car so futuristic, the DS and ID managed to remain up-to-date during their entire production run, remaining advanced when it was retired in 1975 with full honours. In fact, one could make the argument that the Citroen was so ahead of its time that it failed to have the influence it deserved. It would be a good quarter century before other makes came close to offering the view of the future Citroën offered to the volume market, in 1955.
In the meantime other sedans took much longer to achieve the DS’s qualities, using different technology to attain the big Citroën’s aerodynamic finesse, high speed stability, and space efficiency. By taking a different path, they missed out on that famous magic carpet ride, which only makes like Rolls Royce and Mercedes prioritized on their top sedans (and even then, adapting versions of Citroën’s technology in favor of developing their own solutions).
Citroën themselves found it hard to conjure up an encore act to such a striking space-age vision. The big sedans which succeeded the DS brought forth much of the same brilliance but only managed to live in the its shadow, neither decisively solving the powertrain question or nor dispensing with the idiosyncrasies which came to overshadow their sheer talent. But true revolutionaries don’t come along often and when they do, rarely live long enough to see the masses finally realize the benefit of their vision.