Remember, in 1955 Australians were buying new FJ Holdens, and Morris Minors were considered a modern small car. The Citroen DS might as well have been a space ship.
If ever a car polarised opinions, this is it. But in over a century of motoring, there has rarely been a car which can claim to have had such an impact as the Citroen DS. Today as ever, some people love it, some hate it, but few are ambivalent.
It was the result of a time when technology was leaping forward and when a company allowed its engineers and designers free reign to develop the very best they could imagine. Citroen had long been a maker of advanced designs. Their Traction Avant from 1934 had pioneered popular use of front wheel drive and monocoque construction. Since 1948 the little 2CV had put many French families on the road for the first time. It too was front wheel drive, featured a simple air-cooled motor and light but exceptionally robust construction.
When the time came to replace the Traction Avant, the resulting car would be absolutely amazing.
The new car was launched at the Paris Salon in 1955. It was called DS, which when pronounced in French, is day-ess, meaning Goddess. The car was a sensation different in every respect from what people were familiar with.
Some people couldn't get used to the DS, however, it wasn't so odd as to scare away buyers. At the Paris Salon an amazing, record number of orders were taken for the new car 12,000 people signing on the dotted line. This was the car of the future and they had to have one.
It certainly looked like nothing else. Aerodynamics ruled the design of the exterior. But there was much more to stylist Flaminio Bertoni's design than a sleek shape. With frameless windows and slim pillars, the view out was extraordinary for 1955. Panels were easily removed for repairs every panel plus the windows could be removed in a couple of hours. New materials were used for the bodywork a fibreglass roof panel and duralumin bonnet were novel material choices in those days. All this was all bolted to an extremely strong skeletal steel structure.
High-level rear lights might seem like a new idea, but at a time when most cars weren't even fitted with indicator lights, Citroen mounted theirs high and very visible.
In the short rump is a surprisingly cavernous boot.
The aerodynamics included a completely flat underbody, with the muffler in the engine compartment. In later models this was moved to a transverse indentation in the floor under the front seats.
Such a sleek shape helped the 1955 DS to a top speed of almost 150 km/h at a time when large cars with equivalent engine sizes struggled to get to 120km/h.
The car floated along at any speed. Famously, the DS featured Hydropneumatic suspension, used in Citroens over fifty years later. A simple but very different system, had the cars sitting on suspension units which consisted of steel spheres, in place of traditional springs and shock absorbers. With a rubber diaphragm in the middle, the top of the spheres had high-pressure nitrogen inside, where the bottom part had variable amounts of hydraulic fluid flowing in and out. If necessary, these spheres were easily replaced in five minutes each, reducing repair time over a traditional system where spring and shock-absorber need replacing. A fluid reservoir, pump and pressure accumulator took care of business under the bonnet.
The ride in a DS has to be experienced to be believed. In a car with a good condition system it is possible to drive off a kerb and not feel when the rear wheels touch the road. As well as suppleness, the system offered self-levelling, so no matter what the load, the car sat level. Even if a tyre blew, the car would compensate. When French President Charles De Gaulle's DS was shot at by a sniper, a bullet burst a rear tyre, but the driver simply sped off, unhindered by a flat tyre.
As a lark DS owners have occasionally removed a rear wheel, the car still levelling itself out and remaining quite driveable.
The suspension could be adjusted for different heights by a lever in the cabin to help in floods or very rough surfaces - and the car could even lift itself up for easy wheel changing.
The hydraulic system also operated the power steering and disc brakes both quite rare items on cars in the 1950s. And if that wasn't enough, even the clutch and gear-change operated with assistance from the system.
While there had been wild design concepts and prototypes of air-cooled flat six engines, the production DS came with a carry-over from the Traction Avant, suitably updated, but a straightforward in-line 4-cylinder unit of 1911cc. In its initial configuration, the engine produced 56kW (75bhp), which was quite adequate and not dissimilar to its competition.
Another DS feature was the use of disc brakes. Race cars had used them, but it was Citroen who first fitted them to a mass-production car. The discs were mounted inboard, immediately adjacent to the gearbox, which sat ahead of the engine. With power assistance, they offered braking far better than people were used to.
Under the bonnet, the layout was as different as the rest of the car. In the very front was the spare tyre acting as a safety measure and freeing up space in the boot. The radiator sat behind the spare, with its air-flow ducted from an intake under the front of the car. Another innovation was the use of a plastic cooling fan. Under the spare tyre sat the gearbox, with the engine set a long way behind the axle line, allowing a low, aerodynamic front and giving weight distribution benefits. The motor was set so far back that inside the cabin there was a bulging firewall. Access to the rear-most sparkplug was via a hole at the windscreen base.
Inside, the DS was as spectacularly bold as the rest of the car. In an era of flat tin or wood dashboards, Citroen used the biggest single piece of moulded plastic in the world. The swooping dashboard with a pod reaching out towards the steering wheel on which was mounted the gear selector and the single spoke steering wheel looked like it was straight out of the latest space comic.
The single-spoke wheel, which became a Citroen trademark, was the first collapsible design in a time when people were often injured by protruding wheel centres.
At the ends of the dashboard were fresh air vents not noteworthy today, but no car had ever had these before. Adjustable for air flow direction and volume, these would become an expectation of every car buyer in the years to come.
The seats were plush and supremely comfortable as one would hope from a luxury car. The wheelbase was longer than a Cadillac's and the whole cockpit sat well inside it, no rear wheelarches eating into seat and access space.
While the DS always polarised opinions, it became a very successful model for Citroen, remaining in production for a remarkable twenty years. There were other versions and upgrades during this period, and in the end almost 1.5 million were built.
In 1963 a simplified version came, the ID19 with normal clutch and gear-change and less luxurious trim. The practical Break a wagon, was available in several seating configurations allowing up to seven seats. And coachbuilder Chapron built the rare Decapotable convertibles which were marketed by Citroen up to 1973. Developments included updated engines, ranging through 1985cc, 2175cc and 2347cc capacities, the larger two gaining fuel injection.
Many other coachbuilders built special bodies for the DS, some attractive, some practical, some bizarre but most were compromised compared to the functional beauty of the original.
In 1968 Citroen made the most significant upgrade to the model - a longer nose incorporated faired-in headlights, the inner pair of which swivelled with the steering, while the outer pair self-levelled vertically. For 1970 the interior was updated including a more modern, but less characterful dashboard.
In Australia, the DS always stood out. A far stretch from the sorts of car that everyday Aussies drove, the DS gained less acceptance than in Europe, but sales were strong enough in the early 1960s for local assembly of ID19s (from CKD kits) to take place in Victoria.
Interestingly Australian DSeries sales picked up in 1975, the last year the cars were sold, with the DSpecial, DS23 and DS23 Safari selling here in bigger numbers than they had in 20 years.
Rally car, politician's car, movie star's car, mystery car. With such a place in history it is easy to understand why the DS still holds an appeal to many people today.
They are not a complicated car, just very different. Simple assembly methods of fifty years ago mean that a DS is eminently re-buildable today. There's a certain logic to how they were built and once you get your head around that, the DS is not at all hard to work on.
So what is a DS like to drive?
Once ensconced in the very cushioned seat, you turn the ignition key to the on position, then move the gear lever to Start. This gearlever itself is interesting more like a long switch, it sits atop the steering column and is operated with the right hand. Holding it to the left activates the starter motor. First and reverse are on one plane - the furthest reach, making manoeuvring for parking easy. The closer plane has 2nd, 3rd and 4th gear in line. Once you adapt and don't have to think about the gear pattern, it makes a lot of sense and is easy to use, especially as the shift is so light.
But before you select a gear, the hydraulics must pump up pressure. It doesn't take long. You know the car's ready because first the back, then the front of the car lift up to normal ride height. It's ready to go, so you slip the gear selector forward and ease on the long-travel accelerator. To change gear, you lift off (and if you don't, the pedal gently pushes back at you), switch to the next gear and accelerate away again. Not too hard.
Then, you have to learn about the brakes. Where you might expect to see a brake pedal, there's a black rubber mushroom. This is the brake pedal, but it works like a valve operating by the the harder you push, the more you stop system, with almost no pedal travel available. You quickly learn to brush the pedal. An emergency stop will see the car behave oddly the suspension tries to compensate for the sudden weight transfer forward by lowering the rear of the car instantly to the bump stops. An unaware passenger can feel you've been rear-ended. These characteristics aside, the brakes are very effective.
The car smoothly bobs up and down with each gear-change and the car leans slightly into corners, but anyone on board feels so cosseted in the deep seats, plush carpet (with 4cm of soft foam underneath) that what might be going on outside doesn't matter. At straight ahead the steering has an unpleasant dead spot and it hisses on return. Push the car through a corner and the Michelins begin to protest long before the inherent understeer takes over. But the DS isn't a sports car, it's a real Grand Tourer, and treated as such, provides a magical experience. A sixty plus year old design, it shows its age in modern traffic, but still provides an immensely comfortable experience, wrapped in a unique package that encompassed such brave, inspired design. A few other cars have incorporated new and clever design elements, but none match the DS for the sheer quantity and remarkable harmony of these innovations in one machine.
Today it remains perhaps the most important single car design ever for the multitude of brilliant creative features it brought to the motoring world.
What to look for? Rust is a potential problem in any car and the newest DS is already over 40 years old. The boot floors, rear bootlick lip, floor panels, C-pillars and rear shelves are prone to rust. Also the lower pillars on which the doors and rear guards are mounted can rust. Panels are generally pretty good. Interiors wear, especially the later cloth interiors, though the material is being made again now. Some of the plastics suffer with age (such as the late model soft grip steering wheels). Generally the hydraulic systems are reliable, though they do strike fear into a 'normal car' mechanic. With such a strong following worldwide, almost every part is available these days.
What to pay?
A Plain Jane DSpecial in good condition is worth around $15-20,000 the same for an earlier ID19. Above average cars command more. The better appointed DS and especially Pallas models are available from about $30,000 for a reasonable car, to well over $60,000 for a really good example. Wagons are similar money to equivalent sedans. Convertibles forget it at least $150,000
The rallying luxury car
In recent times Citroen have been multiple victors of the World Rally Championship. The DS had an outstanding motorsport career too.
Winning the Monte Carlo Rally in 1959, 1963 and 1966, the Tulip Rally, 1000 Lakes, Tour de Course, Portugal and Moroccan rallies through the 1960s and 1970s, along the way the DS took Paul Coltelloni to win the 1959 World Championship.
Endurance events were a specialty - the original 1968 London-Sydney Marathon was almost won by a DS21, except for a terrible accident with a spectator's car very near the finish. Even at the end of its long production life, the DS was winning. The punishing 1974 World Cup Rally was won by an Australian team in a DS23.
Specification comparison 1955-1975
1955 DS19 -1975 DS23 EFI
Engine capacity 1911cc - 2374cc
Power 56kW/75bhp at 4500rpm - 105kW/141bhp at 5250rpm
Weber carburettor - Bosch fuel injection
Compression ratio 7.5:1 - 8.8:1
Transmission 4-speed semi-auto - 4-spd semi-auto, 5-spd man or 3-spd auto
Top speed 148km/h - 200km/h
0-100km/h 23.3 seconds (semi-auto) - 10.9 seconds (5-speed manual)
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