The word “new” is much abused in the automotive business. If you believe the ad writers and press releases, cars are all-new almost every fall, but the reality is that most cars are the product of a gradual evolution stretching back decades. Well into the 1960s, there was little on the average car that would seriously puzzle a mechanic from before World War I. Every so often, though, an automaker takes the plunge on a design that really breaks the mold, a car like the Mini, the Corvair, or this one: the startling 1955-1975 Citroen DS.
VOITURE À GRANDE DIFFUSION
As we saw in our history of the Traction Avant, André Citroën was a gambler and his reckless appetite for risk-taking eventually proved to be his undoing. In 1934, his company fell under the control of its largest creditor, the tire manufacturer Michelin. One might have expected that Citroën’s new management would be more conservative and circumspect than its devil-may-care founder, but remarkably, André Citroën’s successors proved to be no less daring than he. Almost from the beginning, they demonstrated a willingness to take chances that few other automakers in the world would have countenanced.
When Michelin took control of the struggling automaker in December 1934, Pierre Michelin became the new chairman, with Pierre-Jules Boulanger as his assistant and vice president of engineering and design. Michelin and Boulanger initially focused on the many teething problems of the Traction Avant, which had just gone on sale. By 1936, they had it well enough in hand to start considering new models. After Pierre Michelin was killed in an accident in 1937, Boulanger took over as the new chairman, launching two programs: a small, inexpensive people’s car, the Toute Petite Voiture (TPV, “very small car”), and the Voiture à Grande Diffusion (VGD, “mass-production car”), which was intended as the successor for the Traction.
The engineering of the Traction was already highly advanced for its era. Its semi-unitary construction, front-wheel drive, and rack-and-pinion steering were cutting-edge technology for the middle thirties, and topping them was a tall order. Boulanger wanted the VGD to be roomier, faster, and prettier than the Traction for the same price and weight.
The principal architect of the VGD was André Lefèbvre, who had been the chief engineer of the Traction. Given a clean sheet of paper, Lefèbvre laid out the basics for the new car. Like the Traction, it would have front-wheel drive and an integral body and frame. Unlike the Traction, it would have significantly different front and rear track widths (the distance between the left and right wheels), in the interests of reducing its turning radius — a major weakness of the Traction. The new car would be highly aerodynamic and it would be powered by a smooth, six-cylinder engine.
C’EST LA GUERRE
Citroën’s work on the new cars was badly disrupted by the outbreak of World War II. During the Nazi occupation, which began in May 1940, the Citroën factory was forced to build cars and trucks for the German forces. Boulanger ordered his engineers to hide their notes on the TPV and VGD projects and work on them only in secret. He was concerned that the Nazis might try to exploit the designs for military purposes, but he was also looking ahead to the postwar world, a vision that would further shape both projects.
Boulanger knew that after the conflict, France would be in bad shape. Roads and infrastructure were likely to be in poor condition for years to come and fuel would be scarce. (Indeed, fuel rationing would continue until well after the end of the war.) Fuel economy and the ability to handle rough roads took on a new importance for both the TPV and VGD.
Lefèbvre originally intended the VGD to use either a torsion-bar suspension, like the Traction, or rubber springs. In 1942, however, Boulanger came upon the designs of Paul Magès, one of the company’s junior engineers. Magès proposed a unique, self-adjusting suspension operated by a central, high-pressure hydraulic system. Many of the other engineers were skeptical, considering the system too daunting a technical proposition, but Boulanger was intrigued. He moved Magès to the development department and set him to work refining his concept for the VGD.
Civilian production resumed in 1946 and prototypes of the VGD were on the road by the end of the year. A working prototype of Magès’ suspension was installed on a Traction by 1949. Money and resources were extremely tight, resulting in protracted delays. Nevertheless, Boulanger was undaunted in his determination that the VGD should be the world’s most sophisticated car, a dramatic statement of what French industry could do.
Citroën suffered a blow when Boulanger was killed in a car accident in November 1950. His successor, Robert Puisseux, appointed Pierre Bercot as the company’s new managing director. Amazingly, Bercot was even more forward-thinking than Boulanger was. His concern was not that the VGD (now known as “Projet D”) was too radical, but that it wasn’t radical enough. He told Lefèbvre that he wanted Projet D to be the most advanced car in the world, even if that meant further delaying the launch.
The delay was just as well, because there were still many problems to be ironed out. The engine was proving to be a particular roadblock. The VGD was originally planned around a water-cooled, six-cylinder engine, but after the occupation the water-cooled engine was dropped in favor of a new air-cooled, horizontally opposed six. Designed by Walter Becchia, it was essentially a marriage of three of the flat-twin engines from the TPV (now called “2CV”), with a total displacement of 1.8 L (about 113 cu. in.). Unfortunately, despite Becchia’s best efforts, the six wasn’t any more powerful than the big 1,911 cc (117 cu. in.) four from the Traction 11 and was thirstier and heavier, despite extensive use of aluminum. The six was finally abandoned in 1954. The existing inline six from the Traction was rejected as being too big and heavy for the new car and Citroën didn’t have the capital to develop another new engine. Projet D would have to use an updated version of the Traction’s big four — the new car’s only major compromise.
The styling of Projet D, like the 2CV, was by Citroën styling chief Flaminio Bertoni (no relation to the Bertone styling house). It was designed with an eye toward aerodynamics, still something of a black art in the automotive world even after the war. Although not a hardtop in the American fashion, Projet D had extremely slender roof pillars, enhanced further by the lack of side window frames. The result was panoramic visibility, albeit at the cost of making the car’s sloping fenders invisible to the driver. The exterior design was not finalized until only a few weeks before the car’s launch, largely because Pierre Bercot was worried that some of it looked too conventional or too familiar. Bercot wanted the car to look as innovative as its engineering.
Bercot was also very concerned about secrecy. He was so infuriated when a French automotive magazine published spy photos of Projet D, along with accurate technical information, that he went to court in a failed effort to force the magazine to reveal its sources. After that incident, the project continued with a level of secrecy more befitting a military program.
CITROEN DS: THE GODDESS DESCENDS
When the production car, now named Citroën DS19, was unveiled at the Paris Salon d’Automobiles on the night of October 5, 1955, it was as if it had just arrived from Mars. Compared to the dated, upright styling of most of its European contemporaries, the new car was low-slung and almost impossibly sleek. The “Déesse” (“Goddess,” a pun on the French pronunciation of “DS”) was the most aerodynamic production car of its era. It was not necessarily beautiful, but it was striking, avant garde, and unmistakable.
Of course, American designers of this period were turning out futuristic-looking cars, too, but unlike its American counterparts, the Déesse was just as advanced under the skin. Like the Traction Avant, the DS had front-wheel drive, with the transmission mounted ahead of the engine. The inner structure was a steel unibody (initially with an aluminum decklid and hood), but the outer panels were unstressed and could be unbolted for repairs or maintenance. At Lefèbvre’s insistence, the DS made extensive use of plastics and synthetic materials inside and out: The dashboard was ABS and nylon, the carpet was nylon, and the roof was lightweight fiberglass to reduce the center of gravity. The DS was a big car by European standards, but it was relatively light for its size. The interior was roomy and comfortable in the best French tradition: well trimmed with luxuriously soft seats.
The DS’s engine was its least-sophisticated element and perhaps its greatest disappointment. Georges Sainturat, who had designed the big four back in the thirties, was assigned to update the familiar engine with a new aluminum cylinder head and hemispherical combustion chambers, but output was a still-meager 75 horsepower (56 kW). The big four was linked to a four-speed transmission with an unsynchronized first gear. Citroën had wanted an automatic transmission since the 1930s, but a true automatic was still beyond the company’s resources and the prospect of buying one from an outside vendor was apparently considered beyond the pale. Instead, the Déesse had “Citromatic,” a semi-automatic gearbox with an automatic clutch.
Despite its modest weight and power, the Citroën DS had formidable brakes. The rears were conventional drums, but after seeing Jaguar’s success at Le Mans in 1953 with Dunlop disc brakes, Bercot and Lefèbvre decided to equip the DS with front discs. The discs were big — 11.5 inches (292 mm) in diameter — and mounted inboard to reduce unsprung weight. To keep them cool, a pair of scoops was incorporated below the front bumper, channeling air over the calipers. The DS was the first mass-production sedan in the world with disc brakes and they gave the Goddess excellent stopping power, despite its narrow tires.
As remarkable as the Citroën DS looked, the real showstopper was Paul Magès’ hydraulic system. Power steering and power brakes were becoming increasingly common in the U.S., but the Citroën approach was far more ambitious. Like a jet airplane, it used a single engine-driven pump to provide a central 2,400 psi (165 bar) hydraulic supply, which provided power for the steering, brakes, automatic clutch, gearbox, and self-adjusting hydropneumatic suspension.
Most cars, then or now, use metal springs (coils, torsion bars, or semi-elliptical leaf springs) controlled by shock absorbers. Any conventional suspension is inherently a compromise: Stiff springs and shocks can support heavy loads and give assured, flat cornering, but they produce a harsh, bouncy ride, especially when the car is lightly loaded; soft springs and shocks give a comfortable ride on smooth pavement, but they bottom easily when loaded and allow the car to lose its composure over uneven surfaces. Most cars settle for something in the middle, but that wasn’t good enough for Citroën; Boulanger demanded a suspension that could adjust itself automatically to suit varying conditions.
Magès’ suspension used neither metal springs nor shock absorbers. Instead, each independently suspended wheel was linked to a short hydraulic strut, filled with pressurized oil, and a rubber sphere filled with nitrogen gas. The gas and oil were separated by a flexible rubber membrane. Since nitrogen is compressible but oil is not, the gas in the sphere acted like a spring whose ride height and effective spring rate could be changed by increasing or decreasing the amount of oil in the strut. Leveling bars automatically varied the struts’ oil pressure in response to changes in suspension load or uneven surfaces.
In essence, the suspension was soft when it was lightly loaded and moving over smooth, flat roads. If you added a heavy load of baggage or passengers or were driving over rough surfaces, the suspension would automatically stiffen to keep the car flat and level. The suspension also included a manual control to allow the driver to raise or lower the ride height for traversing uneven roads or to change a tire. Citroën had offered a simplified version of this system on Traction 15 models starting in 1954, but that version acted only on the rear wheels, mostly for load-leveling purposes. The DS suspension worked on all four wheels whenever the engine was running.
The hydropneumatic suspension endowed the Déesse with otherworldly ride and handling. If it wasn’t quite the magic carpet that some enthusiastic fans claimed, the DS did have an uncanny ability to smooth out broken pavement. The Déesse was almost as plush as a contemporary Cadillac, but with far greater control. The DS still rolled in cornering, although less than the soft ride would suggest, but it hung on tenaciously and was remarkably composed in big, sweeping turns. Sharp vertical bumps like frost heaves and railroad tracks could catch it off guard, sending the limber Goddess bounding skyward before the suspension had had time to react, but overall, the big Citroën’s ride quality on rough roads was exceptionally good.
The suspension also gave the Citroën DS a character unlike any other car on the road. With the engine off, the Déesse would slowly slump down on its wheels like a drowsy cat. It picked itself up lazily when the engine started, accompanied by plaintive moans from the central hydraulic pump. The suspension would grunt as if in annoyance when a particularly rotund passenger climbed aboard and then sighed with apparent relief when that occupant alighted. In motion, the suspension’s constant adjustments were accompanied by a series of distant moaning sounds as the hydraulic pump cycled itself on and off.
The power steering, brakes, and semiautomatic transmission compounded these unearthly sensations. The steering, for instance, was rack-and-pinion, as on the later Tractions, with a fast ratio and much greater precision than most contemporary rivals’, but the hydraulic assist left no mechanical connection between the steering wheel and the road, so the steering was as finger-light as a big Chrysler’s.
Also sui generis was the brake pedal, about which even André Lefèbvre was dubious and which prompted Citroën dealers to offer tutorials to first-time DS buyers. The DS eschewed a conventional brake pedal in favor of a peculiar rubber button that resembled nothing so much as the cap of a large wild mushroom. The button was effective once mastered, but learning to modulate it without triggering an inadvertent panic stop (and possibly getting yourself rear-ended in the process) took practice.
The same was true of the Citromatic transmission. The clutch and actual gear changes were executed automatically, but the driver still had to make gear selections manually using a lever on the steering column. Like the brakes, the semiautomatic transmission was easy enough to use, but obtaining smooth shifts demanded finesse and a delicate touch.
André Citroën had never had any interest in fast cars and speed was not among the lofty goals for the Goddess — it was intended as a family sedan, not a sports car. The aging engine struggled a bit with the Déesse’s weight, 0-62 mph (0-100 km/h) taking more than 18 seconds. Early DS19s had a top speed of over 90 mph (145 km/h), though, and after attaining that speed their aerodynamics would allow them to sustain it as long as the road remained level. Unfortunately, any overtaking maneuver or noticeable grade required frequent negotiations with the Citromatic gearbox, whose cumbersome operation did not encourage haste. To add insult to injury, the big four was lumpy and clattery when pressed, hardly in keeping with the Déesse’s general refinement. In compensation, the engine was all but bulletproof and was reasonably economical. Consumption of 26 mpg (9 L/100 km) was typical, with closer to 30 mpg (8 L/100 km) possible in gentle cruising.
LE IDÉE: CITROEN ID19
The Déesse’s impact was startling and Citroën took more than 80,000 orders in the first week after the launch. That was particularly remarkable given the car’s price (some $3,295 p.o.e. in the U.S.), which was significantly higher than the Traction’s. Both buyers and critics were divided about the DS19’s styling, but it was hard not to be dazzled by its suspension, brakes, and sheer technological chutzpah. If the Déesse’s specifications no longer seem quite as outré as they once did, it must be remembered that when the DS bowed, most of its contemporaries were rather rustic devices. The average automotive designer probably couldn’t have defined “coefficient of drag,” much less cared about it, and even radial tires were very rare.
Of course, many early Citroën DS customers found out that there’s a reason that most automakers prefer tried-and-true hardware to daring innovations. Citroën hadn’t just gone out on a limb with the technology of the Déesse; it had jumped off a cliff. Despite its protracted development, the Goddess had many early teething problems, exacerbated by Bercot’s obsession with secrecy. In his desire to maximize the Déesse’s impact, he had withheld its technical specifications even from Citroën dealers. The DS was a terrifyingly complicated car and even many dealer technicians didn’t know what to do with it (or have access to necessary parts) until well after its introduction. Once the early difficulties were resolved, the complex hydraulics were reasonably dependable, although the piping was leak-prone and fragile enough that it could not be removed without damaging it, complicating other repairs.
Bowing to these concerns — and complaints from dealers about the price — in 1957 Citroën introduced the ID (Idée, “idea”). The Idée was a cheaper version of the DS, sharing the Déesse’s suspension, but with conventional steering, brakes, and four-speed gearbox as well as a detuned (66 hp/49 kW) engine and more plebeian trim. From 1958, the sedans were joined by a wagon (a “Break,” also called Safari), which the hydropneumatic suspension made a versatile load-hauler.
The Citroën DS made little impact in the U.S. beyond a tiny audience of cognoscenti, but the new Citroën soon became as much of an icon in France as the Traction had been. By the sixties, the DS was the unofficial French state car, favored by most high officials, including General Charles de Gaulle. De Gaulle credited the Déesse’s suspension with saving his life following a 1962 assassination attempt; his chauffeur was able to drive him to safety because the DS19’s suspension kept the car level and drivable even after losing one wheel. (The coachbuilder Henri Chapron later built De Gaulle a special stretched Déesse known as the Presidentielle.) The cheaper ID, meanwhile, became a ubiquitous French taxicab.
Even the sourest British critics admitted that the Goddess was uniquely suited to French roads, gliding with imperturbable calm over the battered autoroutes of the Fifth Republic. The highest British compliment on the hydropneumatic suspension’s cloud-like ride was paid in the mid-1960s, when Rolls-Royce licensed the system for use on the 1965 Silver Shadow.
That imperturbable disdain for rough roads also carried the Goddess to many competition victories. The DS and ID19 were too slow for many forms of racing, but they proved themselves superb rally cars, more than once winning the grueling Monte Carlo rally. Like the Mini, which became the Goddess’s arch-rival in the 1960s rally scene, the Citroën was not fast, but could easily maintain high speeds, with little need to slow down.
THE ETERNAL GODDESS
Boulanger and Bercot had wanted the Citroën DS, like the Traction before it, to be so advanced in styling and features that it would still seem fresh for years. Unlike the Traction, whose 1934-vintage styling looked rather quaint by the time the last models were sold in 1957, the Goddess looked as flamboyant and as futuristic when production ended in 1975 as the original DS19 had back in 1955.
The Déesse underwent only minor, evolutionary changes during its 19-year history. The inadequate 6V electrical system gave way to a 12V setup in 1960, the poor sealing of the frameless side windows was improved, and more power was coaxed from the elderly engine. In 1965, that engine was finally replaced by a new, short-stroke four with five main bearings, a 1,985 cc (122 cu. in.) version for the ID and 2,175 cc (133 cu. in.) for the DS, which was now renamed DS21. The latter, with 109 hp (81 kW) could run 0-62 mph (0-100 km/h) in under 16 seconds, a more reasonable figure for the era, and could reach more than 105 mph (170 km/h) given enough room. (Citroën claimed a top speed of 115 mph (185 km/h), but to our knowledge, no independent tester achieved anything close to that speed.) Fuel economy was nearly as good as before, although the new engine was still rough and noisy.
Although rumors continued to abound of a six-cylinder model, the most powerful engine ever fitted by the factory was the later 2,347 cc (140 cu. in.) four with optional electronic fuel injection, making 130 hp DIN (96 kW). That was enough for 0-62 mph (0-100 km/h) in less than 11 seconds and a top speed approaching 120 mph (195 km/h). Meanwhile, Citroën eventually offered the Déesse with a conventional manual transmission as an alternative to Citromatic; a fully synchronized five-speed became optional in 1970. A Borg-Warner automatic transmission was added to the option list in 1971; national chauvinism aside, it probably should have been offered from the beginning.
The only major change to the Déesse’s styling came in 1967, with a new “shark-nosed” front clip and recessed dual headlamps. The lights had clear plastic covers, which further reduced the already impressive coefficient of drag. The covered headlights were not legal in the U.S., nor was the Déesse’s last great party trick, driving lights that swiveled with the front wheels to provide better illumination on curving roads. It made little difference, since U.S. sales were minimal. The Déesse was finally withdrawn from the American market in 1972 because it would have cost too much to modify it for the 1973 federal bumper standards.
Even in its twilight, the Déesse had few rivals in sophistication or innovation; only the big Mercedes sedans matched the Citroën’s complexity. Total production of the D-series was 1,455,746, which was less than two years’ Impala production for Chevrolet, but reasonable for an expensive, eccentric sedan brimming with untried technology. During its lifetime, however, the Goddess’s less-advanced rivals had improved to the point where they offered most of the DS’s tangible benefits without its cost or idiosyncrasies.
Even Citroën could never really top the DS. The SM was in many respects a modernized DS with the six-cylinder engine the Goddess never had, and the Déesse’s direct replacement, the CX, was not quite the conceptual leap that its predecessor had been. Even now, the DS remains a high water mark for Citroën’s adventurous engineering spirit. Sadly, that appetite for adventure nearly brought the company to ruin in the early seventies. Citroën had never been long on capital, and the costs of developing the SM and compact GS put the company too far into the red. Michelin could no longer justify the financial burden, so in 1975, the French government ordered Citroën to merge with rival Peugeot.
Nevertheless, Citroën continued to refine the Déesse’s hydropneumatic suspension. Renamed “Hydractive” and fitted with electronic controls, it was used on the XM and Xantia sedans in the late eighties and early nineties. The latest version, Hydractive 3, is used in Citroën’s big C6 sedan. Air springs and hydropneumatic suspensions remain very rare on mass-market cars from other manufacturers, although they have gradually begun to reappear on high-end luxury models.
The Déesse’s engineering is no longer as astounding as it was 50 years ago, although its self-adjusting suspension is still something to see. So, too, is its styling, which, despite the sealed-beam headlights, skinny tires, and slender bumpers, looks as futuristic and iconoclastic as ever. The Goddess may have tarnished with age, but she still turns heads.
What really distinguishes the DS, though, is its unapologetic single-mindedness. The designs of most modern cars are filtered through endless marketing research analyses and focus groups that relentlessly strip away every controversial or challenging element. The Déesse was designed with no concession whatever to either engineering convention or public taste. Like the original Mini, it was the product of engineers given carte blanche, driven by an implacable faith in their own judgment and a casually arrogant disdain for what anyone else might think. For better or worse, we will probably not see its like again.
NOTES ON SOURCES
Our sources for this article included Wiljan Cats’ Citroën page, Cats-Citroën, www.cats-citroen. net, accessed 30 July 2008; David LaChance, “Tour de Force,” Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car #7 (March 2006), pp. 60-65; Julian Marsh’s remarkable Citroënët website, Citroënët, www.citroenet. org.uk, accessed 24 August 2008; Niels Heilberg, “Citroën Faces,” www.geocities. com/MadisonAvenue/ 4430/bluebook.html, accessed 1 August 2008; and Gavin Green, “Future Shock,” Motor Trend Classic #2 (January 2006), pp. 98-104.
We also consulted the following period road tests: “Citroen DS19 Startles Paris,” Autocar 14 October 1955; “Road Test: Citroën: The DS-19 drives boldly off the beaten path — and never feels the bumps,” Road & Track November 1956; “The Autocar Road Tests the Citroen DS19,” Autocar 7 December 1956; “Citroen ID-19,” Road & Track June 1958; “Citroën DS 19,” Car and Driver February 1962; “Citroen DSM: THRUSH Agents Take Cover…It’s Napoleon Solo on Wheels!” Car Life July 1965; “Citroen (DS21) Pallas M,” Autocar 3 December 1965; “Car and Driver Road Test: Citroën DS-21: Op-pop art nouveau (whirr!) on a 123-inch wheelbase,” Car and Driver February 1966; “Mobile palace (Motor Road Test No. 6/68 – Citroen DS 21 Pallas),” The Motor 10 February 1966; “Citroen DS23 Pallas,” The Motor 10 February 1973; and Peter Nunn, “Profile: Citroën DS: The Goddess,” Classic and Sports Car July 1984, all of which are reprinted in Citroën DS & ID 1955-1975, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 1988); and Charles Fox, “Viewpoint: Citroën DS-21 Pallas,” Car and Driver September 1970, pp. 38–40, 73.
Historical exchange rates were estimated based on Werner Antweiler, “PACIFIC Exchange Rate service, Foreign Currency Units per 1 U.S. Dollar, 1948-2009” (2009, University of British Columbia, fx.sauder. ubc.ca). All equivalencies cited in the text are approximate and are provided for illustration and informational purposes only — this is an automotive history, not a treatise on currency trading or the value of money, and nothing in this article should be taken as financial advice of any kind!