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Citroen DS

Published: 16th Sep 2013 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

Citroen DS
Citroen DS
Citroen DS
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Citroen’s DS was arguably the most technically advanced car in the world when it was launched in 1955. It ran for 20 years but only devotees in the UK would touch one says Andrew Roberts

To enter the world of Citroen’s masterpiece is sometimes akin to being the lead in a particularly distressing Hitchcock horror film; random letters and phrases such as “DS”, “ID”, “Pallas”, “DW”, and “Slough” being hurled at you. The DS’s remarkable twenty year career encompasses a range of Byzantine complexity but each individual variant is a car, to quote the philosopher Roland Barthes that “…has fallen from the sky inasmuch as it appears at first sight as a superlative object”. And it is fairly unlikely that M. Barthes would have written similar words about the Standard Vanguard of that era.

Project Voiture à Grande Diffusion was commissioned by Citroen’s Chairman Pierre Boulanger in the late 1930s as a replacement for the Traction Avant although real development inevitably had to wait until after the Second World War. The new Citroen would unitary body to which all body panels were bolted and every detail was designed with a sense of purpose.

As the Traction’s successor would be competing with Peugeot in France’s overseas territories, it would be fitted with Paul Magès’ hydropneumatic suspension, as trialled on the 1954 15/6H, an adjustable ride-height facility making the DS (short for Dysee or Goddess) suited to both Parisian side streets and colonial cart roads.

The initial plan was for the DS to be powered by a new 1.8-litre air-cooled engine or even a fuel-injected flat-six Boxer engine but sadly these ideas were cancelled in favour of a modified version of the Traction’s trusty 1.9 four-cylinder unit. As for Flaminio Bertoni’s coachwork, this was finalised only a few months before its debut at the Paris Motor Salon on 5th October 1955, where any sane observer would have to agree that Boulanger’s dream of making “the world’s best, most beautiful, and most comfortable and most advanced car” had come true.

As part of a brilliantly conceived publicity campaign, Citroen had a dozen PR cars driven night and day along the Champs-Elysées, giving the impression that Paris was now inundated with thousands of design masterpieces already. As Brian Sewell so appositely wrote – “No other car put into long-term production had so revolutionary a shape”.


That same autumn the DS made its British debut and so just imagine being at the 1955 London Motor Show and encountering a DS in all of its majesty, a car with hydraulic power to the brakes, gears, clutch and steering clad in a body the seemed to hail from The Quatermass X-Periment. Almost every detail of the new Citroen was beyond the ken of the average British motorist – the eyelevel rear flashing indicators, an interior with face level ventilators and heating ducts to the front and back occupants and frameless door windows were too advanced. There was also a fascia that attempted to follow some form of ergonomics rather than scattering Bakelite switches across the dashboard, a semi-automatic gearbox and a rubber mushroom in place of a brake pedal.

Small wonder that as the DS was unveiled to the great British public pipes fell from manly jaws and Hillman Minx owners quaked in fright.

This point wasn’t lost on a road test 12 years later in Motor who remarked that a driver needed a good hundred miles to get used to the car and “one wonders how many customers were frightened away after a brief test drive”. And as for working on one at home by the kerbside – forget it.

In 1956 the DS was augmented by the cheaper ID, to compete with the Peugeot 403 for the family car and taxi market. The ID came with a more Spartan interior and was devoid of its stablemate’s hydraulic clutch and gear change. It also lacked power assistance for the steering and brakes and came with an engine detuned from 75bhp to 66bhp but the ultimate poverty specification ID has to be the 1957-1960 Normale, which was finished in any shade of black and boasted a cabin sans ashtrays and heater. Sales were understandably limited.

1956 was also the year that the DS and the ID began to be assembled in Citroen’s Slough plant from CKD kits despatched from France and a number of changes devised to appeal to British and Commonwealth motorists. Citroen had made cars in the UK since 1923 as a way of circumventing swinging import duties – to qualify for “Made in England’” status 51per cent of a car’s content had to be locally sourced – and so the British ID/DS boasted leather seats, a rather incongruous looking wooden veneered dashboard, reversing lamps and, until 1962, a Lucas 12 volt electrical system. Slough-built Citroens were immediately identifiable by their vertically mounted front number plate – in accordance with British law – and, in the remoter parts of Wessex, by people fleeing in terror from this strange machine.

1958 saw the debut of two Henri Chapron creations – the DS Prestige with its glass division and the Cabriolet, a car of such radiance that it put even Graber bodied Alvis in the shade. Somewhat more practical but no less glorious was the new Safari estate car range which was available in a variety of seating configurations and combined the ID’s trim levels with a lower final drive and DS’s brakes.  It fast became one of France’s most popular Ambulances and a Slough-built version was also available, a handful also being converted for hospital work by Wadhams of Hampshire.

In 1960 the French built IDs finally received a 12 volt electrical system and the following year they gained a white roof as standard; this became an identifying mark of the ID until the model ceased production eight years later. 1961 was also the year that the DS received an 83bhp engine and in 1962 the range received a facelift; the more aerodynamic frontal treatment gained an extra five mph of performance. By now the DS was the car of choice for French government ministers, senior civil servants and police officers alike; in 1968 the Gendarmerie Nationale used a trio of ID’s fitted with Rootes supercharged 2175cc engines giving a top speed of 125 mph.


And it was on August 22nd 1962 that the OAS, the paramilitary group that was bitterly and violently opposed to France granting Algeria independence laid ambush to President Charles De Gaulle as his motorcade sped along the Paris suburb of Petit-Clamart. A hail of 140 bullets killed two of the president’s motorcycle bodyguards, shattered the official DS’s rear window and punctured all four of its tyres but the Citroen’s suspension system ensured that De Gaulle could still be driven away to safety.

Thereafter, as the story goes, the President would only ever travel in a Citroen although he disliked the 1969 Presidentelle Limousine created for him by Chapron, preferring a DS with a removable fabric roof so that he could receive the crowds’ adulation. Such was De Gaulle’s devotion to the marque that when Citroen were in financial difficulties at the end of the 1960s, the President ensured that Fiat could only take control of 15 per cent of the company.

In 1965, the ageing 1911cc Traction engine was finally replaced by a 1985cc five-bearing unit, and the DS becoming known as the 19a, and the range was augmented by the 2,175cc DS21. Members of the haute-bourgeois were tempted by the DS Pallas, which looked especially handsome when fitted with optional quartz-iodine auxiliary lamps, but sadly British Citroen assembly was now coming to an end. It was the Slough plant that had introduced the first ever DS with a manual gearbox, the DW, before the French were offered such a version in late 1963. In the mid-1960s a Citroen DS19 was even used by the London Metropolitan Police Flying Squad and civilian buyers had also been tempted by such fabulous cars as the Connaught Cars tuned IDs and the truly fantastic DS Pallas M, a true Jag S-Type beater.

Meanwhile, Citroen had been working on a radical facelift to the DS’s appearance in conjunction – a completely streamlined nose with four covered headlamps. On the Pallas, and as an option on lesser models, the inner lights would swivel with the steering thanks to cables to the steering rack, all four units being connected to the suspension to ensure the beams remained level. The second generation DS range was unveiled in 1967 and if you want evidence of how advanced it still was, just remember that this was the same year that BMC launched the Austin 3 Litre…

In 1968 the DS19a was rebadged as the DS20 and in 1969 the entry level IDs were renamed as the D Spécial. In order that the more expensive versions of the DS could compete against the Jaguar XJ6 and the Mercedes-Benz W109 the end of the decade saw the DS21 being made available with Bosch electronic fuel injection, and for 1971 potential buyers were now offered options of a manual five speed gearbox or three-speed Borg Warner 35 automatic transmission.

1973 saw, the great car received its final major modification when Citroen introduced the DS23, powered by a 2347 cc engine available in either Bosch injection or carbureted forms. When the DS range ceased production in 1975, after 1,455,746 units, a DS23 Pallas EFI was still a car that was years in advance of so many other European luxury cars, a machine that still, to quote M Barthes, was “still “first and foremost a new Nautilus”. And nearly five decades after it was launched any version of the DS, from an ID19 Confort to a DS Prestige retains an indefinable sense of mystery to most of us.

When The Car Was The Star

Obviously The Day of the Jackal – even if half of the Citroens in ‘1963’ seem to have fared-in headlamps – but let us not overlook the Fantômas films, the DS19 Cabriolet in That Touch of Mink, the whilte 1963 French-built DS favoured by foreign villains in nearly all ITC dramas, the black 1964 Slough-built Safari in the Murdersville episode of The Avengers and the unfortunate Pallas in the magnificent Mr. Jolly Lives Next Door.

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