Unboxing the legendary Citroën DS

The car has a fanatical following to this day

24 January 2020 - 09:37 By Gerrit Burger
A 1972 Citroen DS 23 Pallas.
A 1972 Citroen DS 23 Pallas.
Image: Rust/ullstein bild via Getty Images

On 5 October 1955, at the Paris Motor Show, Citroën unveiled a new car to the startled eyes of the public. It was called the DS19, and it was an immediate sensation. The car was highly unconventional and yet marvellously practical in a way only the French seemed to have mastered. Even the name DS had an unmistakable Gallic flavour: Déesse means "goddess" in French.

Citroën in those years was the quintessential French motor manufacturer. Its remarkable record of radical innovation started under the guidance of its founder, André Citroën, and was continued and expanded during the years 1934 to 1975, when it was under control of Michelin Tyre Company. Michelin was not only financially sound, and technology-orientated, but the company was also intelligent and sympathetic enough not to stifle the flair and originality of Citroën's engineers.

Under Michelin's management Citroën produced three milestone models, the Traction Avant (1934–1957), the 2CV (1948–1990) and the DS (1955–1975). The Traction Avant was known as the Light Fifteen in South Africa after the 15 horsepower fiscal rating applied in Britain for the purposes of road tax.

The first thing about the DS that contrasted sharply with the upright, boxy family sedans produced by European and British manufacturers in the mid-1950s was its futuristic, aerodynamic body. The hand of an aeronautical engineer was clearly discernible, and his name was André Lefèbvre, an engineer who started his career at the Voisin aircraft company. The most stunning innovation, however, was under the smooth, shark-like skin.

Like the Traction Avant, the DS had front wheel drive, but instead of the usual steel springs for the suspension, the DS used a revolutionary four-wheel independent hydro-pneumatic suspension. This system, already fitted to the rear suspension of the 1954 Traction Avant as a trial, was developed by Paul Magès, an employee of Citroën.

A 1970 Citroen DS 20 Pallas.
A 1970 Citroen DS 20 Pallas.
Image: OKER/Marcus Gloger/ullstein bild via Getty Images

It used hydraulic oil (the “hydro” part) and compressed nitrogen gas (the “pneumatic” part) working together to combine a new level of suspension sensitivity with exceptional vehicle control, while also allowing self-leveling. But that wasn't all: having made the jump to this suspension system based on hydraulic pressure, Citroën used the output of the belt-driven hydraulic pump to also provide power steering assistance, and hydraulic brake boosting.

The brakes were actuated by lightly pressing your foot on a little rubber half-sphere on the floor instead of the conventional pedal. It was the first mass-produced car with disc brakes. Like all Citroëns since 1948, it was fitted with radial ply tyres, then being pioneered by Michelin. The car had a fibreglass roof to lower the centre of gravity, and inboard brakes in front to reduce unsprung mass.

The remarkable thing was that all these innovations worked and keptworking for many years. Citroën managed something that has very seldom been achieved: to combine revolutionary technology with outstanding reliability and durability. Perhaps the fact that the engine was a tried-and-trusted, straightforward four-cylinder pushrod unit helped in this regard. (The company reportedly had visions of a flat-six, air-cooled engine for the DS, but mercifully this idea was scrapped due to lack of funds.)

On the open road the DS provided an unforgettable driving experience – spacious, extremely comfortable, seeming to float over good surfaces and bad. It had its idiosyncrasies – the indicators, for instance, were not self-cancelling, because Citroën didn't trust the reliability of the self-cancelling mechanism. (Perhaps there were motorcyclists among the designers who knew how difficult it is to make the transition from self-cancelling indicators to the ones on a motorcycle!)

It's exactly quirks such as these, which always had a practical foundation, which endeared the DS to its owners and ensured the car has a fanatical following to this day.