Celebrating Citroën’s divine ’50s creation, the DS
It is said that during the development of the Citroën DS, engineers hung a quote on the door to the research department from the French novelist, playwright, and filmmaker Marcel Pagnol. Translated, it read: “Everyone thought it was impossible, except one idiot who did not know it, and did it.”
Is it possible for mere mortals to give birth to the immortal? Once upon a time, the “idiots” at French automaker S.A. André Citroën took their best shot and produced an astonishing vision of the divine. When it debuted at the 1955 Paris motor show, the DS (pronounced déesse, the French word for “goddess”) smashed every convention of automotive styling and quite a few of automotive engineering. It instantly made every other vehicle in existence look rustic, and it was still doing so when it ended production after two decades and 1.5 million examples produced.
As synonymous with French idiosyncrasy as escargots and a bisou (kiss) on each cheek, the Citroën DS routinely ranks at or near the top of every list of the most significant automobiles of the 20th century. Here, in 2019, as Citroën celebrates its 100th year as an automaker, let’s take a moment to acknowledge the company’s most dazzling product. Much has been written about the DS, and some of it is wrong, including the belief that it could drive on three wheels. Okay, it could drive on three as an emergency measure, but with the suspension at full extension, the angle of the driveshaft U-joints was so acute that anything above bicycle speed was strictly forbidden by the owner’s manual.
Yet the DS remains one of history’s most fascinating cars. Even the backstory is good, starting in the early 1900s with the manufacturing-minded son of a Dutch Jewish diamond merchant. André Citroën’s first business was the production of helical gearsets, a fact commemorated by the company’s inverted double-chevron logo, which Citroën himself designed. A munitions maker during the Great War, Citroën turned to carmaking in 1919 to survive the peace. He lived just long enough to see the DS’s illustrious front-wheel-drive predecessor, the Traction Avant, come to market in 1934 before he succumbed to cancer a year later.
Although the Traction Avant remained in production for a quarter century, planning for its replacement began even before France once again plunged into war with Germany in 1939. By then the Great Depression had forced Citroën into the hands of its largest creditor, Michelin, which drew up a master plan for turning the company around. The centerpiece was the voiture de grand diffusion, or the “mass-market car.”
Despite the name, the VGD was always intended to be a somewhat luxurious traveler that provided its passengers with the best comfort possible over France’s generally decrepit routes nationales. The men most responsible for it were an aeronautical engineer and racing driver named André Lefèbvre, an Italian artist and architect named Flaminio Bertoni, and a young engineer known as “the Professor” to his colleagues, despite having joined Citroën at the age of 17 and without a formal education. Considered the father of the DS’s self-leveling hydropneumatic system, Paul Magès later claimed that, if he had gone to school, he never would have been able to come up with the idea.
Working secretly in Nazi-occupied Paris, Magès hit on the idea of applying the principles of hydraulic braking systems to a suspension. Rather than conventional steel springs, he envisioned hydraulic fluid pressurized by an engine-driven pump and piped out to rams at all four corners to hold up the car. Since liquid doesn’t compress, his hydraulic suspension needed a gas component to give it the requisite sponginess. Thus, spheres mounted to the top of the hydraulic struts were filled at the top with nitrogen, and a flexible diaphragm separated the gas from the pressurized hydraulic fluid below. As the car rolled down the road, the hydraulic rams transmitted bump energy through the diaphragm to the highly compressible nitrogen. During braking or acceleration, or with the trunk loaded, the suspension automatically compensated to keep the body flat. The driver could raise or lower the car with a floor lever.
When the war ended, work on the VGD accelerated, but it still took the company 10 more years to produce the DS. That’s because the novelty of the new car didn’t end with the suspension. The hydraulic system was harnessed to power the steering and brakes as well as the gearchange mechanism in the semiautomatic transmission. Famously, the brake pedal disappeared (it returned in some later versions), replaced by a floor button that released pressure to the front inboard disc brakes and rear drums.
The vessel in which Magès’s engineering marvel was placed was no less incomparable, being a slippery, forward-looking arrowhead that defied every styling trope in the book. Since the dawn of the automotive age, luxury and power had been defined by massive grilles, long hoods, low rooflines, and big wheels. In contrast, the DS pretty much had no grille, just some gills below the bumper. It also had relatively tiny wheels, a tall roof seemingly perched on 40 acres of fishbowl glass, and a droopy butt. Yet the car remains stunning and improbably voluptuous 64 years after its introduction.
More than 80,000 orders flooded in within a week of the DS19’s debut at the 42nd Salon de l’Automobile—journalists quipped that the show was better called the Salon de Citroën. The British newspaper the Guardian headlined its coverage “Oh! How Humdrum She Makes Our Models Look!” American papers described it for readers as a car the size of a Nash Rambler running on the wheelbase of a Buick, and they took particular note of its crazy one-spoke steering wheel.
Citroën’s U.S. operation based in Los Angeles initially priced the DS19 at $3295 ($31,640 today), about the same as a 1955 Buick Roadmaster sedan, and touted in ads a new warehouse on Wilshire Boulevard containing “a half-million dollars in spare parts here.” It didn’t matter initially, as buyers had to wait months for their cars to be built by the overwhelmed factory. But a goddess had been born.