Why aren’t the 1955–75 Citroën DS and ID worth more?
If you’re a cutting-edge artist, musician, or entrepreneur in Europe today, you would still do well to drive an immaculate, aerodynamic Citroën DS. Sixty-three years after its introduction at the 1955 Paris Auto Show, the DS (a pun on the French word for Goddess, “De-esse”) still looks surreal. How many cars appear in futuristic movies like Blade Runner, Gattaca, and Back to the Future II when they’re consigned to today’s scrap heap?
When the DS was introduced, it was acclaimed as the most advanced car in the world and diehard fans insist it still is. Not only was its styling futuristic, but its engineering and design was at least a decade ahead of its time. You’d think that a car of such significance would be still immensely valuable today, but that isn’t quite the case. The current market isn’t crazy for these beautiful French cruisers—the average #3-condition (Good) 1955-59 Citroën DS is worth just $17,100, and even the top concours-quality cars are on average bringing $56,500. And while other European luxury cars of the era are priced similarly or maybe even a little cheaper, the DS’s exceptionalism in its time isn’t reflected in significantly more value today. Why is that?
For that answer, we first need to dig into just how complex and forward thinking the DS really was, and why it blew everyone away with its imagination and execution. The hydro-pneumatic suspension was powered by a 2200-psi pump and could quickly raise the car 10 inches via a lever inside. The semi-automatic (and clutchless) transmission shifted gears as quickly and precisely as a twin-clutch system, and the car featured power steering as well as disc brakes so sensitive that the pedal was just a button on the floor.
If you had a flat tire, you merely raised the car until you could put a block under the frame and undo the single nut that held the wheel in place. Lowering the suspension raised the wheel off the ground. Your spare is flat? If it was a rear wheel that was bad, you could simply leave it off and, famously, drive on three wheels. But slowly, si vous plait because while the hydro-pneumatic suspension’s top setting raised the car so high that a hub without a wheel would not touch the ground, the CV joints on the front-drive powertrain were at such an extreme angle that the owner’s manual prhibited more than 10 mph, and only for a short distance.
Early dash controls were symbols to be deciphered; the steering wheel’s single spoke curved from column to rim for safety. The car was started by moving the column shifter clear over the top to the other side of the wheel, where it engaged the starter. Body panels were removable, and the car could be driven in “skeleton” form; many roofs were translucent fiberglass, which allowed light to come in.
The suspension ingeniously incorporated hydraulic fluid pressurized to around 2200 psi to raise and lower the car as well as nitrogen gas to provide shock dampening. On top of the struts were spheres with diaphragms in them, on one side of which was the hydraulic fluid, and on the other side nitrogen. As the wheels rolled over bumps, the pressurized hydraulic fluid transmitted the bump energy to the sphere, where the nitrogen softened the impact through compression. Hence the DS’s famously soft ride, as you were literally riding on four puffs of nitrogen. But what the DS offered in ride comfort it sacrificed in roll stiffness, because the suspension was designed without anti-sway bars and the hydro-pneumatic system was much too soft to keep the car upright in turns.
Along with armchair seats, the DS provided the best ride in the world. Supposed masters of cushy ride quality, Rolls-Royce used the system at the rear of its Silver Shadow. Northern France’s “paved” roads of granite slabs were notoriously unforgiving, and this car was designed for them. DS models even won the Monte Carlo Rally and East African Safari Rally, which had no roads at all.
Over 20 years, Citroën built 1,455,746 DS and lower-priced ID models in the form of sedans, station wagons (Safari), ambulances, and commercials. Presidential limousines were favored by Charles De Gaulle, after he outran Algerian gunmen (as depicted in The Day of the Jackal) on flat tires. Most desirable are Henri Chapron’s convertibles, of which approximately 1246 were built. The best can bring $300,000 at auction, so beware of clones. The simpler ID series of 1957 shared the DS’ hydro-pneumatic suspension, but steering, brakes, and transmission were conventional.
One problem with the DS back in 1955 was finding mechanics to fix the then-new model—shop manuals weren’t available for months—and that problem endures today. Fully functional survivors are rare, and just like Rolls-Royces, the wrong car is a bad deal, even when it’s free. Jay Leno, has one, but he has his own fully staffed garage.
The key to owning DS or ID 19, 20, 21, 22, or 23 models is having a skilled mechanic with knowledge, French connections, and special tools. For example, you need somebody who knows that in mid-1969, the suspension’s “red” brake fluid, which attracted moisture, was replaced by “green” fluid, which is oil-based and not as corrosive.
The 1969–72 cars have a covered four-headlight system, in which the inside lights turn with the wheels. Buy later cars, but avoid the automatic transmission, which was never sold in the U.S. The agricultural 1911-cc engine was gradually improved to 2300 cc with fuel injection, and horsepower increased from 75 in 1955 to 141 by 1972. Later cars may have five-speeds and air conditioning, particularly the Pallas models.
The DS platform consists of a number of sheet-metal boxes, and if rust gets away from you, you’ll never catch up. You need to be extra careful about hydraulic leaks—if you knock a small leak into a big one with your bare hands, 2200 psi will blast you with painful regret.
Richard Bonfond is one of the top Citroën experts in the U.S. His father was Technical Manager for the Western U.S. and worked for Citroën in the U.S., Paris, Brussels, and Britain, owning numerous DS and ID models.
“The biggest problem is the cars are old,” he says. “Citroen is no longer here, the dealers have fizzled out, and people who muck around with the cars think they know better. Qualified technicians are few and far between, and you could count them on one hand in this country.”
Chapron convertibles cost at least $100,000 today, Bonfond says. Based on his own cars, drivable green-fluid sedans can be found between $20,000 and $50,000 for a restored example. He noted that the DS parts supply is much better than it was in the 1990s. “The cars are now collectible, and everything is remanufactured,” Chapron says. “The cars are more valuable, which is a good thing if you own a nice one, but be prepared to pay a pretty penny for a respectable vehicle.”