When the aerodynamic Citroen DS (pun on the French word for “goddess”) was introduced at the 1955 Paris Auto Show, it was rightfully acclaimed as the most advanced car in the world. In many regards it still is. The hydro-pneumatic suspension, was powered by an engine pump to an impressive 2,200 psi and this one system (with about a two-gallon reserve), raised the car as high as 10 inches through a lever inside. It also shifted the gears as fast as a twin-clutch setup and ran the power steering and power disc brakes, which were so sensitive that the pedal was replaced by a small 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. In cases where even the spare is flat, a driver could move two good tires to the front and leave one of the back wheels off altogether. The car was able to sense it has a “sore foot” and lift the hub high off the ground.
Dash control symbols must be deciphered on the early cars; there was a single spoke steering wheel, whose column curved to the rim for safety. Starting the car required the driver to move the column shifter from one side of the steering wheel to the other, where it engaged the starter. The body panels were all removable and the car could be driven in “skeleton” form. The roof was fiberglass on many models, which allowed for a remarkably bright cabin.
The secret of the suspension was the nitrogen spheres, which were interconnected by the hydraulic system to function as springs. Along with the car’s armchair seats, they provided the best ride in the world, so much so that Rolls-Royce used the system years later, if only on the rear wheels. The northern French “pave” roads of big granite slabs were notoriously unforgiving and this car was designed with those avenues in mind. The DS was effective enough to win the Monte Carlo Rally and the East African Safari Rally, which hardly had any roads at all.
Nearly 1.5 million DS models were made over a 20 year run as the DS 19, DS 21, and DS 23. Sedans, station wagons (Safari), and various ambulance and commercial variations all wore the name. There were even Presidential limousines, as Charle De Gaulle was a great fan, having famously outrun Algerian gunmen in a car with two flat tires. Most desirable are Henri Chapron’s convertibles of which there were 1,246 built. These cars sell for orders of magnitude beyond the rest of the line, and are valuable enough to have spurred a cottage industry in cloning these convertibles.
The key to owning any DS is having a skilled mechanic to work on it; one with knowledge, connections, and special tools. In mid-1969 the brake fluid that worked the suspension (and attracted moisture) was replaced by the so-called “green fluid” which is oil-based and not as corrosive. Also, cars built between 1969 and 1972 have the four covered headlight system, in which the inside lights turn with the wheels and all are self-leveling. The later the car the better, but avoid the automatic transmission, which was never sold in the U.S, if possible. Horsepower more than doubled from 63 hp in 1956 to 141 hp by 1972, and later cars can be found with five-speeds and air conditioning, particularly the Pallas models.
Beware of rust, as the DS platform is a number of sheet metal boxes. If rust gets away from you, you’ll never catch up. Also be aware that cars sold in warm climates may have virtually no heater. And don’t go feeling for a hydraulic leak with your bare hands, the consequences of brake fluid at 2200 psi are too awful to contemplate. Finally, buy no project cars, as cars in dire need of anything will cause no end of torment on your bank account. As enthusiasts are quick to point out, there are many more dead DSs around than good running cars. Sourcing spares is not the problem; finding a good car to use them on is.