by Johanna Patterson
Fantastique, formidable, famous, fascinating for a fortunate few, the Citroen DS was a space age concept of motoring. Refined gradually since the revolutionary drag-free body made its debut in 1956, the Citroen was always a car for an individualist, for the driver who wanted to go motoring, and wanted to enjoy that motoring with the thrill of conquering vast distances in eerie silence and isolated comfort. Speed was an abstract expression; yet there was nothing less abstract than a car which could travel fast.
There is no machine more human than a car. Every motor vehicle has its own characteristics, qualities and faults, a way of showing its age (and thats a big admission coming from a woman!). Cars even have their own social classes, dynasties and noble families, such as the Citroens.
Since the birth of the DS19 in 1956, the breed quickly spread. Improved and diversified every year, each model had a distinct personality, yet carried over the same essential qualities common to all. They each had the same magnetic sense of appeal, the same sculptured beauty of perfect aerodynamic shape, the same excitement of speeds beyond 160 km/h.
Citroen safety design was always exemplary, matched by impeccable road holding yet having comfort which was renowned throughout the world. Citroens formula for success lay in the cars configuration, not reliant on one piece of engineering mastery, but a succinct combination of all aspects of the motor vehicle, which included front wheel drive, hydro-pneumatic suspension and power operated disc brakes.
At a time when most manufacturers stuck to the traditions of rear wheel drive, Citroen, better than any other manufacturer (including the Japanese who used the design as a means to cutting costs), realised the principle of front wheel drive was to concentrate the weight of all the mechanical units on the front wheels which drive the car and steer it well.
In combination with the front wheel drive, brilliant Michelin X AS radial tires (these are standard to all Citroens) provided super-glue like adhesion. Because the DS's centre of gravity was moved forward, the rear axle naturally followed the heavier front when cornering.
Citroen Hydro-Pneumatic Suspension
Hydro-pneumatic suspension was accomplished by replacing the traditional metal springs with air cushions. Each of the four cushions used was linked to a suspension sphere in which a variable flow of incompressible liquid was used to compress a volume of gas.
Automatic height correctors make sure a constant ground clearance was maintained, irrespective of the load carried. Yet this clearance could be over-ridden by a manual control to vary it from 3 1/2" to 11" from the ground for negotiating rough or flooded roads - or even to allow easy wheel changing for us girls.
Citroen used a twin circuit braking system which admittedly, by the late 1960's, was becoming almost universal.
However Citroen's system was fully power operated, and incorporated a braking effort distributor to balance pressure between the front disc brakes and the rear drum brakes according to the load on the rear suspension.
The front discs were mounted inboard and were cooled by large ducts. DS21 's also had a warning light on the dash to show excessive wear. The sleek shape of the body added much to the Citroen's unusually economical fuel economy at high speeds.
The panels were detachable, and were mounted on a combined chassis platform and space frame of immense strength. The shell of the Citroen was designed to have accident absorption zones in front of, and behind, the passenger compartment. And big side rails added to safety during side impacts.
A unique four headlight system was protected behind streamlined fairings. On most Citroens two of these lights were directionally linked with the steering to allow drivers to make a mockery of standard times in mountain country on high beam. Powering Citroen were four cylinder motors, all are five bearing units, square or over-square and with cross flow heads.
The power ranged from 91 bhp SAE for the ID 19, to 115 bhp SAE for the DS 21. Citroen drivers were seated in a cabin of luxury and practicality. To gain the utmost of the power the driver was given a column gear change which was as good as any in the world - Citroen liked to think it was the best, and we at Unique Cars and Parts tend to agree.
There were four manual gears, or for those who prefered an automatic clutch and hydraulic gearchange, the Citroen could be "virtually driven" via a "finger and an eye". Only two pedals and a flick of the finger to match the power and ratio to the conditions would provide an astonishing combination of integration and awareness of real driving.
Sure, the Citroen was unusual, and rare is the driver of today who can understand or appreciate the intense enjoyment the marque can offer to classic car enthusiasts. One must learn to understand that Citroen was designed to be used. Apparently random placed controls have logical applications, the disc brake button control is better than a pendant lever, the brighter than normal warning lights and so on ad infinitum all make Citroen the type of transport that breeds an unusual brand of loyalty.
Rare is the classic Citroen owner who, having sampled another breed, does not return to the twin chevrons. And the driver who will not learn the advantages of his car; will not learn to use safety and performance realistically - does not deserve Citroen. Any meat head can drive a V8 quickly, but if "driving" is your passion, no greater satisfaction can be had from a motor vehicle than the Citroen DS.
Challenging and rewarding, the ease of power steering, incredible vision, superb seating and almost complete isolation from exterior rigours made the Citroen a car with the virtues of a fast road car and the normal family sedan. But get along to a French Car Display Day, and look a little deeper to appreciate the craftsmanship.
The Citroen DS - King Of The Road
As the team here at Unique Cars and Parts are always telling me, the GT Falcon was "King Of The Mountain", yet from my perspective the Citroen DS remains an uncontested "King Of The Road".
And as if they needed to prove a point, Citroen showed the world just how good their sedans were by entering them in some of the toughest rallies over the hardest terrain - they knowing the quality of engineering would land them on the podium.
It may be the subject of conjecture, but few would blame Citroen for the crash that robbed the late Lucien Bianchi of victory in the 1968 London to Sydney Marathon
, when his DS21 outpaced a collection of the world's best rally specials.
Then, in an incredible tribute to hydro-pneumatic suspension, the 1969 Moroccan Rally ended with Citroens 1, 2, 3, 4 and 6 of the seven cars that finished from the seventy-five starters. And Bianchi's almost unbelievable average of 91.6 mph for the 737 miles from Norseman to Ceduna across the Nullabor is practically considered impossible by locals, except that the record stood for so many years.
The total of Citroen is that this is a car for those who want to enjoy the real pleasure
that can be in motoring, especially in a country which is as vast as ours. And the French car designed for the French, it has proved to be one of the real international motoring triumphs and delights.
It will undoubtedly prove a winner in the classic car collectability stakes, even if it will never challenge the likes of the XY Falcon GT