Wednesday, June 5, 2013

1967-1975 Citroën DS



"All the joys of restful motoring are yours in the new Citroën DS 19"

It seems like French carmakers enjoy "reinventing the wheel" when designing new cars. This attitude often led to quirky and eccentric, but sometimes to really advanced constructions, that, in hindsight, bettered the rest, but didn't have much commercial success, because they were ... well, too special. Some of these designs, though, found their well deserved place in automotive history. Citroën cars, such as the prewar Traction Avant, the "french Beetle" 2CV or the "Godess" DS are top-ranked among these classics.

Citroën inherited the eccentric style from the avantgardist mindset of its founder, Andre Citroën. But rather than being a "car guy", Monsieur Citroën was a fanatic promoter of mass production finesse, who constantly strived for unconventional technical solutions on his cars in order to reduce costs and raise quality at the same time. Ironically, when he set out to make the 1934 Traction Avant the most innovative french car of its era, Citroën's interest was not to improve the automobile as such, but merely to save money because he reckoned that an advanced car could be built unchanged over a longer period of time, before the competition would catch up technically. The upshot of this attitude were a really nice car and a bankrupt company, because the massive development costs didn't pay off in form of better sales.

Andre Citroen ultimately had to sell its company to its biggest creditor Michelin in 1934. Luckily, the new Citroen owners continued fostering the avantgardist spirit within the company, and one breathtaking product of this mindset was the DS, launched at the Paris Motor Show in October 1955.

When the DS appeared on the American market as a 1956 model, it literally looked like as if a spaceship on wheels had landed. Mind you, in 1955, the latest fashion in (American) car styling looked like this, this, or this. And although European cars generally sported pretty clean designs, the DS looked super-modern in Europe, too.

The aerodynamic looking body, styled by Citroën's chief designer Flaminio Bertoni, was just the right skin for even more advanced technology underneath, engineered under the lead of André Lefèbvre, who already had been developing the Traction Avant. An unibody construction with easily detachable outer panels, a fiberglass roof and a huge aluminum bonnet to lower the center of gravity, a much narrower track on the rear wheels to allow tighter turning circles and power disc brakes at the front axle were already advanced stuff for these times. But the undisputed highlight of the new DS was the self-adjusting hydropneumatic suspension system which replaced conventional springs and dampers with oil-filled cylinders that were connected to nitrogen-filled compensation spheres. The oil and the gas were separated through a rubber membrane, and the compressible nitrogen would act as a soft "spring", smoothly levelling out most road imperfections. The system worked so well, that the DS ride felt soft-cushioned like in a big Cadillac, yet firm and stable when cornering or braking.

In 1967, after more than a decade of unchanged production, the DS received the first and only facelift which is pictured here (the bumper, taken from a Hyundai Grace, is a Cuban "aftermarket" modification, though). Even then, Citroen's engineers managed to implement eccentric features, like the swiveling high-beam headlights that were connected to the front wheels and illuminated the road even in tight turns. The plastic cover on the headlights indicates that our pictured car wasn't made for the US market: here Citroen DS were sold without these covers, as covered headlights were legally prohibited.

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