Citroën DS: A Goddess Amongst Automobiles
Text: Ravi Nene Images courtesy: Jean-François Ruchuad
It was the 22nd of August 1962. Charles De Gaulle, the President of France, was on his way to Orly Airport, Paris, when 12 gunmen opened fire on his motorcade, in an assassination attempt. At over 110 kilometres an hour, with two tyres having burst, the driver managed to accelerate out of a skid, and drive the President away to safety. This was thanks to the self-levelling suspension and incredible driving dynamics of his car, a Citroën DS, the car that is the subject of this article.
The Citroën DS was not just a car—it was a phenomenon that swept the world off its feet at the Paris Motor Show launch in 1955. So extraordinary was it in design and technological advancement, that the car notched 12,000 orders on opening day, and by the end of the ten days of the show, it had racked up 80,000 bookings—a feat that took sixty years for another car to match.
So, what was it about the Citroën DS that was so extraordinary and ground-breaking? It was the first mass produced car to have hydro-pneumatic self-levelling suspension, disc brakes, and (later) directionally moving headlamps. It had a central hydraulic system that powered not only the brakes and steering, but also the suspension, the clutch, and the transmission.
All these innovations resulted in a car that set new standards in ride quality, handling, and roadholding. The beauty of the self-levelling suspension system was seen when the car was parked—it literally ‘sat down’ hugging the ground, its rear wheel almost invisible. And upon starting, it ‘rose up’ and drove away majestically.
The Citroën DS’ rear track was narrower than the front’s, which helped control understeer, and gave the car a smooth submarine-like aerodynamic shape. It was a front wheel drive car—way back in the 1950s—engineered specifically so it could have a flat rear floor with a luxurious back bench. The car had a unique ‘front mid-engine’ layout, which meant that the gearbox was up ahead of the engine.
Not just technology, the design too was very advanced and drop-dead gorgeous! Designed by sculptor and designer Flaminio Bertoni, and engineered by Andre Lefebvre, the goddess (DS, or déesse, is goddess in French) looked like nothing the world had ever seen before. It had a large glasshouse, a fiberglass roof, pillarless doors and a sleek single spoke steering wheel—all meant to enhance the feeling of lightness to the extent that one felt as if the car could well take off and fly!
The engines on offer were the four-cylinder 1911cc derived from the Traction Avant. A few years later, a 2175cc engine powered the Citroën DS 21, and by 1973 the DS had on offer a 2347cc engine with electronic fuel injection. While there were plans of launching the car with an air-cooled flat-six engine, that sadly never happened, as Citroën had exhausted their developmental budget—understandably so, given the precarious condition France was in post-War.
The Goddess also saw success in motorsport, winning the Monte Carlo Rally in 1959 and 1966, and the 1000 Lakes Rally in 1962. In 1974, close to the end of its production run, the Citroën DS won the gruelling London-Sahara-Munich World Cup Rally pitted against 70 very worthy contestants across 28,800 kilometres.
Classic & Sports Car magazine voted the Citroën DS “the most beautiful car of all time” in 2009. Earlier on, the 1999 “Car of the Century” poll placed the DS as the third greatest car ever produced, after the Model T and the Mini. A celebration of the best that technology and design could offer then, the Citroën DS was a redoubtable success, which was reflected in its very successful 20-year production run, with almost 1.5 million units made and sold.
Over the years, the Citroën DS came in several variants: the Pallas (a luxury version), an estate, and even a convertible. There was a lower priced version called the ID. There were also a few one-off versions by specialist coachbuilders, including several coupés and ‘Presidentiale’ limousines. It became the natural favourite of several Heads of State, business tycoons, actors, designers, and celebrities of the time.
Several Citroën DSs made their way to India, and at one time in the 1970s, there were known to be at least six runners extant in India. Sadly, half as many are known to survive today. One is in Hyderabad, which was last seen running a few years ago, and one in New Delhi. Another one is in Mumbai, and is undergoing restoration with one of the more important collectors. We wait with bated breath to see the goddess elegantly cruise our roads again.
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