When Citroën meant style and innovation
French car-makers traditionally reveal new models and concept-car technology in the autumn and the Citroën DS was no exception.
Launched at the Paris Motor Show in October 1955, it revolutionised motoring and remains an undisputable icon of French design.
Before mondialisation – the globalisation of car markets and manufacturers, during which time cars have become blandly similar – each country had a recognisable automobile style. Certainly France did, and none more so than Citroën.There are few things more thoroughly French than a 2CV – apart from the Eiffel Tower, baguettes, berets… well, you get the point.
Like the 2CV, the DS is the essence of Frenchness – even though its original designer was Italian. Its name is a play on words – DS with a French pronunciation gives déesse, the goddess – and it harks back to a period of forward-looking optimism, social change and industrial growth.
The car was ahead of its time – and an instant success, with nearly 1.5 million cars produced over a 20-year period until 1975. It combined technological prowess and audacious design innovation which defined it as a symbol of the Trente Glorieuses period, from post-war reconstruction to the 1970s oil crisis. The extended bonnet with integrated headlights, the curved windscreen and streamlined roof, the long tail and sweeping rear wing, half enveloping the back wheels, gave the DS its avant-garde style.
The look was enhanced by the big chrome hubcaps, roof-mounted cylindrical indicators and extensive colour schemes, often with a different- colour body and roof.
The DS was packed with innovative technology. It was the first European car to have independent brakes equipped with discs at the front. It had power-assisted steering, a 1900cc engine, and a semi-automatic gear change.
But it is the variable-height hydro-pneumatic suspension that most people associate with the double-chevron brand. Select the ride height, and with the pressurised system allowing trajectory correction, you could experience magic carpet comfort when out on the road.
Famously, the suspension also allowed the DS to drive on three wheels if required, in case of a puncture or damage.
Inside, the futuristic dashboard was like nothing before. In front of the single-branch steering wheel, you used the stick shifter to start the motor as well as change gear. Aeronautical-style instruments and switches were visible and accessible behind.
The large seats, thick arm rests and padded carpeting made for a comfortable driving environment and set the DS apart from its competitors, in classic French style.
The DS was popular with the middle class and with the stars of the time, as well being the presidential vehicle par excellence. General de Gaulle survived an assassination attempt in 1962, thanks to the road-holding ability of the car.
Occasionally you pass one, often restored, cutting a dash through the town or country.
It is an indication of the significance of the car that, even today, it attracts attention. Its appeal goes beyond automotive passion, evoking a bygone era... proof that even in motoring, style never goes out of fashion.