It’s vacation time! But this year being like no other, for many of us it has made changing plans or holiday habits. Most won’t fly far, we cannot visit certain countries and generally, many feel an unease for the hole concept of travelling. In our case it will mean spending our well-deserved weeks close to home, or rather within driving distance. A bit like it was back when our parents were young in the 50’s and 60’s. So this week, whether you’re at home or not, let’s take a trip down memory lane back in time, more precisely to France in 1955. Because there and then, “la révolution” was about to hit the car world!
First though, let’s picture what Europe was like in 1955. The war was over since 10 years and the worst memories had faded somewhat. The economy was strong as Europe was rebuilding – in fact we were already 10 years into the 30-year expansion period that lasted until the mid-70’s and in France was referred to as the “30 glorieuses”, the 30 glorious years. There were plenty of jobs, things were looking up – maybe peace would last this time and Europe had a bright future?
With a bit more money in their pockets, people started going on holidays. In France, the first motorway construction projects had just started, but “la route des vacances”, the holiday road, was still the Nationale 7 that ran for almost 1000 kms from Paris to Menton on the Côte d’Azur, just next to the Italian border. This is the road most holiday makers took in cars that were a mix of pre-war models and some early 50’s models. Many were French, and many were Citroëns, at the time the second largest French brand behind Renault but just ahead of Peugeot, with Simca in fourth place. Citroëns at the time were mostly the famous 2CV and the Traction Avant. But in 1955, Citroën introduced the car that would leave a mark for many decades to come – the DS.
Citroën at the time were not only innovative when it came to building cars but also in naming them. Pronouncing DS in French can be transcribed as “Déesse”, meaning Goddess. The DS would have many nicknames through the years, but notably in Germany it was most known as the German translation of the word – “Göttin”.
When the Salon de l’Auto opened its doors in October 1955 the car got more attention than anyone could have hoped for, and by the time it closed its doors, Citroën had taken 12.000 orders for the new car, almost equivalent to half the brand’s total annual production at the time! This was obviously a great success and the start of the DS story, that was to last no less than 20 years with more than 1.3 million cars sold in total. What was it then that was so exciting about this car, and that gave it such a long life?
Let’s start with the design. In 1955 cars didn’t look like the DS. If you don’t believe me, have a look at the above selection, all cars from the same era. In comparison, the DS was modern, daring and futuristic. The front axle was 20mm wider than the rear, giving the car a droplet form. The roof-mounted, rear turn lights looked like small turbine engines. The sloaping front was a clear break with other cars at the time. And when other cars still had flat windscreens, the DS’s was arched in a way that was hugely complicated to produce. Given the the car also offered generous interior space (for the time), it quickly became General de Gaulle’s official presidential car.
There was also the technology and innovations that were at a level to make a 1950’s Elon Musk blush. From the start the car offered hydraulic, assisted steering (a first on mass-produced cars) and hydraulic front disc brakes. The steering wheel, originally a model from 1904, was constructed such as not to pierce the driver’s torso in case of accident. The wheels had a single, central bolt until 1966. During the car’s life a number of other technological features were added, most notably the turning headlights in 1967, that turned in the same direction as the steering wheel. Other car brands needed more than 30 years to come up with a similar solution!
Then again, this was a French car, meaning all ideas weren’t necessarily logical to the non-French. Putting the spare wheel under the front hood in front of the radiator was smart, the fact that you needed to remove the rear side body part to change a back wheel less so. And in spite of thousands of tests having been performed, it took Citroën a few years to find the right liquid to circulate through what the car has become most famous for – its hydraulic system and hydraulic suspension.
Citroën had actually launched its hydraulic suspension system already in 1952 on the Traction Avant, but it wouldn’t become famous until the DS. To provide a simplified explanation, where a normal car has springs and dampers, a DS has spheres filled with gas in one half and hydraulic fluid in the other. Given gas compresses but fluid doesn’t, gas takes the role of a spring and the fluid of a damper. The system was often accused of being complicated and a nightmare for later owners, but provided it doesn’t leak and is being regularly maintained, it basically relies on the laws of physics who work as well today as in 1955.
The hydraulic suspension gave the car a ride quality that was sensational for the time, and still today is a fascinating experience. A DS literally floats over the road, so much so that some people feel seasick when riding in one. Further advantages with the system are notably that you can raise and lower the car, and Citroen’s innovative marketing people were also happy to show how the car could ride on three wheels in case… you had forgotten the fourth one. In 1962 a very capable driver actually managed to save President de Gaulle’s life, escaping from an attack on him at high speed down a bad road – with two flat tyres. Perhaps even more suprising to most is that the DS during 15 years proved a very capable rally car, winning a number of classical rally races such as Monte-Carlo, Marocco and the Thousand Lakes up in Finland.
The DS was built at a high technological level for the time, and a couple of years after it had been introduced, the mechanically far simpler and thereby cheaper ID model was produced in parallel. ID cars had vinyl roofs, a different dashboard, less equipment but above all, a simpler hydraulic system, not including for example the hydraulic steering. They did however retain the same suspension system.
A DS provides a peaceful, floating driving experience. Power evolved through the years from initially 75 hp with the old Traction Avant engine during the first years, to 130 hp for the later years, adequate but not more. The steering is a strange experience with no natural feel whatsoever and requiring very little effort. Much has also been said about the breaking as the DS doesn’t have a conventional brake pedal but rather a sort of mushroom-like rubber button sitting on the floor. Every person driving a DS for the first time will apply too much breaking pressure as you really only need to touch the mushroom lightly for the car to stop.
In the 1970’s the DS started to age and even more importantly, the way it was built was no longer at a modern standard. Citroën was losing money on every car and had run into great financial difficulties in the early 70’s, so that Peugeot had stepped in as owner. This meant the end of the DS that was to be replaced by the no-less futuristic CX – but that’s a different story.
Should you wish to have a bit of French history in your garage you would have been able to pick up a nice DS for EUR 10-15.000 no longer than 10 years ago. Today you won’t find a good one below EUR 30.000, with no real difference between model years or even the ID/DS models as the condition is far more important. Should you want to go for the beautiful convertible model, of which only some 1300 were built by Henri Chapron, it will set you back quite a bit more, currently around EUR 200.000. Whatever you choose, why not take it for a ride this summer? Maybe even to France? Parts of the Nationale 7 are still there and I’m sure the sun will be shining as you gently float towards the south!