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The Citroen DS - stylishly sixty

The Citroen DS - stylishly sixty

Sixty years ago Citroën’s revolutionary DS was launched. We celebrate a quintessential French style icon – and the official lap-of-honour car at Angoulême’s Circuit des Remparts...

 When the Paris Salon de l’Auto opened its doors at 9am on 6 October 1955, the assembled masses surged towards the Citroën stand to gaze in awe at a startling creation slowly and tantalisingly rotating before them. The much loved ‘Traction-Avant’ (in production since 1934) had delivered previously undreamed-of levels of comfort and handling, but the new DS (from déesse or goddess) was a breathtaking work of modern art, and a technically advanced one, too. The first day alone produced around 12,000 orders and by the close of the show the total had reached a staggering 80,000. So what was all the fuss about?

 

The fascinating story behind the DS began when Levie Citroën, a wealthy Jewish diamond merchant from Amsterdam, came to France in search of new opportunities. His fifth son André-Gustave was born in Paris in 1878 and, after attending the prestigious Ecole Polytechnique, Citroën began manufacturing gear wheels, whose double-helix design inspired the now familiar Citroën chevron logo. In 1906 he joined the Mors automobile company, became chairman just two years later and restored its fortunes. In 1925, inspired by Henry Ford’s vision of affordable mass transport, Citroën bought Mors outright and began production of his own vehicles. By 1923 his assembly line was producing 100 of the famous Type C vehicles each day; within three years annual output reached 100,000. 

When the world suffered economic depression, Citroën’s bold response was to give it the very first mass market front-wheel drive car – the new 7CV, with independent front suspension, hydraulic brakes and chassis-less ‘monocoque’ construction. When it appeared at the 1934 Salon de l’Auto the press raved, christened it ‘la Traction’ and 20,000 eager buyers placed firm orders. Sadly, the launch could not avert financial ruin resulting from the huge cost of research, development and tooling needed to pack so much innovation in one, make-or-break package. The ailing company then passed into the hands of its largest creditor, the Michelin tyre company of Clemont-Ferrand, and Andre Citroën passed away on 3 July, 1935. 

Three years later Pierre Michelin was killed while driving a Traction on the RN7 near Montargis. His brother Etienne had also met a premature end in an air crash in 1932, so management passed to former architect Pierre-Jules Boulanger, under whose stewardship the car became a huge success, giving the company time to consider an eventual ‘Super-Traction’ replacement.  For this task Boulanger assembled a team of three uniquely talented men: André Lefebvre had previously designed fighter aircraft and luxury cars for Gabriel Voisin, driven in Grand Prix races and made several world speed record attempts. Flaminio Bertoni, on the other hand, was the son of an Italian stonemason, had trained in both sculpture and sheet metalwork and had helped style the Traction. Third man Paul Magès (dubbed ‘le professeur’ by his colleagues) was a mostly self-taught engineering genius whose speciality was braking systems. Not surprisingly, bringing these diverse talents together in one place produced not merely one extraordinary result but three: the ‘Toute-Petite Voiture’ (which became 2CV), the front-wheel drive, corrugated panelled H Van and the VGD (Voiture de Grande Diffusion) which ultimately evolved into the DS. 

During German occupation in WWII commercial activity was forbidden, despite which clandestine development work continued. Around 1942 it occurred to Paul Magès that the hydraulics already providing the Traction’s braking system might also provide its successor’s suspension. Conventional springs for the wheels were replaced by hydraulic cylinders, which eventually gave a more comfortable ride combined with consistent ground clearance, whatever the load. This hydro-pneumatic system first appeared on six-cylinder 15CV H versions of the Traction and provided valuable extended road testing. 

Development prototypes were soon employing hydraulic power for their steering, clutch and gearbox, too. Work was shrouded in secrecy, but a test vehicle was photographed by L’Auto Journal while being trialled in the mountains above Draguignan, and on 12 March 1952 became front page news. From then on all outdoor testing took place behind 2m perimeter walls with constantly manned watchtowers at the company’s Normandy test track at la Ferté-Vidame. Should an aircraft be sighted approaching, sirens would sound and drivers would head for the nearest garaging or tree cover. 

citroen-dsThe design team was now working under pressure. The startling design on Flaminio Bertoni’s drawing board finally gelled in January 1955, allowing tooling-up for production to begin, while the stylist focused on creating an appropriately futuristic interior. Twenty or so pre-production prototypes were hand assembled in Paris, given final track testing, then unveiled on the evening of 3 October before the assembled heads of Peugeot, Panhard and Renault. Apparently unmoved, they dismissed the design as far too avant-garde for the marketplace, but concessionaires, who came the following day, were far more positive. One dealer from Dreux had already promised his customers sneak previews and on the evening of his return took fifty advance orders merely by revealing promotional brochures. 

Would-be owners would have to be patient, but once production finally geared up la Déesse became an international success and was soon being assembled not only in France but also in Belgium and the UK. 

La Déesse was the very embodiment of all things alternative, aspirational... and French. In time it slipped into the very fabric of an increasingly prosperous society. The estate-bodied Break’s lengthy interior and supple, fluid suspended ride made it the ideal ambulance and a perfect moving platform for film crews. The DS also played an important diplomatic role, a fleet of gleaming black models being maintained specifically to impress visiting heads of state. Such faith in French design and technology was rewarded during an assassination attempt on President de Gaulle, whose beloved DS demonstrated the car’s unique ability to speed to safety on two flat tyres after having been sprayed with bullets. The resulting publicity brought the DS once again to the world’s attention, assuring it a place in political as well as motoring history. The final vehicle (a metallic blue DS23 Pallas EFi) rolled off the assembly line on the 24 April, 1975, marking the end of a 20-year production run totalling 1,455,746 units. Its spirit, however, lives on, since une déesse is of course immortal…

 

WORDS & PHOTOS ROGER MOSS

© Living Magazine First published April 2015