A dead DS that has settled to the bottom of the suspension travel is likely to become part of the fossil record at precisely the spot where it died


The introduction of the Citroën DS19 at the Paris Motor Show in 1955 had all the drama of Klaatu's flying saucer landing in Washington, DC in the 1950s sci-fi movie "The Day the Earth Stood Still." By the end of the motor show, Citroën had over 700 firm orders in hand for the "De-esse," which literally translates to "Goddess" in French.

In addition to the styling, which some derided as flounder-like or the ultimate in Gallic weird, the specification was like nothing else on this planet, or for that matter, Klaatu's. Hydropneumatics, pressurized by an engine-driven pump, powered the clutch, power steering, brakes, and self-leveling suspension. Ride height was adjustable from inside the car.

When lifting the massive hood of a DS, one is struck by two things: how lost the little 2-liter, 4-cylinder engine looks, and, who left their croquet balls in there? The spheres, in Citroën-speak, are each partially filled with highly pressurized nitrogen and connected to the car's hydraulic system. The aforementioned engine-driven pump further pressurizes the system at up to 2,200 psi. Extreme care in depressurizing must be taken when opening a system, as spurting of hydraulic fluid is a very real risk.

Early cars used a conventional glycol-based hydraulic fluid, but since these fluids had an affinity for water, it was not ideal. In 1966, Citroën switched to a special mineral-based fluid, similar to what Rolls-Royce (who bought the system for the Silver Shadow) specifies. Using the wrong fluid has dire consequences.

Fitting the Concorde with propellors

A new air-cooled flat-6 was planned but never materialized, so the DS went into production with the 1.9-liter four from the old Traction Avant. It was a glaring oversight, not unlike fitting the Concorde with propellers. Predictably, the new hydraulic systems suffered from problems in the beginning, although these were somewhat ironed out. Nevertheless, the workshop manuals didn't reach dealerships until after some of the early cars, which creates a mind-boggling picture of the service area. Perhaps as a result, Citroën introduced the ID19 in 1956 with a simplified interior and conventional steering and brakes.

Interiors were bizarre to say the least, with inscrutable minor controls and a single-spoke steering wheel. They were, however, extremely comfortable, with good seats and an abundance of room, owing to the fact that the wheels were pushed to the very extreme corners of the car.

The real story of the DS was the amazing ride. No car with conventional steel springs could come anywhere near approaching the DS's combination of ride and handling. No DS is a particularly quick car, especially the early 60-hp cars, but the amazing aerodynamics meant that surprisingly high cruising speeds were possible over appalling road surfaces (the pave of Northern France, for example).

The list of amazing facts about the DS has been well-documented, including its ability to rise on its suspension sufficient to change a tire without a jack, or to ford a small stream, repair collision damage by easily unbolting body panels, or to maintain a high speed even after having two tires shot out by machine gun fire. The latter fact was discovered in 1962 by Charles DeGaulle, who survived an assassination attempt by "Algerie Francais" nationalists. He sped away in an unarmored DS with two flat Michelins.

Various refinements took place over the long life of the DS, including an eventual doubling of horsepower by 1971 with the 2.3-liter DS23. The iconic quad covered headlights were added in 1968, with the inner set turning with the steering wheel.

High school French a real help for parts

Comparatively few DSs wound up in the U.S. A spotty dealer network and the inability of untrained mechanics to perform service were largely to blame. The avant garde styling probably didn't help in the U.S., either. Nevertheless, wherever eccentrics and Francophiles congregate in large numbers, a DS sighting is possible.

Perhaps the most popular bumper sticker in SCM's hometown of Portland, Oregon, is "Keep Portland Weird." It's not surprising that Portland is home to numerous DSs, an ID19, and several Safari station wagons, at least one of which was the former property of SCM Executive Editor Paul Duchene.

Sedans are obviously the most common body style; however, Safari wagons are not uncommon. Decidedly uncommon and hugely desirable is the rare Henri Chapron-built decapotable, or convertible. The best ones will break $200,000.

In general, DSs are robust, engines and gearboxes are stout enough, and although they are as rust-prone as anything else, at least body panel replacement isn't difficult. With over a million cars produced from 1955 to 1975, parts are not a problem, although your high school French may be helpful. Western Hemispheres (www.westernhemispheres.com) in Watsonville, California, is the patron saint of U.S. Citroën owners and should be able to help with most DS necessities.

The main impediment to DS ownership is the hydropneumatic system. Mechanics not intimately familiar with it will generally (and rightly) refuse to touch it. And a dead DS that has settled to the bottom of the suspension travel is likely to become part of the fossil record at precisely the spot where it died.

Even today, there is a distinctly sci-fi aspect to the DS. Decades after the car's introduction, the DS was showing up in movies set in the future. Look closely in "Blade Runner," "Back to the Future II," and "Gattaca," and you'll catch several.

A fully sorted DS is an extraordinary car and an attention-getter of the highest magnitude. However, with the exception of the coachbuilt convertible, prices don't seem to be going anywhere. As when they were new, fear of the complicated hydraulics and the lack of widespread service expertise are the major impediments to DS ownership.

Comments are closed.