By: Thomas Geiger
Paris - Some call the Citroen DS the most beautiful car of all time, a genuine “goddess” on wheels, while others admire the engineering that made it the most technically advanced automobile of its era.
Car fans all over the world agree that the DS was years ahead of its time. Today, nearly 60 years after its debut in Paris, this sleek French limousine can still turn heads like few other classic cars.
It all started on October 5, 1955 when the wraps came off the DS at the Paris Car Show. The avant-garde design stunned showgoers. By the end of the first day orders had been taken for an amazing 12 000 cars. Only 10 days later, that figure stood at 80 000.
Citroen boss Pierre Boulanger had not expected such a rapt reception when he ordered development of Citroen’s new large car to begin earlier in the 1950s.
The man hired to style the DS was designer Flaminio Bertoni – not to be confused with Italian maestro Bertone. Bertoni came up with a streamlined shape that appeared to float above the road.
The DS, which was pronounced like “déesse,” the French word for goddess, was a sublime spaceship compared to bulky rivals from Britain and Germany such as the Rover 3-litre and the Mercedes-Benz 180.
Philosopher Roland Barthes said the DS looked as if it had “fallen from the sky.”
The DS moniker was a perfect choice and the roomy, four-door car with its futuristic interior proved to be a moneyspinner for the French maker, says German enthusiast Franz Peters from Mainburg in Bavaria.
The two-tone horn, hydraulic gear selector mounted on the top right of the steering column and the single-spoke steering wheel were gimmicks that failed to catch on widely, but other innovations were more forward-looking.
AHEAD OF ITS TIME
As befits a “goddess,” self-levelling independent hydro-pneumatic suspension ensured a magic carpet ride.
“Even on the roughest roads you feel as if you are in seventh heaven, with a ride far superior to many modern models,” said Peters who has more than a dozen DS variants in his private collection.
Directional headlamps turned by wires were introduced in 1967.
The DS also predated the current trend of engine downsizing. The first model was powered by a front-mounted 1.9-litre engine, offering a modest 55kW, yet performance was on a par with the contemporary six-cylinder cars.
“This was down to the aerodynamic shape and lightweight construction,” said Peters.
The DS marked a new era for Citroen and car testers were universal in their praise of the Gallic concept: “This is not the car of the future,” wrote Alexander Spoerl in the news magazine “Der Spiegel. “This is clearly a car of today and the others are all from yesterday.”
The DS took off across the world. To satisfy demand, the limousine was assembled at various factories outside France, including at plants in Britain, Australia and South Africa.
The DS received regular facelifts, including a more streamlined nose section and it spawned a number of variants. These included a voluminous “break” estate version and a now rare drophead “Décapotable” with coachwork by Henri Chapron. Rally versions also proved their mettle in rugged desert conditions.
STILL AFFORDABLE TODAY
When the last car left the assembly line on April 24, 1975, a total of 1 330 755 had been built. The DS had sold better than any other large Citroen. The large number of cars produced means that prices for cherished second-hand examples remain moderate.
“You can find decent cars in all the price categories,” said expert Franz Peters. Interest has been aroused by the 60th anniversary of the DS debut, but only the rarest variants fetch top money.
A drophead in perfect fettle costs around 100 000 euros (R1.42m) in Europe. Only around 1500 of these were ever built.
Citroen has been cashing in on the DS legend by reviving the name for upscale versions of current models. The first DS-badged series was offered in 2009 and since then DS has been a marque in its own right.
The well-finished DS3 and DS5 look a little more stylish than their regular Citroen siblings and they are more expensive too.
The cars are by no means as futuristic as their legendary namesake, comments Cologne-based designer Paolo Tumminelli, who regards the DS packaging for the modern cars as nothing more than a clever marketing trick.