The Citroen DS - an everyday classic

Citroen DS
Citroen DS
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IT’S 60 YEARS since the jaw-droppingly futuristic Citroen DS was unveiled to the public at the 1955 Paris motor show. Developed to replace another car that was ahead of its time, the Traction Avant, the DS boasted technology that is still being hailed by car firms as ‘advanced’.

There’s no question that the DS had a head start in the looks department. Its streamlined shape was a world apart from the boxy efforts of Citroen’s rivals, and there’s still something exotic about car with rear wheel spats.

The DS could never be described as a car focusing on style over substance, though. Developed over nearly two decades in secret, Citroen’s flagship motor surprised everyone when it first appeared. Its aerodynamic shape, hydropneumatic self-levelling suspension, powered brakes, a trick semi-automatic gearbox and headlights that followed the driver’s steering input all put the car head and shoulders above the competition. So much so that the DS didn’t really have any competition.

It’s no surprise to learn that it was an expensive car – half as much again as the Traction Avant it replaced – yet this price point put the big Citroen on a level footing with more conservative models offering a fraction of the French car’s grace and ingenuity.

Updates over the years saw the introduction of the vast estate variant, known as the Safari in the UK, plus an elegant convertible and super-luxury Pallas model. Given the car’s distinctive styling it proved hard to make big design changes, and Citroen ultimately focused on tweaking the car’s nose and introducing enclosed headlights.

It wasn’t an automatic heart-winner. When faced with cheaper and less complex alternatives, you really had to be on the right wavelength to appreciate the DS. Oh, and not short of a bob or two. It might be a cliché but the driving experience has been likened to that of a magic carpet. Yes, the car does pitch and roll, but it’s measured and, thanks to the trick suspension, level running is the norm regardless of load. The finger-light steering and powerful brakes required a sensitive touch (they were a bit on-off), but helped to promote a laid back and predictably Gallic approach to motoring.

It didn’t stop adventurous types from racing and rallying the car, with the DS a particular favourite for gruelling endurance rallies despite its mechanical complexity. And its reputation for being tougher than its sweeping curves suggested was famously tested when, in 1962, France’s then president Charles De Gaulle survived an assassination attempt in one.

Ambushed by terrorists, De Gaulle’s car sustained heavy gunfire but despite being hobbled it still managed to deliver the president and his wife to their destination unharmed. Some of De Gaulle’s security detail died in the ambush, but the car’s trick suspension was credited with keeping the car on an even keel and saving the president’s life. Run flat tyres be damned – this particular DS kept going despite not having the full complement of wheels touching the ground.

Another political figure with ties to the DS was the conservative MP Alan Clark. He might have been better known for his colourful past, but he was also a DS fan. The story goes that he purchased a DS convertible for his wife, although television programmes at the time show him doing most of the driving.

And staying with the UK, oft-derided Slough was home to DS construction for a few years. It wasn’t until 1965 that production was brought in-house in Paris. The earliest Brit-built cars contained the legendary Lucas electrical components, while subtle changes to trim and cabin materials also make it easier to differentiate the locally built cars from their French equivalent.

The DS spawned a ‘high performance’ coupé, the SM, and production stopped in 1975. Its successor, the CX, was a more mainstream proposition despite its equally streamlined and low-slung appearance, but it wasn’t long before the appeal of big Citroens waned. Witness the modest interest in the XM and C6 models that followed decades later.

Fast facts

Name and model: Citroen DS

Dates manufactured: 1955-1975

Popular colours: green, silver, blue

Approx cost at time: £2,000

Approx value now: £10,000 (good example)

Approx number on UK roads (2015): 400

Rival models: nothing; it was ahead of its time