Once in a very rare while, a new car comes along to raise the bar for both style and technical innovation. In the history of the automobile, there are perhaps few better examples of this than the 1955 Citroen DS, a car that has been called the “Most Beautiful of All Time” by Classic & Sports Car Magazine, as well as finishing third in the “Car of the Century” competition, run by the Global Automotive Elections Foundation. Its futuristic shape drew immediate praise and even some disbelief at the car’s 1955 Paris Motor Show introduction (where Citroen booked 12,000 orders on the show’s first day), but the DS’s history of pioneering designs has left a lasting impact on the modern automobile.
The Citroen DS (which stood for “Derivation Special”) was arguably the first mass-produced car to utilize disc brakes (with calipers driving brake pads against a rotating disc), though these were fitted to the car’s front wheels only and mounted inboard to reduce unsprung weight; rear wheels were fitted with drum brakes. To reduce weight and lower the car’s center of gravity, a reinforced plastic roof, plexiglass rear window, aluminum hood and aluminum trunk were fitted, and the wraparound windshield used thin A-pillars for optimum outward visibility. Hydraulics were used for not just the power steering and power brakes, but for the DS’s semi-automatic transmission and hydropneumatic suspension system, as well. To ensure the highest margin of safety, redundant hydraulic systems were fitted to the car, meaning that no loss in hydraulic pressure from a single system would produce catastrophic results. For the 1968 model year, the DS even debuted what we’d now call “active headlamps,” featuring low-beam headlamps designed to follow the steering angle of the front wheels and allow drivers to better see the road in dark corners.
The DS’s most innovative feature, however, was likely that hydropneumatic independent suspension system, which utilized spherical dampers, filled with hydraulic oil and pressurized nitrogen gas, located at each wheel. Citroen claimed it was “the only suspension that actually floats you on air over the road,” and the setup delivered both an exceptionally smooth ride and impressive handling, especially on rough pavement or rutted dirt roads. The suspension was self-leveling to maintain a constant ride height, but this could further be adjusted by the driver to one of five preset ride height options. In the car’s lowest height setting, its body was so low to the ground that the car could not be “booted,” much to the dismay of parking officials everywhere. In the suspension’s highest setting, a flat tire could be changed without the use of a jack; instead, the driver would select the maximum ride height, position a supplied jack stand into a peg located by each wheel, then simply lower the suspension to raise the tire off the ground.
Not that changing a flat tire was a matter of extreme urgency for the Citroen DS driver. Thanks to the car’s wide front track and narrow rear track, it could reportedly be driven for some distance (tire delamination aside) on just three wheels, ensuring that the driver could reach a safe spot to change a flat tire. Other forward-thinking safety features included front and rear crumple zones, a front-mounted engine that was designed to tuck under the car in the event of a crash, and a “Life Guard” steering wheel that featured just a single spoke, itself an extension of the actual steering column. It’s no wonder, then, that Citroen called the DS “the safest car in the world,” and, “the dream car of tomorrow, on the road today.”
Original plans for the Citroen DS called for an air-cooled flat-six engine, loosely based on the air-cooled twin found in the company’s 2CV, but various economic factors precluded Citroen from pursuing this design. Instead, a somewhat conventional inline four-cylinder engine was fitted, equipped with an aluminum head, hemispherical combustion chambers and a two-barrel Weber carburetor. Early models had a displacement of 1.9 liters and an output of 75 horsepower, but later DS models came with a 2.0-liter (1,985 cc, to be exact) four, a 2.1-liter four (good for 109 horsepower) or a 2.3-liter four with up to 141 horsepower in fuel-injected form. The DS was front-wheel drive, but the gearbox and differential were mounted in front of the engine (which itself was located behind the front wheels), leading some to categorize the DS as a mid-engine, front-drive car. Its original transmission was unconventional, as well; while the DS lacked a clutch pedal, it still required drivers to manually select gears. When a change in gears was called for, the car’s hydraulics would engage the next gear selected when the driver lifted off of the throttle. To ensure that the DS didn’t stall at traffic lights, a centrifugal clutch was used to disengage the transmission below a certain engine speed. This setup was considered limiting to U.S. sales, and a more conventional three-speed automatic was fitted for the DS’s final year in America, 1972.
While few had issues with the DS’s styling (penned by sculptor Flaminio Bertoni and engineer Andre Lefebvre), the car’s sophistication priced it beyond the means of many buyers. To address this, Citroen launched a de-contented version called the ID in 1956. To save money, the ID dropped the DS’s power steering, power brakes and semi-automatic gearbox, and its 1.9-liter four was rated at just 69 horsepower. The changes were enough to allow for an initial 25 percent drop in price, though this gap would narrow in later production years.
A station wagon variant of the Citroen DS (sold under various market-specific names but generally referred to as the Break) debuted in 1958, and a two-door convertible version was introduced the same year. Considered the most desirable DS model among collectors today, the convertible was constructed by French coachbuilder Henri Chapron using a reinforced frame and a modified rear suspension swingarm assembly. Chapron also built non-factory DS Coupes, modified sedans and even notchbacks, a process simplified by the DS’s easily-removed body panels. In fact, it was said that a skilled owner could remove all of the car’s body panels in a matter of minutes with nothing more than a few hand tools, which greatly simplified minor body repair.
Interrupted by World War II, Citroen spent some 17 years developing the DS to be its range-topping model, and aside from the low-cost car-for-the-masses Citroen 2CV, the DS represented the brand’s first truly new passenger-car design since the Traction Avant, launched in 1934. The problem with creating a car as revolutionary as the DS, however, is that future new models are held to the same high standard. In the case of Citroen, this concern about not meeting the public’s expectations precluded the company from introducing any significant new models until 1970, when the DS had been in production for some 15 years.
The last Citroen DS was manufactured in 1975, and in 20 years of production the French manufacturer assembled some 1.5 million examples. Its revolutionary hydropneumatic suspension (debuted, in simpler form, on the Traction Avant) would ultimately be adopted by Rolls-Royce, and front disc brakes (and later, four-wheel disc brakes) would soon become common on luxury sedans and sports cars. Even safety features like crumple zones and injury-reducing steering wheels would become mainstream in the decades following the DS’s launch, as would bodies that blended expected style with fuel-saving, noise-reducing aerodynamics.
That one car from a manufacturer relatively unknown in the United States (then as well as now) could blend all these innovations decades before they became mainstream is impressive, but then again so was the Citroen DS.