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Citroen’s DS Décapotable turns heads on the streets of London.
In the Hollywood movie Sunset Boulevard, Gloria Swanson, playing faded screen goddess Norma Desmond, delivers the immortal line ‘I’m still a big star – it’s the movies that have got smaller.’ Fifty years later you can almost hear another goddess making a similar declaration: ‘I’m still a great ride – it’s the roads that have got smoother.’
Time has robbed the Citroen DS of her raison d’Ϊtre. As roads have improved, the extraordinary hydropneumatic suspension of the DS has less and less opportunity to demonstrate its ability, whilst inferior vehicles are flattered by billiard-table surfaces. Someone driving a DS for the first time could be forgiven for asking what all the fuss was about. And fuss there was.
By the mid-1950s the 20-year-old Traction Avant was stylishly stale. The ultra-utilitarian 2CV, a corrugated dustbin of a car, had not yet set the world alight since its launch in 1948, so there had been little to prepare the public for the technical and stylistic bombshell that exploded at the 42nd Salon de l’Automobile on October 6, 1955.
As we all now know, the sound of the letters Dé and Esse means Goddess, a brilliantly simple bon mot that caught the imagination of the French public in a way that no advertising slogan could ever hope for. By the end of the first day 12,000 orders had been placed and by the end of the show the figure had risen to 80,000, creating a 15-month waiting list.
The long gestation of the DS had started in 1938 when Pierre-Jules Boulanger, charismatic, workaholic and visionary managing director of Citroen, issued a directive for a new voiture à grande diffusion – roughly translated, ‘mass-market car’ – to replace the Traction. Boulanger encouraged his team to explore every possibility, however extraordinary, and chief engineer André Lefebvre needed little encouragement to think outside of the box. A one-man ideas factory, Lefebvre had trained as an aeronautical engineer and worked for Voisin, first as a designer of aircraft and then as both designer and racer of Voisin grand prix cars. He joined Citroen in 1933, where in only a year he developed the ground-breaking Traction Avant.
Other key members of the ‘VGD’ team were a brace of expatriate Italians, stylist Flaminio Bertoni and engine designer Walter Becchia; and the remarkable Paul Mages. Mages had also joined Citroen in ’33, as an untrained teenager, yet went on to conceive the most sophisticated hydraulic system ever to grace a motorcar.
Bertoni is said to have designed the body for the Traction Avant in one night by modelling it in Plasticene, but the VGD took somewhat longer. With Lefebvre insisting on outstanding aerodynamics, an early ‘rounded-off’ Traction concept soon evolved into a low-nosed, beetle-backed, Tatra-like shape.
The War and development of the commercially more expedient 2CV and H van put the D project on the back-burner, where it simmered until the early-’50s before the heat was turned up again. The body had assumed its shark-nose shape but the rear retained a fastback line, sweeping in a continuous curve from windshield to bumper. But with only a few months to go before launch and all of the tooling made, Citroen heard that another major European manufacturer was about to introduce a car with a similar profile. In a rush of inspiration Bertoni knocked out a new rear end for the DS, creating one of the great automobile profiles of all time.
To save retooling costs the unstressed roof panel would be made in fiberglass and the curved rear screen in plastic. A final idiosyncratic flourish was the addition of the famous roof level cone de frite (chip-cone to you and me) indicator lights. Invented to disguise the join between D-pillar and roof, on later models these became longer, grander and, with chromium finish, were known as trompettes de Jéricho.
Not since the launch of the ill-fated Cord 810 in the 1930s had the public been asked to accommodate so many advanced systems at once. Thanks to the Traction Avant, France had embraced front-wheel drive but the new DS also boasted a totally new hydropneumatic system that ran the main functions of the car – suspension, steering, clutch, gear selection and braking. The front brakes were inboard discs, at that time still the preserve of only a few exotic racing cars, the rear track was eight inches narrower than the front and the unique center-lock wheels carried the revolutionary Michelin X radial tyre – with a different section front and rear! Sadly, the flat-six engine designed specifically for the car was abandoned at the last moment and the old Traction unit was hastily substituted, albeit with new aluminum cross-flow cylinder head and hemispherical combustion chambers.
The euphoria that greeted the new car was soon tempered by the reality of ownership. The first cars were delivered to faithful friends of the marque to act as mobile test-beds and hopefully iron out any problems. The owners had to report faults directly to Citroen – not the dealers – who had set up a special team of ‘flying mechanics’ to attend to any breakdowns. As the level of complaints reached epidemic proportions, it became apparent that Citroen had far greater problems than the carefully constructed pre-production cars had revealed.
The hydraulic system was the source of most of these and, as fluid and the word leaked out, orders began to evaporate and secondhand prices plummeted. Ironically, without the rapidly rising sales of the humble little 2CV it is likely that Citroen would have collapsed before it had the opportunity to turn the DS into the enormous success that it eventually became.
These troubled first few years of production left little time or money to develop any new models and, while Bertoni had always envisaged a drophead DS, it was old-established coachbuilder Henri Chapron who produced the first DS Décapotable.
Citroen, with its own convertible still in mind, refused to sell Chapron a chassis, and he had to buy a complete car from a local dealer. This first conversion was given quarterlights, the door was lengthened by 10cm (4in) and the gap between it and the standard rear wing filled with a fiberglass panel. Car number two, displayed at the 1958 Paris Salon, dispensed with the quarterlight and a vertical chrome strip was used to hide the join between rear wing and the side panel. The car soon acquired a name, La Croisette, and found 25 customers. By 1960 the definitive form had evolved, with a long, single-piece rear wing and cutaway wheelarch to allow wheel changes.
Recognizing the wisdom of sub-contracting what would inevitably be a low-volume product, Citroen finally relented and the Chapron-built cabriolet appeared as a catalogued model at that year’s Paris Salon. From now on Citroen modified and reinforced the platform at the factory before delivering a rolling chassis to Chapron.
All of the bodywork from the reinforced screen back was made or modified by Chapron’s artisans and built-up on a separate jig before ‘mating’ with the rest of the car. The rear bumper was also unique to the Decapotable, being slightly wider and wrapping around the rear wings. Deprived of the distinctive trompettes de Jericho, Chapron arrived at a unique alternative. Variously described as boomerangs or croissants, these triangular fittings at the base of the hood look as if they might have been borrowed from a Riva speedboat.
Of nearly 1.5 million DSs built only 1365 were cabriolets, of which a mere 50 came to the UK. The British-delivered Decapotables, called here Drophead Coupes, were built using a kit of UK specification parts supplied by Citroen’s Slough factory, including a vertically mounted front numberplate that somewhat blunted the effect of the shark-like nose.
Beautifully restored by specialists DS World (www.dsworldltd.com), our featured car is a 1964 DS19 powered by a 1911cc, three-bearing engine with manual gearbox. Well over 2000 hours have been put into returning this rare beauty to ‘as delivered’ condition, with the exception of cunningly concealed inertia-reel seat belts and a modern sound system. The Sony control unit looks as if it could have been an original fitment – which says much about the timeless design of the DS.
There is no question that this middle-aged lady still turns heads, as a cruise along a sunny Chelsea embankment soon proved. As we waited for a change of lights a Mercedes limo crept alongside, a window silently descended and a good-looking black dude proclaimed ‘Love the car, man.’
The streets of London barely do justice to the long-legged abilities of the DS but we returned to Simon’s Battersea workshop via a road punctuated by speed bumps and, as the irritating obstacles swept beneath us with scarcely a ripple, it was easy to see why 1950s motorists were so impressed. Today it is far too easy to think of the DS only in terms of its striking shape: front-wheel drive and disc brakes have become the unremarkable norm rather than the exception.
But it was the Citroen’s ability to float, with uncanny levels of comfort and stability, across the chaussees deformees of the notorious Routes Nationales that caused as much wonder as its space-age looks. Fifty years on, the roads may be smoother but the Goddess is still a great ride.