Spoiler alert – this is one of the coolest cars ever. Like, ever.

We often talk about cars that have cartoon-like characteristics. Caterhams and splitty Kombis somehow reignite the feeling of joy you felt as a child that is so hard to replicate as an adult.

This is perhaps the ultimate cartoon car. Unlike every other car though, the correct cartoon comparison is The Jetsons. Citroen gave the world a spaceship over 70 years ago and we couldn’t be more grateful to them for it.

Where to even begin?

With as many as 2,700 appearances in TV and film, we are in the company of a French film star. Quite possibly the most famous French film star of them all.

When you first lay eyes on a Citroen DS, you’ll be confused. At first you’ll consider the profile and wonder if it reminds you of a toad (not very flattering). The headlights, at least on the series 3 models like this one, are almost hammerhead shark-like. The rear is like nothing you’ve ever seen before, with indicator lights mounted at the top and ridiculously sporty rear lights mounted as low as you’ll ever see on a car. The super skinny twin exhaust pipes only add to the theater.

It is absolutely gorgeous, even if it takes you a few minutes to arrive at that conclusion.

Introduced in 1955 at the Paris (obviously) motor show, the car broke all records by taking 80,000 deposits over 10 days of the show. By the time production ceased 20 years later, Citroen had sold nearly 1.5 million DS models. South African cars were assembled in Johannesburg between 1959 and 1975. This is a 1975 model which makes it one of the last to have been built.

Much like the Italians, the French build cars with love and passion. That love typically goes into quirky design features rather than pure performance like the folk in Maranello or Milan focus on. Unlike the Italians, the electronics still work decades later. Unlike modern Land Rovers, the air suspension also works.

Air suspension?

In case you didn’t know, this is probably the most famous feature of this car. As we hurtle towards the speedbumps of Tokai in Cape Town at 60km/h, our nether regions clenching in fear, the owner of the car shows no sign of slowing down. We gracefully demolish the speedbump without so much as a wobble inside the car.

Magic carpet indeed.

The suspension works on the simple principle that you can compress a gas but cannot compress a liquid (not easily anyway). Known as a hydropneumatic suspension, systems in the earlier cars ran on vegetable oil and later synthetic oil. From 1967, Citroen switched to a mineral oil system and dyed the oil bright green to avoid catastrophic mistakes where the incorrect oil is used in the system. All hydraulic elements were also painted bright green for good measure, like in this car.

As long as you use the correct LHM oil, the air suspension is astonishingly reliable. The answer lies in its simplicity. The system uses a hydraulic accumulator sphere of around 12cm in diameter, rather than a spring on each wheel. The rest of the system includes a cylinder, piston and damper valve.

Liquid is the damper. Gas is the spring. Sheer joy is the result.

To make your tuner friends with stanced cars jealous (just kidding – you don’t have friends like that if you’re smart enough to be reading this), the ride height is adjustable in the cabin. Of the five levels, one is for normal driving and two are for poor road conditions. The remaining two are for the wheels to be changed, negating the need for a jack. If you need to change the rear wheel, the rear fender comes off with a single bolt.

Watching the car lift and drop itself is an otherworldly experience that takes “cartoon car” to a new level.

“DS” is pronounced in French as “Déesse” which translates to “goddess” – things are starting to make sense. This particular car is a Pallas, the most luxurious of all introduced in 1965 with an uprated interior among other features. Pallas Athena was an ancient Greek goddess associated with wisdom, handicraft and warfare.

Handicraft is clear to see here. Wisdom is debatable when it comes to any classic car. Warfare is definitely not a feature of the Citroen DS, even with the 2347cc DS23 engine that produced just over 100kW. Any thoughts of spirited mountain pass driving are put to bed by the exceptionally odd brake button as opposed to a brake pedal. It works, but I wouldn’t like to use it in an attempt to be the last of the late brakers into turn 1.

It comes as quite a shock then to discover that the DS won the Monte-Carlo rally in 1959 and again in 1966. The air suspension was clearly fantastic over the rough terrain even though the car was underpowered.

Driving the car isn’t as much fun as being a passenger in it. Although the handling is surprisingly good for a car like this, it definitely isn’t a sports car. The power steering is light and easy to drive, making this a relaxing experience rather than an invigorating one. The engine is adequate with enough torque, but won’t set your pants on fire. The DS is front-wheel drive and the engine is set far back under the bonnet, which does help with weight distribution.

The steering wheel makes for fascinating viewing though, with its single spoke design as an extraordinary safety feature. The base premise is that the driver stands far less chance of being impaled by a wheel with a single spoke angled down and away from the driver at the moment of impact in a head-on collision. A grisly thought, but comforting to any DS owner that the Citroen is one of the safest classic cars you can own. It isn’t so comforting for the rest of us returning to our three-spoke classic steering wheels.

One of the features of this car that was most ahead of its time is also operated by the steering wheel. On Series 3 models, the headlights are directional. The “follow me home” headlights that are fairly common in modern cars first appeared in the Citroen DS, operated by a cable connected to the steering mechanism. Even the early morning Kalk Bay birds couldn’t resist telling us about their enthusiasm for this:

Simple. Effective. Brilliant. Also, illegal at the time in the United States!

The list of endearing features goes on. The car has a soft hooter and a loud hooter, presumably for town and country usage (or normal and taxi usage in South Africa). It’s just another quirky characteristic that helps this car get under your skin. In a good way.

The DS unwittingly secured Citroen’s fate as a French-owned company. President Charles de Gaulle survived an assassination attempt in 1962 thanks to the suspension system, which allowed his chauffeur to drive to safety despite all four tyres being punctured after as many as 140 bullets rained down upon the presidential car. His survival is clearly partially due to the car and partially due to the very poor aim of his attackers.

Naturally, Charles became even more of a Citroen enthusiast as a result. As the Michelin family attempted to sell Citroen to Fiat, the president limited the stake available for sale to just 15%. In 1975 to avoid Citroen’s bankruptcy, the French government funded the sale of the business to a group including Peugeot, thereby forming the PSA Group and securing French ownership.

Whether or not Fiat would’ve been a better owner, we can only speculate. A Busso V6-powered magic carpet, anyone?

Even without a powerful engine, this car belongs in any serious collection. It’s certainly in our top-five classic garage purely for its historical significance and extraordinary engineering. The styling doesn’t hurt either…

7 thoughts on “Magic Carpet | Citroen DS Pallas

  1. Bert Grobbelaar says:

    Thanks for the very nice article on the Citroen DS , plus the fantastic pictures -really good. Well done .

    Now for some Nitpicks and Titbits ;

    – ‘Air suspension ” – nooo . Rather referred to as “hydraulic” suspension in local speak . But yes ; hydropneumatic is proper and correct .
    Also – The air /gas in a Citroen suspension is Nitrogen .

    – The damping effect is achieved with high pressure oil passing through an orifice (“plate valves “) which is set into the suspension cylinder just below the sphere on each wheel . These orifices could be changed relatively easily to alter damper settings and in circuit racing and rallying(yes ) , and allowed quick set up changes and varying damper rates .Ask Sarel vander Merwe about competitive driving in a Citroen.

    – The DS had four height settings , not five .The later GS 1220 had three .

    – Apart from the suspension, the hydropneumatic system also powered the steering , semi auto gearbox (some models ),powered inboard disc brakes and the self levelling system.

    – Also not mentioned in your write up , is the size of the cavarneous boot on that car . It stretched forever into and under the rear seats .

    – The DS had 70mm thick foam rubber under the inside floor carpeting , further adding to the supreme comfort of the car , which was its defining design feature .

    -The DS had a weight saving fibre glass roof panel .A first on a passenger vehicle an a reputed aid for c of g reasons.

    -The highly set “ice cream cone ” rear indicator light binnacles were another automotive first for Citroen.

    – ‘Driving the car isn’t as much fun as being a passenger ” !
    Wow – this must be a misprint .
    The driving experience of a Citroen is what will make you contact Citroenitis , an incurable disease. Once you are used to the floating sensation and infinitely variable braking efforts with as little as a caress on the brake button, and superb handling imparted by self levelling and hydraulic system powered steering , the DS driving experience becomes an unsurpassed delight. Yes – any old Ford Cortina or such like could beat it in a drag race , but on sustainable high speed travel , the Citroen would blow many a car off the road with very high average journey speeds .The last DS23 sported fuel injection and aftermarket superchargers could be fitted for those who wanted a bit more speed out of the old four cylinder engine.
    Mike Hailwood’s favourite chariot for criss crossing Europe was a Citroen SM with its Maserati engine and the same hydropneumatic suspension system .Your motoring education is incomplete if you have never driven a Citroen with this suspension system .

    – Calling the Citroen a ‘toad ‘ is only slightly less odd than the common Afrikaans name for the DS , which was the “barberbek ” (catfish mouth ) . Any ouk would know what a baberbek was in motoring terms in the sixties and seventies .

    – A South Africa only feature on some of the last DS’s , was the upside down mounted double chevron badge on the boot lid of showroom cars . An unforgiveable manufacturing quality mistake . Andre Citroen would have turned in his grave .

    – Closing comment ; Your excellent piece on the DS ( “Different Spirit”as some would have it ) has also made a few closet Citroen fans ‘come out ” . Both Ron Hollis and son Peter have recently indicated that they (at last ) are beginning to understand and appreciate the merits of one of the best automotive designs ever .
    Even if an E Type would appeal to more people !

    One thing is for sure .You either dislike Citroens or you are fanatical about them .There is no middle ground when it comes to Citroens .

    Thanks for a great write up.

    Regards , Bert Grobbelaar.

  2. Bert Grobbelaar says:

    see above

  3. Nice write-up as I read it here in the U.S. I’ve been involved with Citroëns since 1969, so know a bit about them. A comment about states the trunk is huge and goes ‘under the rear seats’. That’s incorrect, although the trunk is certainly large it does not go under the seats. The fuel tank is under the rear seats, another safety feature since a rear-end collision can’t deform the tank and cause a fire/explosion. The trunk is so large because there is no rear axle! With trailing arm suspension the trunk bottom goes very deep, making the trunk much larger than it would appear.

    I don’t quibble with the statement that the fluid is the damper, it’s semantics. And riding in the car is certainly a great experience, just not sure it’s actually better than driving it. If you want to be a passenger who is chauffeured around there is no better car for it, that much is fact!

    Lastly, there were no ‘series’ designations for the DS. They had ‘first front’, ‘second front’, and ‘third front’ as we call them. But within each front end design there were constant changes and improvements. It is very difficult to pin down a car’s authenticity at times just because of the huge variation available from the factory, and from market to market.

    Good job, nicely done.

  4. Michael R, Sydney, Australia says:

    I am sorry your reviewer did not learn to trust the DS brakes. It is generally accepted by Citroen fans that it takes time to learn the unusual “mushroom” brake “pedal”, but once mastered you find it the match of most modern systems. They are massively powerful and virtually fade free with great sensitivity.
    Bear in mind the DS, in 1955, was leading the way fitting disc brakes (front only) in a production car. To put this in perspective this was a highly advanced brake system too. Firstly the brakes are mounted inboard, fixed to the sides of the differential, not at the wheels. This reduces unsprung weight and also allows a superior suspension geometry. Second those brakes are extremely large and cooled by ducted air drawn from scoops under the front bar. Thirdly the system is power operated (not power assisted) with all the hydraulic pressure supplied by the central high pressure pump. There is no master cylinder. The front and rear brakes are operated by a split system and are load compensating, valving senses the loading on the rear axle in real time and modulates pressures to suit. All this in 1955! Astounding. Citroen even pioneered brake pad wear warning lights.
    I mentioned suspension geometry. By carrying the discs inboard the front ball joints are carried inside the wheel diameter allowing “centre point steering” This ensures the car maintains excellent directional stability even in the event of a blowout. It may even allow the car to be driven at speed after an assassination attempt!
    There are numerous other advanced features. A fully faired, smooth underbody for aerodynamics? Ford matched the DS 0.36 cd of the mid fifties with the 1999 Mustang.
    Everywhere you look on the old Citroen you will find innovation and ingenious design.

    1. Carbs and Coffee says:

      Thanks for the additional insights, Michael! It’s a truly special car and full of engineering quirks that have endeared it to Citroen fans for decades. We did only drive the car for a short time that morning and the brake pedal is certainly an acquired taste. It works though and the owner confirmed he barely notices the difference anymore vs. a normal pedal. Unquestionably one of the most interesting cars ever built.

  5. Yves Le Noac’h says:

    There are few if any cars built today that can match the ride and comfort of a hydro pneumatic suspension. A few years ago I went to a Citroen rally at Le Mans in a DS 21 “decouverable “ one of seven ever built like de Gaules which is gone . There are only 3 known to be left so it is said. While at various events and vendor stalls a Swiss fellow left a note and singed check in French “I want your car please fill in the correct amount” . The DS Two door convertible with the top down has stunning lines . The best and first runs were done by Chaperon and not by Citroen. They command upwards of 500,000 euros if correct.
    Part of my experience was to visit with Jerry Hathaway of SM World who sold and services Jay Leno his SM . He also held the Bonneville speed record in an SM for 2years when he let his wife drive and she held for over 30. Citroen ‘s are still ahead of time.

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