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.
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…