On the 5th of October 1955 at the Paris Motor Show, a car saw the light of day which would forever change the face of motoring, the first truly modern automobile. A car which struck such a chord with the public 12,000 were sold on the first day; 84,000 by the end of the show. A car which completely overhauled the automotive industry, it was of course the fantastical Citroën DS.
Drawing its name from the French pronunciation of goddess (Déesse), the DS had no problem living up to its namesake. By far the most advanced car of its time, the DS combined both engineering and styling brilliance to take what is likely the single largest technological step forward in the development of the automobile. A car with pre-war origins, the DS was developed alongside the 2CV as a more luxurious alternative. Naturally, as Hitler came knocking Citroën hid the prototypes, fearing the Nazi’s would weaponize the cars. Only at the end of the war were the two cars revived and development completed.
Penned by aeronautical engineer André Lefébvre and Italian sculptor Flaminio Bertoni, the DS’ shape completely transcended conventional automobile design, unshackling the saloon car from its depressing wartime shape, defining the concept of timeless design. Exhibiting a revolutionary aerodynamic shape, the DS may have caught the tail end of the streamliner age, but applied the concept with perfect accuracy, developing a drag coefficient of just .36; a figure most saloons struggle to reach even today.
What really puts the DS in a league of its own is how it blends its uncompromised design with its marvellous engineering achievements light years ahead of its time. The teardrop body lends to some incredibly advanced features such as roll protection, crumple zones, disc brakes and an engine which would subduct under the car in the event of a crash to protect occupants; all firsts for a production car. A car far too clever for its own good, DS’ were constructed from a blend of aluminium and fibreglass enveloping a front wheel drive inline-4 power plant mounted behind the front wheels, improving the cars balance. Hooked up to Citroën’s own semi-automatic gearbox, each DS was topped with a fibreglass roof to lower its centre of gravity; later DS’ headlights even self-levelled and rotated with the single spoke steering wheel.
Though these innovations pale in comparison to the DS’ crowning glory, its revolutionary hydropneumatic suspension. A concept engineered by Paul Magès, the Citroën compressed fluid under pressure as a spring, resulting in the most advanced suspension system ever fitted to a car. Independent to each wheel, the hydropneumatic system self-levelled the car, allowed the ride height to be adjusted, a tyre be changed without any jacks and even be driven on three wheels. Built to cope with the rough post-war terrain of rural France, Citroën demanded of themselves a system which would simply iron out bumps, the supremely smooth ride lending way to many standing by the DS as the most comfortable car of all time.
With such innovation, it’s no surprise the DS drew a crowd of people demanding a high standard of engineering and design prowess in their cars; People like Sir Alec Guinness, Francis Ford Coppola, modernist architects Harry Seidler and Frank Lloyd Wright, Sydney Opera House designer Jørn Utzon and of course, French President Charles De Gaulle, who owed his life to a DS. Immortalised in Frederick Forsyth’s book ‘The Day of the Jackal’, the DS became France’s darling in 1962, when a group attempted to assassinate the French president, peppering the President’s DS with machine gun fire in an attempt to kill De Gaulle. Narrowly missing the occupants, the citroën’s unique suspension system allowed the driver to pilot the DS at full speed on just 3 wheels with flat tyres, saving the president’s life. Had De Gaulle not been in such a capable car, the outcome could have been much more tragic.
Throughout its 20-year life 1.4 million Citroën DS’ found homes across the world, the multi-purpose underpinnings bodied as a saloon, an estate, a Chapron designed convertible, an ambulance, a presidential limousine and even a rally car, the DS proving rather successful on dirt, winning a smattering of titles including the Monte Carlo Rally in 1959 and again in 1966. With such a combination of brilliant engineering, mesmerising styling and unbridled versatility, it’s understandable the DS remains to many as the greatest car ever made; which it most likely is.