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1955 Citroen DS 21
1955 Citroen DS 21
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Citro├źn DS: They Said it Was 20 Years Ahead of its Time

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20 Years Later it Was Still Ahead. When Would the Others Catch Up?

The most advanced car in the world in 1955, the Citroën DS continued in production for twenty years and even then was ahead of its contemporaries. Revolutionary in appearance, it became a symbol of French technological leadership. Most automobile enthusiasts must have agreed with that view: when the Car of the Century awards were announced, the DS finished third in one poll (Internet-based) and sixth in another (a magazine poll in which thousands of readers voted).

Likened to a spaceship when it first appeared, some thought the DS was too weird. Yet it was sleek and aerodynamic, a masterpiece in design unlike anything ever seen. Front-wheel-drive was featured (perhaps not unexpectedly, since its predecessor, the Traction Avant, had used front-wheel-drive from its inception in 1934). The DS was the first production automobile with front disc brakes, mounted inboard to reduce unsprung weight and thereby improve roadholding.

Among its most startling innovations was a self-levelling, hydro-pneumatic, fully-independent suspension, replacing conventional springs and shock absorbers. When the engine was started, the close-to-the-ground DS would magically rise so that driver and passengers might easily climb aboard. Once underway, the driver could adjust the system's ride height by as much as six inches. Fully raised, it could easily climb curbs and negotiate obstacles. At minimum height the Citroën DS reduced air resistance, lowered the center of gravity, tackled curves with the precision of a railway train. This same system was also used to provide power assist for gearshift and clutch.

As if that were not enough, the DS could raise itself sufficiently that spare tires were changed without the need of a conventional jack. Wheels were held on by a single, center-placed bolt, further simplifying the job.

Life in the driver's seat was full of surprises for the novice owner. The steering wheel had just one spoke, curving outwards from the column to the rim. Very elegant, left the instrument view unimpeded. The brake pedal was not a pedal at all, just an over-size button on the floor. The 4-speed transmission was a semi-automatic, eliminating the clutch (though not the need to change gears). Cornering at night was made safer with headlights that turned with the front wheels.

Rear seat passengers found themselves enjoying limousine-like legroom, since all four wheels had been pushed out to the corners. This also contributed to the smooth ride. French auto manufacturers, by the way, have always emphasised ride quality, a characteristic they share with their counterparts in Detroit, although the French more successfully combined ride with roadholding, even in the smallest of economy cars.

Not everything in the DS was ahead of the curve, however. The sturdy 1911 c.c. 4-cylinder aluminum-head engine may have been adequate in Europe when gas mileage was a critical factor but for export markets it was underpowered. 75 hp, plus 0-60 acceleration you could time with a Big Ben alarm clock, wouldn't cut it in the land of tire-smoking V-8's. Nor would that semi-automatic, as Renault and VW discovered when they tried the same gimmick in economy cars aimed at North America. Canadians and Americans demanded all or nothing.

Over the years Citroën made several important changes, eventually cranking the engine up to 2347cc, thus achieving 120mph with 20mpg. Mechanical developments made the car more reliable, easier to service and generally better performing. A 5-speed transmission and fuel injection never arrived here but a full automatic did. Archaic state-by-state lighting regulations were a major nuisance, forcing the company to eliminate the headlight lens covers of later models. Compromised styling thus negatively affected the car's appearance and its aerodynamics. The fact that this anomoly was shared with other cars (the E-Type Jaguar springs instantly to mind) didn't make the pain easier to bear.

A car of such luxury might not be one you'd choose for motorsports. Yet the Citroën DS competed successfully in the arduous Monte Carlo Rallye. More remarkable was its repeated success in the East African Safari, grandfather of all cross-continent endurance events. The Safari was one tough trial, traversing terrains that today's offroaders would probably avoid, but ideal for demonstrating the DS' suspension system. Team leader was Belgium's Olivier Gendebien, a sports car endurance champion who'd practised his skills with the French army in similar conditions. (Gendebien won the LeMans 24-hours Endurance classic four times.)

The DS, which could be stretched without spoiling its appearance, was a favorite with politicians, including President DeGaulle. It appeared in movies, "The Day Of The Jackal" being the most noteworthy. Its likeness was captured on a postage stamp. Spotting one on the street today is rare but it happens, for the Citroën DS is a French classic that begs to be driven.

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