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By Ben Selby
When Citroen launched the fabled DS at the Paris Motor Show in 1955, the car world changed forever. For perspective, try to picture the European motoring landscape of the post war years. During the late forties, the vast majority of cars produced look just as they did before WW2. Vertical radiator grills and high rooflines were the norm but throughout the west. However, the dawn of a new decade saw the birth of new ideas and the Citroen DS was one such new idea.
When it broke cover, it looked like no other mainstream passenger car before it. Like something which had descended from outer space, the DS, or Goddess as it became known as, really kick started the French obsession with being different when it comes to producing cars. Citroen were already responsible for giving us the first front wheel drive car in the form of the Traction Avant, but the DS added so much tech to its CV that no other car could compete.
Aside from being beautiful to behold thanks to lines penned by Flaminio Bertoni, the DS’ technological innovation was staggering. Take its hydropneumatic suspension. Instead of conventional suspension and shock absorbers, the DS featured a sphere filled with trapped gas on one side and hydraulic fluid on the other.
With the compression of the gas acting in place of the suspension and hydraulic fluid in place of the dampers, the DS could stay completely level in the corners and would offer unreal levels of ride comfort. The hydraulic fluid also controlled the power steering, brakes and transmission.
Citroen also had a pump which allowed you self-level the car and raise and lower the ride height from inside via a lever next to the driver’s seat. This system was so clever that you could even drive the DS on three wheels.
Other tech included headlights which turned with steering wheel on later models and the DS was the first production saloon fitted with disc brakes. Those who didn’t want this new-fangled tech could by the more conventional Citroen ID 19. This model featured a more traditional transmission with no power steering.
The DS bowed out in 1975 after which 1.5 million examples containing a variety of different variants left the factory. This 1972 DS 19 Special was produced during the DS’ twilight production years. You know a car sticks in the minds of the public and those who built it if it remains in production for two decades. With 105,000 miles on it, it arrived in New Zealand in 1989 and has had four owners since. As far as tidy examples go, this has to be one of the best on Canterbury roads.
Under that curvaceous Flaminio Bertoni designed bonnet sits a 2.0L four-cylinder engine mated to a four-speed hydraulic column shift transmission. If you pop said bonnet and have a looksie, you can’t help but notice the spare wheel sitting in front with tool kit house within. Power is rated at 79kW and torque at 152Nm. If you have a long enough bit of road Citroen say the DS could reach 168km/h, though don’t think for one moment I was going to try.
Slide inside and you are greeted with some truly timeless surroundings. The bench seat arrangement is plush and as you hop in, you start to sink into it much like you would with your grandmother’s old lounge suite. The DS puts relaxation above everything else and you can tell. Ahead of you sit an instrument cluster which is clear, concise and well laid out.
The rear-view mirror sitting above the dashboard gives some very Jetsons kind of vibes. The sloping roofline still gives ample headroom and lankier folk in the front and rear have plenty of room to slob out, especially with these sofa-like seats.
Venture down to the right of the driver’s seat and you find a lever. Pull it towards you and the car starts to rise. Citroen say it will rise to a maximum ride height of 28 cm. The novelty doesn’t wear off as you go up and down again and again just for the heck of it.
Start up the four pot and your immediate surroundings give rise to a happy burble. As you select first via the column shift manual box, you become very aware just how different the DS feels to just about every other car.
The single spoke steering wheel requires a firm set of mitts to turn when stationary but it lights up when you get moving. Propping myself up from that sinking sofa style bend seat, I tip toed the DS onto the SH1. By now people were already looking back as they drove past. The DS still grabs attention wherever it goes. Most probably think, “what on earth is that?” or “haven’t seen one of those in years.”
Moving up to sedate cruise and the DS’ ride comfort makes itself known. It is utterly sublime. Honestly, there are modern cares which are regarded to have a comfortable ride and they pale in comparison to this. That hydropneumatic suspension just eats up every single change in surface, every pothole and every part of rough terrain imaginable.
The steering super communicative but its the brakes which deserve a special mention. The brakes are super effective to the point of being dangerous if you don’t know how to apply them properly. Due to the hydraulic system, you don’t have a pedal to press, but more of a button. The brakes have two settings, on or off. It only takes your big toe to grow a fraction of an inch and the anchors come on. After several attempts I finally got it, applying only the lightest touch in order to slow things down sedately.
Despite having to relearn the art of braking, the DS is an utter delight in so many ways. With ample torque and a linear powerband from that 2.0L four pot and the kind of ride which would make Aladdin’s magic carpet jealous, the DS feels really special on the move. Plus, passing any shop window becomes the perfect excuse to enjoy those handsome lines.
The Citroen DS will never be everyone’s cup of tea. However, those who champion character, quirk and personality over everything else, will be utterly spellbound by this French Goddess.