Rolling off a French tongue, the letters DS say ‘goddess’. Sixty years ago, the Citroen DS entranced the world with its sleek style, aerodynamic body lines, frog-inspired nose and the magic carpet ride of its hydro-pneumatic suspension.
It was a remarkable car, combining the talents of famed Italian designer Flamino Bertoni and French aeronautical engineer Andre Lefebvre. The DS was hugely admired for its futuristic style and clever technology. It was gorgeous to look at and pleasingly good to drive. Over the next 20 years nearly 1.5 million were made before it ceased production in the mid-1970s.
These 20th century DS cars were not only made in Citroen’s main factory in Paris. They were also produced in five other factories around the world, from here to Australia. Yes, I say here, because one production site for the DS back then was in the UK, to the west of London at Slough in Berkshire, where until last year Citroen continued to have its UK headquarters. That has now moved to Coventry, alongside Peugeot.
Five years ago Citroen cannily revived the DS badge as an upmarket ‘halo’ brand to add some fizz to its car range. The DS3 – the first modern ‘goddess’ – was swiftly followed by the DS4, then came the DS5. Now, coinciding with the 60th anniversary of DS, the chic three-model French brand is being separated from its conjoined sibling Citroen and established as a separate marque in its own right, to stand alongside both Peugeot and Citroen as the third member of an expanding family of car brands.
I have just spent an evocative few days driving an original DS, a beautifully preserved 1961 car in a fetching shade of froggy green. Spending time at the wheel of such an eye-catching classic was a reminder of how much we Brits love old cars. Other drivers unashamedly ogled the elegantly long-limbed DS, and smilingly let me out of junctions. Pedestrians stopped to chat and admire the car whenever I parked. It was a constant magnet for attention.
It was also a reminder of some of the frustrations of life with a half-a-century-old motor. Starting it involved pulling out the choke – who remembers those? – and setting it at just the right half-way point, then turning the key two or three times before the engine would reluctantly fire; then tickling the throttle to keep the motor running until it settled into a steady thrum. The goddess could be a bit fickle.
Then followed a need-to-be-patient 30 seconds or so while the hydro-pneumatic suspension slowly raised itself. It was rather like a dowager in evening dress hitching her skirt above her ankles. This lifted the car’s body height by about nine inches as an engine-driven pump pressurised the suspension’s hydraulic fluid, to elevate the ride height and cushion the car ready for driving.
When parked, the old DS is a car that can’t be clamped, because its bodywork sinks to within inches of the ground. When driven, its ride quality is fabulous, ironing the bumps and making light work of potholes. It is said that the inspiration for hydro-pneumatic suspension – invented by Citroen’s Paul Mages – was the terrible state of French roads in the mid-20th century. In their DSs, drivers were isolated from the worst effects of them.
I drove the old DS back-to-back with its 21st century progeny, a DS5 hybrid. An old car is wonderfully evocative, but switching between DSs old and modern was a stark reminder of how far cars have come in the past six decades. An ancient classic makes demands on your time and patience, forces you to plan journeys on a looser time scale, and reminds you of an era when you had to adjust to the car’s seating, rather than vice versa.
The 1961 DS 19, with its 1.9 litre engine, had a top speed of around 90 mph, would trundle up to 60 mph in a very leisurely 19.5 seconds, and had fuel consumption of around 32 mpg. Compare that with its great–grandson, the DS5 DSport Hybrid4, with its two-litre engine and 40hp electric motor, its 131 mph top speed, 0-62 acceleration in 8.3 seconds, and combined fuel figure of 72.4 mpg.
Yes, the original DS was a fantastic car in its time, and is one of the best-looking cars of all time. But I know which one I would rather drive on a daily basis in the cut-and-thrust of working deadlines and modern traffic.