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The Goddess

The Making of a French Classic Car Icon

A man stops and stares as if he’s seen a flying saucer gliding by with ET hanging out of the top saying 'phone home'. Children point in wonder excitedly asking their parents: ‘What is that?’ A random person saunters over in a car park and starts up what will be a long conversation with the words:

‘Nice car mate, have you had it long?’ ‘Cool,’ ‘Magnificent,' ‘Still way ahead of its time,’ these are words you’ll hear again and again.

What is it they’ve seen; an exotic Italian sports car; a vintage Rolls Royce; a classic British sports two-seater? No its way cooler than that. Sub zero in fact. Able to induce more toe-rotting frost bite than even Ranulph Fiennes could deal with. It’s possibly the most amazing mass-production vehicle ever conceived and, without doubt, the coolest car you’re ever likely to see. It’s the stupendous Citroen DS. 

When you know something about these cars you’ll understand why they were voted in the top three most innovative cars of the last century (alongside the Mini and the Model T Ford). Not only that, it was voted (by some) as the most beautiful car ever made and one of the top twenty coolest ever cars.

Take a minute to look at its sensuous curves, shark-like front end, the huge windows, quirky back indicators placed high on the roofline in beautiful chromed housings, the shapely buttocks covering the back wheels (which you remove using a single bolt to change a flat rear tyre) and you’ll agree it still looks like a car from the future.  This, by the way, is a car designed in the nineteen forties and launched in the Paris salon in 1955; over half a century ago. The press and public alike were aghast at the DS or as these cars are reverently known the ‘Goddess’. It was a quantum leap in car design, engineering, construction and just about everything that was taken for granted in car production.  As Roland Barthes the French semiotician wrote at the time it seemed as if the DS had: 'Fallen from the sky’.

There are those who say they’re over engineered; full of philosophical French complexity with plenty of things to go wrong. Such sceptics would talk total tosh, droning on that everything on these cars is powered by cranky high pressure, oil and nitrogen based hydraulics including the steering, brakes, semi-automatic gears and its famous up-down suspension. True, early models were an engineering and PR nightmare for Citroen where the unusually high engineering tolerances required to build a D meant in early production models a good number of leaky, unreliable examples left the Paris factory then plagued the company’s squad of mobile engineers for months after. This catalogue of errors included a complaint from a man who claimed that whilst investigating a problem the car had engaged its gears and ran him over. Pity the camera phone hadn’t been invented as well because that would definitely have gone viral on You Tube.

However, once these gremlins had been hunted down and summarily guillotined Citroen were, for the next twenty years, able to turn out one and a half million largely reliable, well-built examples and the DS was free to make its mark on popular culture carving out its place as the icon we know today. And those who get to try the sumptuous seats, massive rear leg room and other-worldly ride quality will wax lyrical about these cars for years after. Famous D owners are equally iconic: Yuri Gagarin, Alec Guinness, Bill Bailey, Peter Cook, Alan Clarke as well as virtually every insouciant French film actor you’ve never heard of.

Oh, and don’t forget in these days of increasing gun culture that this is a car that might save your life. When in 1962 President de Gaulle’s DS Prestige was set upon by gun-wielding pro-Algerian terrorists his DS, although bullet ridden, was able to drive away at full speed despite having two tyres shot out.  De Gaulle acknowledged his life was spared mainly because of the unique qualities of the D’s self levelling suspension which immediately compensated for the damage. Try that in your bog standard Mercedes and see if you can dodge the cross fire.

Speed heads might moan that the DS is slow. With a workhorse-like four-cylinder engine even the zenith of the range the 2.3 litre DS23 efi, could only manage 120 mph on a good day. Arguably the DS never got the engine it deserved but that’s not the point. When you see a souped up Vauxhall Corsapointlessly speeding between sleeping  policemen the word that springs to mind is not ‘cool’ it’s more like ‘prat’. You’ll actually get around the suburbs more effortlessly in a Goddess as its amazing suspension absorbs bumps in the road as if they were a mere pimple.  But there’s no need to go fast to collect your automotive plaudits: paced and languid does the job much better.

To own a DS is very special indeed.  You’ll never get bored of the sensation on turning the ignition, gunning the engine slightly then giggling like a kid as it rises to action from its low overnight squat and then takes you through to its supple, airbed-in-a-swimming-pool ride as it glides effortlessly along the road.  If you should ever come to a ford or uneven ground you can raise the ride height close to that of a 4WD vehicle to get you through without drama. It’s safe too.  With front and rear crumple zones and a rock solid chassis even the engine is designed to slip underneath the car in a front end shunt. But much more than that is the feeling that you’re in a true motoring legend unlike anything you’ve ever driven before and that alone is worth the occasional maintenance bill when it decides to play up.

Prices for Ds have been rising steadily over the last few years and a good reliable saloon version will cost anything between twelve to fifteen thousand pounds. The estate (station wagon) versions command up to twenty thousand but are huge with massive load space and up to seven seats including two ‘jump seats’ that can be folded away when not in use.  If you want a cabriolet then the sky’s the limit price-wise as these were custom built by Henri Chapron coach works rather than being a standard production variant. But those who take the plunge find that, even today, they are a very useable everyday car, are great on the motorway and absolutely ideal for long-distance travel where the super soft seats and soothing undulations of the ride means you arrive at your destination in much better shape than from the rock hard seats of your Beamer.

So if you don’t agree we’re in ice-cold, super-cool car territory and are still hankering after a high falutin' Italian or German jobbie I have one final thought. Before you blow your cash on something built in the Tuscan hills have a viewing of The Day of the Jackal or the recent film version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy to see the D in action. 

Then, to finally convince you, watch Scarface, one of the coolest films ever made, and see the key role the DS plays in that gun-fest. If this doesn’t cement these amazing cars as votre objet du desir nothing will.

Originally published on the Sylvian Scribblings Classic Car Blog in October 2014.

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