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Every now and then, a company makes a product that's so incredibly wonderful it can't be improved on or bested. That's what happened in 1955, when the French car maker Citroën first introduced its iconic model DS. It continued making it for 20 years, then stopped and went on to something else. But there are still a few around, and they are still the most beautiful and most intriguing cars ever made.
I've never been one to love cars, especially not gas cars. Most of the time, I can't tell one from another. But the first time I saw a Citroën DS, as a 22-year-old in Paris, I had to turn and watch it rolling down the street. "What is that?" I asked. Even though I didn't know, I knew I wanted one.
This year, many decades later, and more than 60 years after it was made, the editors at Wired have declared that the DS "still feels ahead of its time," and they've created a video to explain why. These folks know something about technology and products, and they've picked out some of the features that made the DS absolutely unique. As senior writer Jack Stewart puts it, "Some of the technology that it has on board is still more cutting-edge than we see in cars today."
1. Headlights that swivel with the wheels.
Citroën wasn't the first auto maker to offer this feature (the short-lived US auto maker Tucker had them too, for instance). But Citroën was the first car maker to offer them in a widespread way in the European market. It would have offered them in the U.S. market as well, but at the time the federal government actually forced Citroën to remove the swiveling headlights from DS cars to be sold here.
Now called "adaptive" headlights, they're a sought-after feature in 21st-century U.S. cars.
2. Hydropneumatic suspension.
This is a Citroën invention, later licensed by Rolls Royce. This system, revolutionary even by today's standards, balances all four wheels at the same level no matter what's going on under the tires, and also no matter what kind of load the car is carrying.
This makes for an incredibly smooth and comfortable ride. It's also super-handy if you get a flat because rather than fiddle with a jack you can just use the hydropneumatic system to lift up the car, prop it up with a short pole, and then lower it again, leaving the wheel in question suspended so you can switch in the spare. Which, incidentally, is stored under the hood.
At the beginning of the Wired video, you can watch the cool effect the hydropneumatic system has when you switch off the engine--the car gives off a sigh and gently settles over its wheels.
3. Extreme comfort.
Though it's much smaller and more compact than a typical American-made "land yacht," the DS was famous for being incredibly comfortable. Partly this was due to the innovative suspension, partly to the cushy seats inside which make the car something like a sofa on wheels, according to one reviewer. An elderly friend of the family was too frail and sore to ride in most cars, but could tolerate trips in a DS because it was so much more comfortable to ride in.
4. A really clever name.
The letters "DS" don't sound like much in English, but in French they're pronounced exactly the same as the word "déesse," meaning "goddess." The folks at Citroën were fully aware of just how special their new line of cars was.
Sadly, I never did get one--owning a vintage vehicle was just never practical for me. These days, I'm the happy owner of an electric car, and I'm not sure I'll ever buy another gas one. But I did bring a finely-made Matchbox-sized model home with me from that trip to Paris. It's still sitting on my shelf today.