On par with champagne and croissants. Better than Paul Pogba. Here's to the Citroën DS, a gift from France to the world
Trying to define ‘cool’ is a thankless task. It changes over time, it differs from place to place and everyone has their own idea of what it means anyway. You’d have more luck trying to define what kind of Brexit 17.4m people voted for.
But there is one car so effortlessly, unarguably cool that it might as well be a Platonic Form for the concept. And that car is the Citroën DS.
Obviously it’s helped from the start by being French – a country in which being cool is a kind of national pastime, just something you do in-between going to work and putting the washing on. Then again, France has produced its share of distinctly uncool cars too – not least the Citroën 2CV, which is only cool to the kind of people who still wear tie-dye t-shirts.
No, the DS’ appeal is about more than its place of origin. Mostly, it’s about the devil-may-care attitude that saw it given all manner of futuristic technologies in a world that was only just recovering from the horrors of WWII. Well, that and the fact that it looks simply amazing…
The Citroën DS was a sensation right from the start. It launched on Thursday 5 October 1955 at the Paris Motor Show and racked up 750 sales in the 45 minutes after its unveiling; in all, 12,000 cars were ordered on that first day.
And it’s not hard to see why. The DS is still a breathtaking design today, 64 years on, but at the time it was simply revolutionary.
It was penned by Citroën’s chief stylist Flaminio Bertoni, an Italian who has a good claim to being the greatest automotive visionary ever, having also come up with the earlier Traction Avant and the aforementioned 2CV. And no, the latter may not be cool, but it’s undeniably a great design, and one that was produced to the tune of nearly 4m examples.
Incredibly, work on it had started 18 years prior to that, immediately after the arrival of the Avant, with Citroën embarking on two projects codenamed VGD and TPV.
VGD stood for ‘Voiture á Grand Diffusion’ or ‘mass-produced car’ while the Toute Petite Voiture was to be very small car. With war approaching, the TPV project was prioritised and eventually became the 2CV. But the VGD wasn’t forgotten, with development continuing in secret during the war years.
By the early ’50s, prototypes were being tested in the French countryside and many of the innovative technologies that would be found in the finished version were in place.
The design was also settled by now, with Bertoni having transformed early prototypes that had earned it the nickname l’hippopotame, or hippopotamus, in favour of a sleek flying saucer of a car – though some reckoned it looked more like a basking shark.
Whatever it resembled, it was a world away from most other cars of the time; in 1955, let’s not forget, the UK’s roads were still dominated by dumpy, utilitarian vehicles such as the Morris Minor and Vauxhall Cresta.
To look at it was an exercise in constant surprise. The windows were frameless, for instance, there was no radiator grille on the front and the rear indicators were placed so as to be in the eye line of following motorists. Inside, there was a minimalist cabin featuring a single-spoked steering wheel and a dashboard made from new-fangled plastic rather than fusty wood.
However eye-catching the design, though, the marvels wrought upon that beautiful body by the engineering genius André Lefebvre and his team were just as important.
Chief among them was the hydropneumatic suspension, which ditched old-fashioned springs for spheres of compressed gas suspended in hydraulic fluid in order to create a self-levelling ride; the Citroën DS didn’t drive, it floated over the roads like a magic carpet.
To that you can add the power-assisted steering, the clutchless semi-automatic transmission and the disc brakes – the first on a mass-produced car. Oh, and the fibreglass roof, designed to lower the centre of gravity, and the comprehensive heating system, and about a hundred other innovations.
Even the name ‘DS’ was evocative and daring – it’s pronounced ‘Déese’, which is the French for ‘Goddess’, and few could argue with that heavenly billing.
It was, quite simply, like nothing that had come before – the point at which, according to motoring journalist Robert Cumberford in Motor Trend, the automobile made its “first real break with the 18th-century tradition of clockwork concepts for machine design”.
The French philosopher Roland Barthes went further still, penning an essay about the DS that in its breathless adulation resembles a 13-year-old’s BTS fanpage on Tumblr.
“It is obvious that the new Citroën has fallen from the sky inasmuch as it appears at first sight as a superlative object,” he writes. “The DS – the ‘Goddess’ – has all the features … of one of those objects from another universe which have supplied fuel for the neomania of the eighteenth century and that of our own science-fiction: the Deesse is first and foremost a new Nautilus.”
Well said, Roly.
The public seemed to agree, buying 1.4m of them across a 20-year production run. Multiple variants were built, from the low-cost ID submodels to the Luxury Pallas versions, and from estates to convertibles, while a redesign in 1967 added directional headlamps.
It remained hugely popular throughout its lifetime, with sales peaking in 1970, 15 years after its shock-of-the-new arrival. It’s been voted the most beautiful car of all time, came third in a Car of the Century poll and has starred in countless films – sometimes as an easy signpost for Frenchiness and sometimes just as an automotive icon.
And that, after all, is what it really is – a car so forward-thinking, so daring and so different that it will always, always be cool.