Disclaimer: I no longer own this car, but I did so for three years.
What can I say that hasn’t already been said about the ‘goddess’? Any car lover worth their salt can recite the well-known facts and numbers. It was released at the Paris Motor Show in 1955, with Citroen taking 80,000 deposits in 10 days. It had a fibreglass roof, standard disc brakes, an engine that was designed to slide underneath the cabin in the event of a crash, and of course that hydropneumatic suspension system. It was credited with saving Charles de Gaulle’s life during an assassination attempt, and it has made over 2000 film and TV appearances… So far. If you’re reading this, you would know most of this already, and if you don’t – it’s all just a quick Google search away.
What I want to give is a much more personal account of the Citroen DS – a bit of a love story with a goddess, if you will.
The first time I saw one was on a warm, autumn day in 1996, when I was 13 years old. It was being driven slowly around Albert Park Lake in Melbourne. To this teenager (whose bedroom walls at the time were adorned with posters of RX-7s, Supras, 300ZXs and GTOs), it was the ugliest thing I had ever seen. To me, it resembled an oversized duck, which perhaps would have been more at home floating on the lake, rather than being driven around it.
But over the subsequent weeks and months, something strange began to happen. My voice began to deepen, there was hair where previously there was none, and probably more relevant to this story, I just could not get that image of the Citroen DS out of my head – even though at the time I wasn’t even aware that it was called a Citroen DS. I had to learn more about that car. Since Google was still two years away from being invented and I lacked internet access at home (current day 13-year-old boys will never understand that struggle), I went to the library and borrowed a book that contained information about the big Citroen.
By the time I had finished reading, the DS had become my favourite car. The FD Mazda RX-7 had been relegated to number two.
Fast-forward another 13 years to 2009 – I was at the wonderful age of 26, when you are old enough to have a real job and be considered an adult, but also young enough to spend money frivolously because you had no real responsibilities. I had therefore decided that the time was right to buy my very own DS.
I went onto the ‘Aussie Frogs’ forum and wrote that I was interested in buying. A guy on the Gold Coast told me that he had two in his possession, and was looking to offload one of them. He sent me pictures of it, along with a magazine article that had featured that particular car. Gleaming in its gunmetal-grey paintwork, it looked stunning. It was in very good condition, and I knew there and then that this was going to be my DS. I flew up to the Gold Coast that weekend and took it for a drive. I was hooked, and I bought it on the spot and had it transported down to Melbourne.
Most current-day cars are built to fill a gap in the market. Someone at a car company decides that there exists a customer ‘need’ for a small hatchback on stilts, covered in some plastic cladding, with no off-road ability or increased luggage carrying capacity, but drives less well, with increased fuel consumption, while costing more money to buy than the car it was based on, and so we end up with the Mazda CX-3.
Then car journalists review that car and assure us that it’s very good against its competition, which also happen to be other small hatchbacks on stilts, covered in plastic cladding, with no off-road ability or increased luggage carrying capacity, but drive less well, with increased fuel consumption, while costing more money to buy than the cars they were based on. That’s the game.
The Citroen DS was nothing like that. It was not built to fill a gap – it was built to represent an idea, and to answer a provocative question. It was the result of two geniuses – Flaminio Bertoni and André Lefèbvre – sitting down and asking, “If we were to design and build the perfect car – one that is not encumbered with how things have always been done – what would that car look like?”. And so the DS was born, shocking and delighting the motoring public. This is why it was like nothing the automotive world had seen before. Even its competitors were difficult to pin down – should it have been compared to the Alfa Romeo 1900 TI and the BMW 501/6, or to a spaceship?
When you own a Citroen DS, you are acutely aware that you are a custodian of not just a piece of machinery, but something more akin to an organic being. From the way that it would spookily rise up when you started it up in the morning, to the way that it would hiss and sigh from time to time as the hydraulics worked their magic, to the way those feline headlights swivelled around corners in the darkness – it felt truly alive.
And then there was the ride. At freeway speeds, it actually felt like you were floating just above the road’s surface – almost as if you were riding a hovercraft or some sort of light aeroplane. One of the hydraulic suspension’s party tricks was its ability to ride over speedhumps at over 60km/h while the cabin continued to sit completely flat. One of my fondest memories was being unceremoniously tailgated by a youth in his VY Commodore, until we got to a long, wide, street that had a number of speedhumps in it. I floored the throttle and did not touch the brakes until I had made it to the end of that street – the VY now just a tiny speck in my rear-view mirror.
Other aspects of driving the car were also unique. The seats were softer and cushier than anything I’d ever sat in – including any sofa. Not one passenger got into that car in the time that I owned it without making some sort of remark on the uncanny comfort of those seats. The large steering wheel with its single spoke was so elegant and tactile to use. There is also no brake pedal in a DS – just a mushroom-shaped button mounted on the floor, which took a bit of getting used to (it was very sensitive), but once accustomed to, was second nature. The column-mounted four-speed manual gearbox was stately, smooth and suited the character of the car perfectly.
The only thing that did not quite live up to the lofty ideals of the car was unfortunately the engine. It was a coarse and agricultural 1.9-litre unit that could trace its roots back to the Traction Avant from the 1930s. Apparently, the DS had been designed around an air-cooled flat-six (à la Porsche 911), but technical and budgetary constraints didn’t quite allow for that to happen. Pity. Still, even with its meagre power output and humble origins, it managed to keep up with modern-day traffic and was very happy to cruise at over 100km/h, thanks largely to the aerodynamics of its body.
You would be forgiven for thinking that an old, complicated French car with its major controls being controlled by hydraulics would have been an absolute pain to maintain. But this simply wasn’t the case. In the three years that I owned it, I carried out just routine maintenance via an independent Citroen DS specialist and that was about it. It had a minor leak in the hydraulic system somewhere (there were always a couple of drops of the alien-looking green fluid on the garage floor), but if you just kept your eye on the fluid levels and topped it up when it was needed, that was all that was required.
Insurance, too, was cheap. I remember calling up Shannon’s and asking for a quote. I was quoted something like $300 for fully comprehensive insurance with all the bells and whistles. My other cars at the time were a first-gen Mazda RX-7 and an LV Ford Focus XR5, so I was convinced that the quoted price was too low and that the customer service representative had made some sort of mistake. When I queried him, he simply replied: “Sir, you’re probably the only person under 60 that owns one of these. That’s why”.
So I guess the obvious question is – if this is how I felt about this amazing car, why did I end up selling it? Well, in 2012, I was going through a relationship break-up. I was now a single, 29-year-old with three cars under my name and living expenses that had suddenly doubled. I also only had access to two garage spots, one of which was at my parents’ house. So I elected to keep the most practical car I owned at the time (the XR5) and my first-ever car for sentimental reasons (the RX-7). I ended up selling the DS to a guy who lived on the Bellarine Peninsula who wanted to add it to his collection. I don’t remember the exact figures now, but I had sold it for more than I had bought it for.
Do I regret that decision? Of course I do. Whenever I see a DS these days in the sea of monochrome SUVs, I can’t help but feel that it presents like a vision of a future that was promised to us sometime back in the mid-20th century, but never quite ended up eventuating. I still think about my car often and hope that one day I will be in a position to own another. But for now, I am truly grateful for the three trips around the sun that I made with that magnificent, glorious, spaceship-shaped goddess.