Some months ago- never mind how long precisely- having little money and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would fly about a little and see the watery part of the world. Chief among my motives was the overwhelming idea of the great white whale himself. The 1971 Citroen DS20 was a French and mysterious monster, and roused in me all my curiosity. Stuffing a shirt or two in my old carpet bag, I started for Heathrow and the Atlantic. Quitting the good city of London, I duly arrived in Amsterdam. It is at this point that your humble author should probably apologize to any students of American literature. My Melville impression only gets worse from here.
Since my dropping anchor- ahem, landing gear- in fair Amsterdam Schiphol, I had seen but glimpses of my prize. A roof-mounted turn signal disappearing down an alley as my tram carried me forward, a hydro-pneumatically adjustable wheel rolling valiantly past as I, a mere mortal, was left looking afterward. The DS is oftentimes a cunning most feline thing. Developed in secret for 18 years during and after the second World War, much like the 2CV, the DS was released to the public in 1955, at the Paris Motor Show. Within the first 15 minutes of the car being on display, 743 orders were placed. By the end of the day? Over 12,000 people had bought a Citroen DS. And that was after having just looked at the thing. They had no idea the witchcraft that was going on underneath the extremely pretty skin.
The least interesting part of the Citroen DS is its engine. After scrapping initial plans to use a air-cooled flat six (à la the Porsche 911), an older engine, from the DS’s predecessor, called the Traction Avant, was used instead. It was an inline 4 cylinder developing 75 horsepower routed through a 4 speed transmission, and here’s where things got interesting. The transmission was semi-automatic, which eliminated the need for a clutch, but not, interestingly enough, the need to shift gears manually. The gear lever in the DS was weird too, in that it was mounted on the steering column, not on the floor, where they normally go. Funny transmissions were just the beginning, however, and my little whaling voyage was not going well.
After seeing my prize pass me by on a rented bicycle (I was on the bicycle, not the car. That would be absurd), I seemed forced to resign myself to a life without documented French automotive wizardry. Its innovative nitrogen suspension would remain hidden, beneath the waves of Amsterdam’s cobblestoned backstreets and alleyways. The DS’s (DS’? Ds’s? Screw possessives)- the suspension in the DS is perhaps its most recognizable and unique trait, in that it doesn’t consist of a shock absorber or spring like a normal car. Instead, it relies on gaseous nitrogen under pressure. So behind each wheel is a metal sphere, about 12 centimeters in diameter, that is filled with nitrogen gas. This is called the hydraulic accumulator. Attached to the bottom of the hydraulic accumulator is a cylinder filled with hydraulic fluid, and then there’s a variety of other mechanical bits that connect the whole steampunk contraption to the actual wheel. Here’s a picture.
This allowed the DS to be raised and lowered at the owners will, kind of like a lowrider, but with a beret. Making things more dystopian, Citroen decided in 1967 that the hydraulic fluid in the DS should be green, so as not to confuse it with the fluid used in earlier cars. This was because the green stuff was supposed to cause less wear and tear to the suspension system because it accumulated less water over time as the car was raised and lowered repeatedly. So, what does the funky suspension mean, in the whole grand scheme of things? Well, it changed the history of France, for one. If you didn’t click the link, here are the Sparknotes. In August of 1962, then-president of France Charles De Gaulle granted independence to Algeria, a bitterly embattled nation that had previously been a French colony. This move made a pro-French paramilitary group, called the OAS, a little peeved, and they decided that they’d very much like to kill President De Gaulle. So, while the president was on his way to Orly Airport with his wife in his brand new, government issue Citroen DS, twelve OAS assassins opened fire along the Avenue de la Liberation in Clermont-Ferrand, killing two motorcycle bodyguards and blowing out all four of the Citroen’s tires. Not to be defeated by mere bullets, the hydropneumatic suspension in the DS was able to keep the car level and drivable, even without tires, carrying De Gaulle and his wife out of harm’s way. From that day forward, De Gaulle refused to travel in any other car.
There were other innovations as well. The turn signals (and regular readers know how much I love a good turn signal) were mounted on the back of the roof, so people could actually see them. The roof itself was made of aluminium to keep the car’s center of gravity low. And because of that fancy suspension, this luxury cruiser enjoyed a fairly successful racing career as well. In fact, the DS actually won its first outing as a race car, at the 1956 Monte Carlo Rally. Its racing career didn’t stop there either. They did sell the DS in the United States for a time, but it didn’t feature the European model’s swiveling headlights, and it was priced to compete against the likes of the Cadillac Calais, when the DS had, like, a fourth of the horsepower. So the DS never really caught on in the states. Pity.
There are few silences louder than Amsterdam’s Red Light District at 8 o’clock on a Sunday morning. I recall strolling the deserted streets, with no company save my own thoughts, when there, out of the murky blue, was her. The white whale. The Citroen DS20. It seemed fitting that the car I had spent the whole trip searching for revealed itself mere hours before I was scheduled to cast off to parts unknown. The 20 in this DS20’s name indicated a slightly larger engine, at 1945cc (the engine displacement of the DS grew over the car’s lifespan, with the introduction of the DS21 and DS23). At last, I had found relief. My search had been given to madness, the hunt its own type of twisted reward. Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf, a sullen white surf beat against the street sides, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.
- The name DS is actually a bit of a pun, but you need to know a little French to get it. The letters D and S are pronounced day-ess in French, which is close to their word for “goddess.” A similar tactic was used with the sub-DS model, the ID (same body, most of the same technology, less interior luxuries), which sounded like “idée,” the French word for idea.
- The DS was the first car that was designed to have the engine be pushed underneath the passenger compartment in the event of a head-on collision.
- Want to get weird? Here’s some freaky Citroen DS commercials.
- That big castle-looking thing in the background of the last picture is de Waag, or weigh house, in Amsterdam’s Nieuwmarkt square. The building acted as a part of the walls of Amsterdam, and is the oldest non-religious building in the city. It is also in this Rembrandt painting. Very cool place, as is the Nieuwmarkt itself, especially when they have open air vendors on weekends. Nice cafes too.
- You, if you were so inclined, could also change a tire on a Citroen DS without the use of a jack, because of the trick suspension.