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Feature Story


by Bob Hagin

April 23, 1999

At the height of their popularity in the rest of the world, none of the various Citroen-brand automobiles that were imported into the U.S. were very popular - at least with the general public. Like most of the other French cars imported into this country after World War II, Citroens were just too "French."

But those Americans who became enamored by the uniqueness that was characteristic of all Citroens, became and still are fierce in their dedication.

Generally speaking, American Citroen aficionados fall into two groups: those who venerate and adore the homely two-cylinder 2CV sedan and those who are equally enthusiastic about the unique and definitely avant-garde DS sedans and station wagons. Where the 2CV can best be described as minimal transportation (its design and construction is reminiscent of a corrugated metal shed mounted on four wheels), the DS is large and supremely comfortable with styling that recalls our early- day concept of what a rocket ship would look like sometime in the future.

No car built before or since the introduction of the Citroen DS in 1955 even vaguely resembled the car. It was sleek in the extreme with a low, sloping hood that swept up to its plastic top. From there, the sweeping profile continued up and over the cabin, then down to the rear bumper in a giant, graceful curve. Its wheels were pushed out as far as possible to the ends of the chassis (something that's done quite a bit these days) and the rear wheels were hidden in the bodywork.

This was a feature that lead onlookers and potential buyers to ask the driver or salesman how the a flat rear tire was removed for repair. I was working as a mechanic at Dick Dye Motors in Oakland at the time and had to chuckle every time Dye demonstrated the Citroen's unusual built-in jacking system.

The DS has no metal-spring suspension system as such and instead depends on a hydropneumatic (oil/air) suspension "bag" above each wheel. The system automatically adjusted the ride height and provided a smooth ride that literally soaked up bumps and potholes in the pavement. The heart of the system was a hydraulic pump that maintained pressure in a central reservoir. The height of each corner could also be manually adjusted from the cockpit, which resulted in the ability of the driver to jack up one corner to remove the tire. This Dick Dye gleefully demonstrated to anyone who asked for a demonstration.

The hydropneumatic system also assisted the steering and braking power, the latter being actuated by a large "button" located near the accelerator pedal. Stopping a DS was a somewhat unnerving situation that I never really became accustomed to.

Unfortunately, the drivetrain was almost as antiquated as the rest of the DS was futuristic. It used a 75 horsepower, 2.0 liter, four-cylinder powerplant that traced its ancestry back to the 1934 "Traction Avant" (front drive) sedan. This '34 Ford look-alike went on to become famous as the police car of choice for the gendarmerie in real life as well as in French movies.

The transmission in the DS was a conventional manually-operated four-speed unit with an automatic clutch. Like its cinema-famous predecessor, the DS was front-wheel-drive, with its longitudinally-placed engine mounted behind the gearbox.

Marcus Schaller is the archetypal Citroen DS enthusiast who has been "into" these cars for many years. He owns a 1970 model that he's had for a few years, and while it isn't concours-ready cosmetically, it's a sturdy, reliable runner that he uses as almost-daily transportation. The car's only drawback, as far as Schaller is concerned, is the complexity of doing any major repair work. The recent replacement of its weak clutch took him and his father a couple of months of occasional work to complete, but repairs can be expected of any vehicle with nearly 200,000 miles on the clock.

For several years I've subscribed to "Classic & Sports Car" (C&SC), a monthly British magazine that's one of my favorites. Its eclectic format covers any and all vehicles that its editors find "interesting" and those interests range from German and Italian "bubble cars" of the post-war era, to contemporary Lamborghinis to stately Rolls-Royces of any vintage. The publication recently did a feature on "The Best Ever Saloons" (sedans to us Americans) and divided the candidates into several categories. But to judge the overall Best Ever, C&SC employed a pair of experts. Race driver Derek Bell and professional chauffeur Paul Baker (both British, of course) evaluated the top five and passed judgment on what they collectively feel is "The Best Saloon Ever Built". This being the turn of the millennium as well as "The 100th Anniversary of the Automobile," it was an appropriate subject for investigation.

The choices narrowed down to five vehicles and I was surprised and pleased to note that the Citroen ID (a derivation of the original DS) was judged the best ever. Marcus Schaller was pleased, of course, and showed me his own issue of the magazine when I did a ride-around with him in his Citroen.

And I know that if my old boss Dick Dye was still among us, he'd be pleased too.