Reviewed by Unique Cars and Parts
Our Rating: 4
Seen as one of the most innovative cars of its era, the Citroen DS was introduced in Paris in 1955
. The major reason of this was its suspension
with engineers introducing self-levelling with hydraulic hydropneumatic struts
and unique adjustable ride-height facility allowing the DS to raise itself over rough terrain.
Once the engine was turned off it sank slowly until it sat squat to the ground. The same engine controlled ultra-sharp power steering
with clutchless hydraulic gears. It was housed in a futuristic five-seating body with panels that were detachable and was seen as a decade or two ahead of its time.
Combined with front four wheel drive it handled sensationally making the ride seem like a magic carpet. Unfortunately, its antiquated engine was its downfall with the 1934 design from the Traction-avant making it unworthy on a machine so advanced. A correction to our previous claim that the DS had 4 wheel disc brakes
has been corrected by a visitor - "The DS never had during its production run 4 wheel disc brakes. The front brakes were inboard Disc's mounted on the output shafts from the Transmission and the rears were standard drum."
In the mid sixties a more advanced two-litre four cylinder was introduced, but the results were still short of the smoothness that this car deserved. Models were downgraded with fewer power-assisted problems and less bhp which resulted in huge appeal to Parisienne taxi-drivers whilst the Safari Estate were viewed as ultimate family haulers and the beautiful DS decapotable convertible being exclusive and pricey.
The Citroen DS21 Fuel Injected
One of the criticisms of the DS21 was the lack of power. Rather than add cylinders, the engineers added fuel injection to the trusty 2.2 litre engine; they employed an adapted version of the Bosch electronically-controlled system like that which was already being used on Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagens. The system had sensors monitoring engine speed, water temperature, throttle opening and atmospheric pressure, and fed this information to a computer that in turn dictated the action of the solenoid-operated injectors. Brake horsepower leapt from 115 at 5750 rpm in the twin-choke Weber-fed engine to 139 at 5500 in the injected mill. The torque increase is almost as marked, going from 126 ft/lb at 4000 rpm to 144 at 4000. Which wasn't bad for a 2.2-litre four.
But Citroen, quite rightly, liked to emphasise the greater torque and far flatter curve, which made the Citroen extremely flexible and pleasant. In fact, the torque curve was so flat that the engine could pull smoothly from 1000 rpm. Around town this was a big plus, as you no longer needed to work the gearbox so routinely. However, if you were inclined to wind the motor out to its 6000 rpm red line it would give you scintillating performance although it does come at the expense of loud chattering and tractor sounds from under the bonnet. First gear ran to 35 mph, second to 54, third to a very good 80 and fourth 110. Slipping the column shift into fifth then let the speedo continue winding rapidly to just over 120 for a genuine 118 mph at the top end. There were plenty of highways in Europe and Australia where this kind of effortless driving was a big plus.
Because fourth ran out to 110 overlapping usefully into fifth's domain, hills weren't a performance sapper and extremely high averages were easy to maintain. And with fuel injection, the DS21 offered exceptionally good economy too – always well above the 20 mpg mark. But regardless of any fuel injection setup, many were asking how a 2.2 litre engine could be putting in the performance figures when it had to lug around what was a heavy car. The answer was because of the DS21’s fabulous aerodynamics
, particularly in the underbody shape. With the adjustable pneumatic suspension set low for highway work, the body squatted low, letting the air pass smoothly under and over its shell. This helped keep wind noise down, too, so above 100 the only noise was from the engine, not the wind.
Surprisingly, the Citroen did suffer to some degree from instability in cross-winds at very high speed. The steering was rack and pinion with a strange servo assistance that took time to get used to. It was hyper-sensitive, even twitchy until you had become familiar with it and learnt to use just the right amount of precision. The Citroen's suspension - incorporating the adjustable hydro-pneumatic system - was by unequal length parallel wishbones with self- levelling oleo-pneumatic struts and an anti-roll bar
at the front and trailing arms with similar struts and another anti-roll bar
at the rear. On the road, the Citroen displayed little true front-wheel-drive characteristics even though 67 percent of the weight was in the front. When hard pushed it didn't insist on charging straight ahead in a bend. But that steering sensitivity, unorthodox suspension and hydro-pneumatic system did combine to make driving the car properly a little tricky at first.
For example, cornering at speed required far finer steering judgment and precision than was usual in contemporary passenger cars, and more efficient use of power off and power on coming into the bend. At first you tended to leave the approach line a little too late, which usually resulted in the car running out fairly wide in understeer through the exit. Simply backing off the power did not necessarily have the desired effect of tightening up the nose, so it all depended on how much power you had on tap to hold the car in tight. Provided you were in the right gear before hitting the corner, hard acceleration would drag the car around very tightly, flatly and smartly. But if you found yourself mid-corner and in the wrong gear, the Citroen would continue in a wide understeer arc. To drive the DS21 well you had to plan ahead and really drive the car in real enthusiast fashion, even though you were sitting up high in almost lounge chair comfort.
Mastering the driving technique may have been difficult or frustrating at first, but once the driver really tuned in to it on a winding road, gauging gears and approach speeds correctly, selecting just the right moment to lift off the power, then slap it back on, the car took on new proportions of smoothness, security and point-to-point ability. Speeds through corners would creep up to incredible levels. The long column-mounted gearstick turned out to be remarkably good, gliding from third to fourth, and fifth it was very easy to select or disengage. Reverse (opposite fifth) was locked out.
The Magic Carpet Ride
But the DS was not without critics. Many road testers spoke of the agricultural noise that the engine made, and given so little road noise entered the cabin, it was disappointing that so much engine noise did. There was also an unusual sway of the big body from side to side as it is wound from bend to bend. Some described it as body-roll, but perhaps “sway” is a better description, as the suspension setup was very different and did provide a similarly different sensation to the driver. If the car was leaning to one side as you come through a bend, it would switch very rapidly to a similar amount of sway on the other side as the car headed into a bend of a different direction. But this sensation was a small price to pay, as no previous car (and very few since) have ever given a ride that is akin to riding on a magic carpet.
The brilliant ride was achieved with the height control (selected by a little wire lever on the floor beside the driver's seat) set in one of the two recommended road positions - that is, quite low. Take the car up high (simply pull up the lever, rev the engine and wait a few seconds) and the ride became extremely firm. Citroen recommended high levels as suitable for stepping over culverts, logs or big rocks – but not for normal motoring. The hydro-pneumatic suspension had a "sphere" at each point and integral shock absorber in which the action of fluid and gas gave maximum suppleness and shock absorption. Automatic height correctors ensured constant ground clearance irrespective of load or its distribution. Looking at it, the DS did not appear to be such a big car, but looks were deceptive. It was 15 ft 10.5 inches and sat on a mammoth 123-in. wheelbase, which explained the incredible room inside the car. The boot was big, but odd shaped, so packing requires some thought, but you could get a lot of stuff in. The rear seat complimented the space perfectly, but the front buckets could have been better. They were soft, but didn't have enough lateral support so the driver and passenger would slide about uncomfortably at times.
The brake pedal was different, but some argued it was just Citroen trying to be different, and the big rubber "doughnut" on the floor between the clutch and throttle pedals did not make it easier to use. Like the steering it was highly sensitive, and could well have been the lightest brake pedal in the world at the time, which made toe-and-heeling impossible. But apart from the feel, the brakes
were brilliant. The pressure-limiting anti-lock braking system would transmit its operation through the pedal under heavy braking, and they would stop the car steadily, smoothly and dead straight in 3.2 seconds from 60 miles per hour. Another engineering triumph was that under heavy braking the suspension system would make the rear dip, not the front, ensuring a constant level during crash halts. The brakes
were 11.8-inch discs at the front with 10-inch drums at the rear. The discs were ventilated and mounted inboard.
The Citroen's dashboard was set high and deep. Most major controls were taken care of by three stalks on the steering column: a stubby lever on the left was the complicated light switch. On the right, a short lever looked after the indicators and horns (two-stage) with a longer one slightly behind it for wipers and washers. All were operated by mere finger-tip movement, minimising driver effort and confusion. Unfortunately, the instruments suffered a little from gimmickry. Both speedo and tacho were segmented into 10 mph zones with the segments falling on the fives (e.g., 55, 65) with numerals in between (e.g., 60). It might have been a good idea on paper, but it was confusing for many in practice. The tacho suffered similarly.
Another little DS quirk was the speedo’s rotating inner scale which indicated stopping distances in feet at certain mph levels. For instance, a: 60 mph the indicator would say the car needed 250 ft to stop. In practice road testers could pull up in 146 ft, so there was either a good safety margin ... or level of inaccuracy. There were no auxiliary gauges for oil pressure, temperature or amperes. Instead, these functions were guarded - along with the brake circuits and disc pads and other functions - by a special warning lights nacelle beside the speedo. The outer part of this dial was segmented for the separate systems that were indicated by international symbols. In the centre there was a big red lens that lit up (along with the respective outer symbol) if any of the major systems failed, indicating that the driver should stop immediately. Pressing a button beside the dial before driving off each day provided a check on the systems - if they did not light up, one of the systems was faulty. If the footbrake light came on, the disc pads were worn and need replacing.
The ventilation and heating was elaborate, but the big fresh air vents at the far sides of the dash weren’t adequately filtered, letting dust and gravel spew into tine driver's face. Australian road testers found them useless on dirt roads. Of course the Citroen's "turning" headlights were legendary, but surprisingly until recent times no other manufacturer attempted to use a similar system, which shows just how advanced they were. The headlights were absolutely brilliant- the two outside lights (low beam) didn't move, and on their own were very good. It was the inner spotlights (on high beam) that swivelled, as the wheel was turned they followed the angle of the front wheels. The result was incredible night vision.
The Citroen DS's shape changed little in 20 years even when replaced by the CX
when its competitors were just making some headway. Many enthusiasts class the DS to the level of automotive art - how many other cars have inspired their own art exhibition?