French Icon: 1972 Citroën DS 21

When one thinks of the classic European cars of the Fifties and Sixties, one’s mind naturally gravitates toward the Germans, the British, and (of course) the Italians. Yet it was another country that arguably put forward the most technically ambitious car of those decades. The country was France, the car was the Citroën DS, and it was one of the very few examples of a revolutionary design that was also a commercial smash hit. This running and driving example is located not in Paris or Marseilles, but Minneapolis, Minnesota, and up for auction here on eBay. At the time of writing, the bid has reached $5,000, with less than two days remaining in the auction.

France in the early Fifties was at a crossroads. Still reeling from the end of the Second World War, the nation was grappling with the social and psychological whiplash of Nazi occupation immediately followed by a place at the international table as one of the victorious allies and then the impending loss of its colonial possessions. More, the war had left much of the France’s infrastructure in tatters, and in those places where the roads weren’t ruined, the economy was. When designing a successor for its successful Traction Avant, Citroën could have been forgiven for sticking with a strictly utilitarian design that offered only incremental improvements over the previous model. Instead, they accomplished a miracle that has probably never really been equaled in the history of automobile production: bold vision of the future that married profound engineering innovations with groundbreaking design, all while serving the mundane purpose of getting the family from point A to point B. Because this wasn’t a sleek sports car or a luxury offering– it was a family sedan.

Introduced in 1955, the DS broke ground in almost every arena outside of the basic mechanics of the engine. There was the hydropneumatic suspension that offered a ride so smooth that Rolls Royce licensed the system. The car had a semi-automatic transmission, doing away with the clutch pedal entirely. The roof was lightweight fiberglass, lowering the center of gravity– which would play very well with the variable ride height, a critical feature for those poor road conditions. Disc brakes, while not an innovative technology, were still new, and the DS had them. Even the uneven spacing of the front and rear wheels was a deliberate effort to combat the tendency of front-wheel drive cars to understeer. And as far as looks, well… it looks like a French space ship. So much so that when Back to the Future, Part II needed a flying taxi, they built one from a DS.

The DS was so good, in fact, that it only received limited changes over its 20 year production history. This 1972 example would have boasted a larger 2,175 cc engine, making around 110 hp naturally aspirated. The semi-automatic has been replaced here with an optional (but cheaper) manual four-speed, with column shift. All the recent maintenance is good news, since not every mechanic knows how to deal with the mineral-oil based green fluid used in the suspension. The trunk lid seems to be, sadly, damaged. Aside from this, it looks to be an amazing driver-quality car; the interior, in particular, is a high point. If you want to stand out on a budget, you could absolutely do worse. Few cars make an impression like a DS.

Comments

  1. Rex Kahrs Member

    I always liked these DS and the SM Citroens. And the 2CV. So cool and so French.

    Like 8
  2. GregM

    Great writeup! If I had just one, and only one, project car to focus on, this would be an interesting choice….

    Like 3
  3. Michelle Rand Staff

    Great writeup! A few more fun facts. His Citroen was credited with saving Charles de Gaulle’s life against an assassination attempt in 1962. The tires were shot out along with most of the glass – two of his motorcade riders were killed – but the suspension was so superior that de Gaulle’s chauffeur was able to steer the car to safety.

    This event was depicted in The Day of the Jackal – highly recommended as one of the better car spotter’s movies of all time.

    Like 12
  4. Peter k

    This is the car thats on
    My bucket list.

    Like 3
  5. Snafuracer

    I love my DS. Simply no other car is like these hydraulic era Citroens! Amazing to drive. All auto enthusiasts need to experience them IMO.

    Like 6
  6. Tony Smith

    Cool stuff. I’m sure everyone knows this, but the French pronunciation of the letters DS is the same as their word for Goddess, which is Déesse. The next Citroen model was the ID19, the letters ID are pronounced as the French word for Idea, which is Idée. Pretty smart marketing, I’d say.

    Like 7
  7. Solosolo KEN TILLY UK Member

    The comment in the write up re the fibreglass roof reminded me that in the early days, 1956, my friend’s father had an ID 19 and when doing about 80 mph he opened both front windows and the FG roof dissapeared!

    Like 1
  8. charlie Member

    During the winter of ’70 the garage that maintained my Chevelle had one, that had been sitting for several months, waiting for parts. The owner had given up, and given it to the garage owner. The owner tried to give it to me, as is. In the days before the internet, it was hopeless. It went to the junkyard. I had ridden in one in ’62, while hitchhiking in France, the owner was very proud of it, and rightly so, fast, comfortable, quiet, luxurious compared to my then ’56 Chevy. Just remember, like any pre-Ford era Jag, it is a toy.

    Like 1
  9. Howard P

    Anyone driven one of these? From memory, the brake pedal was a button like thing on the floor – more like a starter button – mounted on a large flat ʻblockʻ raised up off the floor. Stepping out of a normal car and driving one of these, you used your little toe for panic stops and breathed on the button for normal braking (the hydraulic system that powered the brakes, steering and suspension was 2500 psi or similar!). Took a while to get used to the brakes. If you fitted them with the proper Michelin tyres designed for them (ZX canʻt remember?), they would almost go as far in rough conditions / climbing rough roads on hills as a Landrover. Some parts were easy to work on. One bolt held on the back wings. Beautifully smooth to ride in and pretty economical for the time because of the slippery shape.

    Like 2
  10. Bill McCoskey Bill McCoskey Member

    The combination of an incredible suspension, along with the most comfortable seats ever factory installed in a car, make the Citroen DS THE most comfortable riding car in the world. I owned and drove one on a regular basis 35 years ago, and I still miss that ride.

    Like 2
  11. chrlsful

    finally an merican that doesnt trounce frogs, well i’m a fan of these so genuflect to Jeff. Would love one (early wagon) with the old thin (almost wire) wood slat bottom roof racks, stuck on the rain rails…

    Like 2

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