A Dash of Lemon
My uncle took pride in his French ancestry, despite dilution by more than a dozen generations of English blood since the Huguenots fled the St Bartholomew’s Day massacres by French Catholics. Ironic, it might seem in hindsight, that he should have embraced the mechanised symbol of French Catholicism: the Citroën.
Andre Citroën, a Dutch Freemason who Frenchified his name (Citroen means “lemon”) with a diaresis, lost control of the company because of the development costs of the pioneering “Traction Avant”. When the Michelin family took over the bankrupt carmaker in 1934, Citroën became as Catholic as Peugeot was Calvinist. While latter produced cars that were well-made, conventional and unfussy, its counterpart seemed to reflect in its delightful weirdness the eccentricities of the Gallican church. It was said that if Citroën ever designed a house, the front door would be in the second storey with an escalator coming down from the roof.
But while many outside France saw Citroëns as suspiciously odd, the company’s fetish for reinvention provided a constant source of entertainment and comfort for Citroën devotees, and it was easy to see why the car would induce fierce brand devotion that extends to the relatively bland Eurocars of today’s PSA group.
The Flaminio Bertoni-designed Citroën DS (pronounced “Déesse”, meaning goddess) first appeared in 1955. It was a creature of such rare, sculpted beauty and engineering innovation that folk would stand and stare, spellbound, as it rose up on its hydro pneumatic suspension and glided away like some extraterrestrial craft.
And it was truly revolutionary. The body, with its faired rear wheels and domed floorpan, had a drag coefficient matched by few pre-1980s sedans, and its monocoque frame incorporated a crumple zone. The suspension, which consisted of four nitrogen-filled spheres atop columns of oil and a hydraulic pump that kept the car level regardless of the load, made for a ride many still consider the most comfortable of any car. It could retract a single wheel when a tyre needed changing, and, jacked up to its fullest height it could negotiate the most rutted of roads. (That suspension, in a more sophisticated form, is used in the latest McLaren 720s.) The DS had no brake pedal, just a rubber mushroom that acted as a hydraulic switch. It sported large rubber buffers fore and aft, and later models had a second pair of headlights that swivelled round bends with the steering wheel. The bonnet was the largest single-press piece of automotive sheet metal at the time.
My uncle, who flew in the Pacific war, must have found the DS’s aerodynamic lines irresistible. He owned a total of 35 Citroëns of various styles and sizes over the following 40 years. So perhaps inevitably, my father caught the Citroën bug from his brother, albeit very late in life, when he bought as his last car a 35-year-old red-and-grey DS23 Safari. He loved it, all of its 5.5 metres. Like a faded courtesan, more to be admired for what she was than rued for what had become of her, my father’s Citroën was a splendid thing. He shared its advancing decrepitude and indulged its foibles, not the least of them being that it was prone to rust. One of my brothers was driving it when the trim detached from the fibreglass roof and covered him like a giant caul. Exotic car ownership put marque loyalty to the test as those Citroëns aged, because of the cost of supporting the families of the few specialists who understood the complexities of the hydraulic suspension: a 10 cent valve took a whole day’s labour to replace.
The old wagon did have a magic carpet ride once it stretched its legs, but getting there was like sitting in the cockpit of an amphibious aircraft that never quite succeeded in becoming airborne, with the attendant rattles and booms from the panels and folddown dickie seats.
From its trumpeted arrival to when all but a handful tended by deep-pocketed admirers had rusted back into the ground, or were repurposed as Japanese cutlery, the Citroën DS has been an extraordinary motoring phenomenon; a unique combination of exquisite design and exciting technical wizardry by a carmaker that refused to accept convention. Even so, to many people, its appeal has become even more incomprehensible down the years. One spring morning I had to take a load of broken concrete posts to the dump and filled up the back of the wagon – perhaps the ultimate indignity to the old lady, but who nevertheless rose to the occasion. On the way to the tip, we wheezed into a gas station to fill up. While I was waiting, a forecourt attendant walked up to the driver’s window and uttered six words that are forever seared into my memory: “Make it yourself, did you sir?”