Let’s begin by saying that the design of the Citroen DS 19 is one of the most astonishing leaps in design history. No publication about design can omit the DS 19, no history of the car would be complete without the DS 19, any and all historical accounts of France, and of French culture must include the DS 19; it is simply a marvel.
It is perhaps difficult to understand this fully when looking back from a modern vantage point; this car design has affected everything since. So to help you, consider what the DS was replacing…
Mr.André-Gustave Citroën (1878-1935) invented double helical gears and started a car manufacturing company. With his company in serious financial trouble as a result of the war, and shortly before his death, he invited André Lefèbvre (1894–1963) to head up a three man design team that was to become one of the most influential and inspiring in design history.
Sculptor Flaminio Bertoni, Paul Mages, and Lefèbvre immediately began designing the “Traction Avant” (which merely means “Front Wheel Drive” in French) — which although it looked like all the other ‘gangster’ cars on the roads, was in fact quite revolutionary in being monocoque (chassis-less) with fancy independent suspension and being the world’s first mass-produced front wheel drive car.
However, with the death of the founder, the company was taken over by its biggest creditor, the Michelin tyre company.
The Lefèbvre-Bertoni-Mages design team saved the Citroën company; the “Traction Avant” was a success and revolutionised car design and production. From using the company as a testing ground for tyre development, Michelin began to take car design and manufacture more seriously, and the team came up with the 2CV and other best-selling and innovative designs.
However, for the replacement to the flagship model, the Traction Avant, Lefèbvre-Bertoni and Mages came up with the DS19!
Just look at the two cars — they are so completely different looking — and that was the case back then: Bertoni’s DS19 was not merely different-looking when compared with the Traction Avant, but also when compared with every other car on the road in 1955 (and for many years after). Citroën’s competitors took decades to adapt to the higher standards set by the DS.
No wonder the DS19 rocked the world at its launch at the Paris Motor Show on 5th October 1955. In the first 15 minutes, 743 orders were placed, with a first day total of 12000! The D-series was manufactured until1975, and sold almost 20 million units, it always maintained Bertoni’s original size and shape, complete with easily removable unstressed body panels — a classic!
In the post-colonial, post World Wars era, as France was struggling to find its identity, the DS became something of a symbol of French identity, of the France of the Future, of the France of the “Space Age” (Bertoni’s DS shape was said to resemble the flying saucers that were starting to be spotted in the skies).
“DS” in French is pronounced “day-ess” (Déesse), which means “goddess”, a name that has stuck. Once the car was deemed a success, Citroën began to produce a cheaper version, and they continued the wordplay by naming this model the ID, which in French is Idée, meaning ‘Idea’. The ID looked the same as the DS, but had no power-steering, fancy hydraulics and other innovations.
Some of the goddess’s other innovations included:
- Semi-automatic transmission,
- Fibreglass roof,
- Power steering,
- Standard body panels,
- Power disc brakes,
- Different front and rear tyre track widths and sizes ( to reduce understeer),
- Hydro-pneumatic suspension:
- Automatic levelling system,
- Variable ground clearance.
The DS was the first production car with front disc brakes, and one of the first mass-market cars to use electronic fuel injection (1970). DS Drivers merely had to flick the gear lever behind the steering wheel to the next gear position and then slowly let the accelerator pedal up. The hydraulic controller disengaged the clutch, engaged the selected gear, then re-engaged the clutch. The later and simpler ID19 also had the same gearbox and clutch, but manually operated and much cheaper. A 5-speed manual and 3-speed fully-automatic were added in the 1970s, just before the end of production).
The DS19 had a 3 main bearing engine of 1.911 litres — this was replaced in 1965 with 5 main bearing engines — the D19a (called DS20 from Sept 1969) with 1.985 litres and the DS 21‘s 2.175 litres.
Production of the DS and ID was phased out in 1975/6, and the model was replaced by the CX. Citroën had for 20 years been afraid to replace the iconic DS — they had set the highest design standards– and not just for every car producer, but for themselves too.
In 1958, the basic sedan was extended to make an estate (known as a ‘station wagon’ in the USA, and known as a ‘break’ in France), these longer DS models were called ‘Safari’ and ‘Familiale’ and had a steel roof to support a roof rack.
- In September 1962, the DS, while retaining the open two headlamp appearance, came with the option of a set of driving lights mounted on the front bumpers.
- In 1965 a luxury upgrade kit, the DS Pallas (after Greek goddess), was introduced. This included comfort features such as better noise insulation, leather upholstery and external trim embellishments.
- In 1967, the headlamp design of the DS and ID was streamlined, with the four headlights under a smooth glass canopy, and the inner set swivelled with the steering wheel to allow the driver to see around bends!
This is a design classic for any number of reasons. It is identifiable, and clearly iconic. It has remained essentially unchanged, and merges the old with the new — the old technology of the engine with the new suspension and other innovations. It is a beautiful merger of form and function, aerodynamic and futuristic — yet very much of its time. It is a celebration of colour, of lightness, of freedom of line — perfect for the post-war optimism. The car it replaced was instantly old-fashioned, black and drearily conservative and boring. The DS was to be driven in a new world on new motorways filled with pastel coloured scooters and camper vans.