Presented to a stunned world at the Paris Motor Show during October 1955, the iconic Citroën DS celebrates its 65th anniversary this year. Hannes Oosthuizen has always had a soft spot for the avant-garde French machine.
I was recently reminded again just how far ahead of its time the DS was at the time of the its launch. My teenage son selected Back to the Future II on Netflix the other night, and excitedly yelled from the couch that he had spotted a DS, mixing it with '80s concept cars, as the movie's producers attempted to create a vision of cars in "the future"... in 2015. Yes, the Citroën DS was used often in films set in the future, more than 30 years since it was first launched. It's probably unique in that way...
Instead of recounting the history of the Citroën DS in general (there are many excellent articles on the Internet that does this), I'm rather going to focus on my own history with this outstanding vehicle. Growing up in small-town South Africa, my escape was CAR Magazine, and also our neighbour's eclectic collection of cars, which included, among other things, a short-wheelbase VW Beetle and a Citroën SM.
It was the SM that first got me intrigued. I spent many hours leaning over the fence, taking in its lines, and hoping that the owner would come out and start the thing. This never happened during the decade or so that the SM stood there, taunting me. I read everything that I could find about the SM in CAR Magazine, and of course, that's how I first got wind of its great ancestor, the DS.
Imagine strolling through the halls of the Paris Motor Show in 1955, filled with boxy cars with upright radiator grilles, and then stumbling across this vision of the future. It featured front-wheel drive, an aero-optimised body that was the work of a sculptor (Flaminio Bertoni) and an aeronautical engineer (André Lefèbvre), an engine that would slide underneath the car in the event of a crash, disc brakes all-round and, of course, that suspension system. Suddenly every other car at the show looked ancient. Predictably, everyone from French President Charles de Gaulle to Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin had to have a DS.
The more I read about the car, the more I became fascinated. It featured, at launch, a semi-automatic transmission and a mixed-material construction that included a fibreglass roof and aluminium bonnet, at the time the largest pressing of its type in the automotive industry.
Structuralist philosopher Roland Barthes said it looked like it had "fallen from the sky". It became a symbol of France, so much so that it played a big role in me taking up three years of French lessons at University.
And so I decided, at the tender age of around 15, that I would have to have a DS, one day. That said, I had always been nervous about the possibility. You know what they say about meeting one's heroes... During the early part of the new millennium, when I started my career at CAR magazine, I often spotted DSs going for a song. But contemporary buying advice always included numerous red flags, particularly about the reliability of that complicated suspension system, and of rust in the car's "skeleton".
You see, although the DS won critical acclaim from the world's motoring media, and was even voted the most beautiful car of all time by Classic & Sports Car magazine, values remained low. They stayed low mostly because the DS was commercially a massive success, with more than 1.4 million sold worldwide. It was even manufactured in South Africa, from 1959 to 1975.
What happened once the car was succeeded by the CX is perhaps predictable. With values falling, many ended up with owners who could not afford to look after them with the necessary care, and so the DS population has shrunk considerably in the past 3 decades. Finding a DS in excellent condition is easier said than done, and to this day, I have not seen another round-light DS on the road, other than the one that's currently in my care.
Three years or so ago, the opportunity presented itself to finally get the keys to a DS myself. The car came with an impeccable history, a single mechanic (the legendary Kurt Wittig) all its life, and invoices dating back to the early '70s. That first drive left a lasting impression... of making the right decision. This was it.
I am spoilt with a choice of cars to drive on a daily basis, and these days the list even includes the SentiMETAL collection classics, but a drive in the DS remains a treat, an occasion. It is by no means a fast car (you need to maintain momentum), but it's so refined for its age, and so graceful. When I took it home for the first time, the neighbour's kids joined mine in jumping onto the ultra-soft back seat for a first drive.
"Why don't they make seats like this anymore?" came the first comment as we simply flattened a speed hump as if it wasn't there. Pulling up at a fuel station always leads to interesting questions. Many folks confuse the round-light DS for a Porsche.
This DS lives in the Cars.co.za offices in Cape Town. It stands parked about 2 metres from my desk, and so when I need inspiration, I just need to look up. It has never failed me in three years of custodianship. Every drive has been one to savour. And you know what, for once I seem to be on the right side of the appreciation curve. DS values are climbing as good-quality cars become rarer. Not that the latter point matters much. This Goddess is not for sale. Jamais!
Joyeux anniversaire DS!