Our Cars: Life with a 1967 Citroën DS19

Two years into ownership of a Goddess, we're still starstruck. But what's it like to live with one of these complex beauties? Is it as costly and frustrating as it's made out to be?

My love for Citroën's DS is well documented. I would say that my curiosity in the French icon was first awakened by a car that followed after the DS... the almost-equally mesmerising SM. This was because our neighbour in Moorreesburg used to have one, parked within eyesight from where I was supposed to be working in the garden on weekends. It was a terrible, beautiful distraction.

Citroen DS19 Rooi Els

The DS is an excellent cruiser, with its aerodynamic shape and 5th gear giving it surprisingly long legs.

But it's the story of the car's technological prowess that made me a fan, especially when viewed within the context of its arrival in 1955. Walking through the Gauloises smoke-filled halls of the Paris Motor Show that year, past cars that seemed pretty ordinary with their upright grilles and conservative lines, the sight of the majestic DS must have been quite something - certainly enough to make you choke on your croissant.

But it wasn't just Flaminio Bertoni's sculptural, aerodynamic and futuristic design, it was what was underneath that left a lasting impression on young Hannes, even in the mid-80s. A revolutionary hydraulics system powered everything from the self-levelling suspension to the power steering and the semi-automatic transmission. It was the first mass-produced car to feature disc brakes and, in a crash, the engine was designed to slide in underneath the passenger compartment - the latter safety feature was still used by German brands in advertisements in the early 2000s!

Citroen DS19

Red leather interior was added by a more flamboyant previous owner during the car's restoration.

The DS had a long, successful production life, spanning from 1955 to 1975, winning hearts and Monte Carlo rallies (2 wins) along the way. "Aha!"... I hear you say, "it was the less complicated ID that won the rallies, not the DS". And, you'd be right.

The DS is a marvellous piece of engineering, perhaps one of the greatest cars ever made (in my view), as well as according to a panel of the world's motoring experts that gave it third place in the Car of the Century poll in 1999. But it's very complex, and because so many were made, they weren't always cherished and maintained in the way they deserved. And so, particularly as these cars started ageing from the '80s and on, it acquired a reputation for being a money-pit - a classic for the naive and/or foolish.

And yet, all of that didn't stop us from buying one 2 years ago. 

Citroen DS

The DS's still-outlandish design means I'm often approached for matric-farewells and other such events where making an entrance is required.

"Our" DS is a 1967 DS19, but all is not as it seems. Built and sold in South Africa from 1959 to 1975, this car was one of the last with the single-light front-end, before the DS received the big facelift and those turning headlights that further cemented its fame. Quite often I'm told by people admiring the car, that they have never seen a single-light DS in South Africa. There must be few left... because neither have I, although I do know there are some. Another interesting observation is that many people ask me whether it's a Porsche...

Postcard pretty - the DS on Chapman's Peak Drive with Hout Bay's Sentinel in the background.

The DS certainly doesn't perform like a Porsche... This particular car has the larger 1985cc engine, and it also has a 5-speed manual transmission. The engine is willing and surprisingly refined but the DS is more of a "momentum" car than a sprinter. Once up to speed it's very comfortable staying there and the brakes are excellent for a car of this vintage. 

Originally red, and with a white roof, a previous owner decided to give it this dove grey exterior/red leather interior change when it underwent a restoration about a decade ago.

Citroen DS19

Single headlight DSs are rare in South Africa.

When I first heard of the car, and saw images, the allure was immediate and strong, but so was the fear that I would be embarking on an adventure that would end in financial ruin. But the car came highly recommended by other DS owners, and after one test drive, I decided to throw caution to the wind. C'est la vie!

When I first arrived home in it, my elderly neighbour strolled over and asked to sit in it. Then he looked very sad. "I had one of these," he said softly. "Best car I've ever had." He did exactly the same thing the second time I brought it home...

Our DS is a near-permanent fixture of the Cars.co.za Cape Town office, and is usually the first topic of conversation for first-time visitors.

Another neighbour's kids jumped over the fence to come have a look. I took them and my own for a quick drive. I watched their reaction as we hit one of the many speed bumps in the area, and the DS just glided over it. "Why did they change the seats!" said one, implying that the DS's soft seats must be the reason for its comfort, and that they're better than those fitted to modern cars. They marvelled at the ride, the excellent view and the funny-looking brake pedal. They loved it, immediately.

So we were off to a good start, my Goddess and I. But in the back of my mind I couldn't help but wonder how long it would last. When time came for the car's annual service, I must've looked like someone who had been summoned to see the headmaster when I walked up to greet Kurt Wittig, the car's mechanic since new.

One life-time mechanic

kurt wittig

This DS has had the same mechanic all its life - the legendary Kurt Wittig.

Yes, you read that right. This car has had the same mechanic all its life and I've got the receipts to prove it. Wittig, originally a precision toolmaker from Germany, is legendary in Citroën circles, getting on in years, but still limber enough to crawl around under Goddesses. What parts can't be found, he makes himself. He has the kind of expertise and knowledge that is fast dying out - I can but hope that the knowledge is being transferred to someone!

When he handed me the receipt I initially though he had made a mistake. The service cost about the same as it would for a modern small hatchback. In the early weeks and months of ownership I often phoned Kurt in somewhat of a panic, only to be told that, "that's normal".

Cruising along on another SentiMETAL OutRun. Our DS loves the open road.

Then, one, day, it wasn't normal, and I experienced a development where even Kurt raised the threat level to DEFCON 1. The DS's steering developed a shudder, and it didn't lift fully at the front. Nevertheless, she drove all the way to Somerset-West where Kurt took all of 10 metres behind the wheel to identify the problem, following it up with scolding me for not driving the car enough.

The front spheres had gone (R1 300 for the pair) and the car also needed a new battery (direct result of not being driven enough - also R1 300). In total, getting the old girl back to tip-top shape cost a not-insignificant R6 385, of which R3 385 was for parts and the rest for Kurt's expert work. 

Original sales brochure and all the slips... Provenance is important when buying a DS.

The above appears to validate fears that the DS is a costly car to maintain, but if you contextualise it with the reasonable regular servicing cost and that, besides the major incident described, the only other things that have gone wrong were blown rear indicator and brake lights, DS ownership seems far less scary. In fact, despite prolonged periods of standing still due to my schedule, she fires up on the third try like clockwork. 

But I guess that's the thing... I've got a good one. Perhaps I spent a bit more acquiring it than most people think a DS is (was) worth, but I'm happy to say it's been worth every cent and that the Goddess continues to live up to my heady expectations. I should also point out that the DS finally seems to betting greater traction in the classic car collector world, too. Values have been rising steadily... and recently Citroën was the featured marque (for the first time) at the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance. 

1967 citroen ds19

Designer Flaminio Bertoni was an Italian sculptor... no surprise there when looking at the DS! 

So, in summary, I guess my advice to would-be DS owners would be this; buy a good one... the best you can afford. And make sure you know a Kurt Wittig. Your Kurt (hopefully for your sake the same Kurt Wittig as mine), should check the car out before you buy, and continue to maintain it regularly.

It's all worth it, though, because after two years of driving pleasure my belief that this is one of the greatest cars of all time has only grown stronger. And the memories we've already made behind the wheel are priceless, anyway.

PS. And no... she is not for sale!

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