Introduction to the 1955-1975 Citroen DS and ID

The first Citroen DS19 production convertibles were built by Henri Chapron's coachbuilding firm in the late 1960. See more classic car pictures.
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The Paris and U.S. introduction to the 1955-1975 Citroen DS and ID caused quite a stir. The following pages profile these two Citroen models over a twenty-year period.

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When the DS-Series bowed at Paris in 1955, it caused a sensation. It was aerodynamic -- some said strange-looking -- and boasted the "Citro-Matic" oleopneumatic hydraulic system for suspension, steering, brakes, clutch, and gearchange.

Citroen's D-Series bowed at the Paris Salon in October 1955, and promptly caused a sensation. Even now it would be difficult to imagine a new model that could provoke as much comment on its public unveiling.

Here in one car were more technical surprises than anything since the late, controversial Tucker -- and as much hype, too. It was almost something from another world, as if alien designers had looked at Earth's motor cars, found them wanting, and decided to demonstrate their ideas of what a truly modem automobile should be.

The D-Series made its U.S. debut the following spring at the International Automobile Show in the New York Coliseum, creating much the same excited reaction. A press release proclaimed it "the dream car of tomorrow, on the road today," and it was promoted to Americans as the first "American-type automatic car to be produced in Europe."

Despite the technical advances, it was the functional styling and unusual proportions that initially grabbed everyone's attention. Car Life's Jim Whipple called the D-Series "ten years ahead of its time," commenting that it possessed "a marked resemblance to the sketches of dream cars." From Auto Age's vantage point, however, the new Citroen was "Studebaker-ish in appearance." For many others, it was simply a love-it or hate-it design.

Robert Opron, chief of the Citroen styling bureau, created five renderings (one seen here) for an evolutionary redesign of the D-Series.
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No matter. For the next two decades, the family-size Citroen remained arguably the most technically advanced car in this world. It boasted more innovation, more technical wizardry, and more sheer complexity than any previous family car -- which meant that, as with the styling, it not only built up a big following, but attracted a fair bit of criticism. If fans loved the D for its sophistication, detractors chided it for exactly the same reason.

The big Citroen DS19 was nicknamed "The Goddess." Continue on to the next page to learn why.

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The Citroen 'Goddess'

The DS19 production cars rolled on Michelin X radial tires -- whitewalls were only used for the auto show models.
The DS19 production cars rolled on Michelin X radial tires -- whitewalls were only used for the auto show models.
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The big Citroen (the Citroen "Goddess") was introduced as the DS19, the initials denoting Desiree Speciale, the numerals a 1.9-liter engine. But it acquired a nickname very soon after launch: "Goddess."

The reason, quite logically, is that the French pronounce "DS" as day-ess, which means goddess. In any case, it was an appropriate title for a car that many considered breathtakingly beautiful and, yes, even worthy of worship.

If that, too, sounds like hype, remember that the D-Series was far ahead of its time both technically and stylistically. Like the aborted Tucker, it bristled with features that wouldn't be copied for many years, and some that have yet to be copied at all. Like the car it replaced, the equally pioneering Traction Avant, it testified to the bravery of Citroen's designers, who were looking not two but 20 years into the future.

The Traction Avant bowed in 1934 and was the first Citroen with front-wheel drive.
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The Traction Avant's 1934 debut had changed Citroen's image virtually overnight from a builder of mundane machinery to a company at the very forefront of automotive technology. It was the world's first volume-produced car to employ unitized or monocoque construction (abetted by the work of America's Edward Budd), and the first Citroen with front-wheel drive. That was the upside. The downside was that the Traction's heavy development costs virtually bankrupted Andre Citroen before any profits could roll in. The story might have ended right there had the Michelin tire interests not come to the rescue. As it was, Andre Citroen died soon afterward -- some say of a broken heart.

More than two decades later, the firm finally got around to replacing the faithful Traction (which even then had become one of Hollywood's favorite "French connection" icons). Having built that front-drive line for so long, Citroen kept its mechanical layout for the D-Series, including the constant-mesh, four-speed gearbox and a primary drive-shaft run over the differential. Also retained was a basic overhead-valve, inline four-cylinder engine. Otherwise, the D owed nothing to any previous Citroen -- or anything else.

Indeed, many observers complained that the DS19 (also referred to in Citroen literature as DS-19 or DS 19) was different purely for the sake of being different -- unnecessarily complicated, with far too many advanced features that simply weren't needed on what was, after all, a family car. Citroen might have listened to such criticism, but rarely acted to simplify the basic design.

All DS19s had chrome rims and big hubcaps, like this 1956 model.
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In fact, by the time production ended -- at no fewer than 1,456,115 units -- the Goddess was even more complex, having acquired electronic fuel injection, five-speed and automatic transmission options, and -- shades of Tucker -- headlamps that turned with the front wheels (via a connection to the steering rack), not to mention convertibles and "Safari" wagons.

The development of the 1955 D-Series actually began two decades earlier. The next page explains more about the development and features of the 1955 D-Series.

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Development of the 1955 D-Series

The Citroen DS23 Prestige was even more luxurious than the Pallas.
The Citroen DS23 Prestige was even more luxurious than the Pallas.
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The development of the 1955 D-Series had actually begun in the late 1930s, when Pierre Boulanger, then Citroen's patron, approved work on a Traction replacement. Because of the war, however, prototypes weren't built until the late 1940s.

One early proposal called for a 4.5-liter engine, very large by European standards, though that was later reduced to a 3.5. Predicting the Tucker -- not to mention the later Chevrolet Corvair and Porsche 911 -- an air-cooled flat-six was also tried.

In the end, though, engineers settled for a reworked version of their existing "stroker" four (78 x 100 mm), applying a new aluminum head with higher compression and valves inclined at 60 degrees above hemispherical combustion chambers. The result was a modest 75 horsepower from 1,911 cubic centimeters, a mere 116.6 cubic inches.

The D-Series' most notable engineering achievement was unquestionably the central high-pressure hydraulic system controlling suspension, steering, brakes, clutch, and (except on the downmarket ID models) the gearchange, too.

It was quite literally the car's heart and life-blood. A broken hydraulic pump or a leak in one of the system's many lines could render a D-Series as dead as if it had suffered a coronary. At least the car warned you of possible cardiac arrest via a big red "master alert" light on the instrument board.

The suspension was especially intriguing. Introduced on late Tractions starting in 1954, it was a long-travel, all-independent setup that replaced conventional shock absorbers and steel springs with hydropneumatic spheres that interconnected front to rear on each side (much like Packard's new 1955 "Torsion Level Ride").

Actually, this "Citro-Matic" system was oleopneumatic in that each sphere contained pressurized nitrogen gas above a supply of synthetic vegetable oil (later changed to mineral oil), separated by a flexible diaphragm.

The DS23 Prestige had leather upholstery and elegant wood trim. Note the fold-down table and telephone.
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A piston in the bottom half linked each sphere to its wheel; piston movement was dictated by pressure within the sphere. A pump driven by belt from the crankshaft pressurized the gas and fed fluid to the spheres as needed. Valves and sensors regulated fluid flow in response to "height corrector" valves, operated by a rod from the center of the front and rear anti-roll bars, to maintain ride height, which could also be altered manually by an interior lever.

As mentioned, the central hydraulics also powered the steering, which normally required very little effort but became impossibly heavy if the engine wasn't running or system fluid was low.

The same applied to the hydraulic brakes, which comprised inboard-mounted discs at the front and conventional twin-shoe drums at the rear. Instead of a normal pedal, however, brake actuation was by a near-zero-movement button mounted right on the floor, which with the low effort made for a good many accidental "panic" stops until the driver got used to the feel of it.

Quirkiest of all was the column-mounted fingertip shift mechanism, which gave the four-speed unit quite leisurely changes because the hydraulics were slow to respond to lever movement.

However, there was no clutch pedal because the clutch engaged and disengaged automatically depending on throttle position, which was driven hydraulically by a low-pressure pump in the water pump.

Due to its powered suspension, the 1955 D-Series offered one smooth ride. Read on to learn more about this car's suspension system.

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The 1955 D-Series--One Smooth Ride

The DS19 combined the performance of a sports car with the luxury of a limousine.
The DS19 combined the performance of a sports car with the luxury of a limousine.
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In some ways, the "powered suspension" made the 1955 D-Series act more like a large contemporary American car than a typical European machine, for the ride was very soft, almost lazy. On the other hand, grip was tenacious at the very least, so despite its size, a D could hustle along at the most amazing speeds.

Though it displayed a considerable amount of body roll in the process, the DS19 lived up to its maker's claim of "combining the performance of the sports car with the luxury of the limousine." Road & Track backed that up, stating that "On every kind of surface traversable by four wheels, it absorbs shock and maintains stability to a degree never achieved before."

The Pallas' dashboard had large round gauges and a single-spoke steering wheel.
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Because hydraulic pressure gradually eased when the engine was switched off, a D would slowly settle on its "haunches" when parked, a trait sometimes likened to a camel bedding down for the night.

Come morning, it would be almost belly-to-the-ground, but would naturally come to life again when fired up, the front and then the rear rising gracefully several inches to a predetermined height, normally about six inches ground clearance.

You might guess that this facility would be useful for tire-changing, and so it was. In fact, you almost had to use it for the near fully covered rear wheels. The process was simple enough: Lift the car to full height via the manual lever (to 11 1/2 inches ground clearance), place the jack where appropriate, then lower the car onto it -- all very neat and efficient. By the way, D-Series wheel hubs were splined, so only a single lug nut was needed to secure each rim.

Theoretically, the front-to-rear interconnection of the suspension units gave a truly supple, "magic carpet" ride on all surfaces. And Motor Trend concurred, saying that the D-Series provided "one of the most amazingly comfortable rides on the road."

The 1970 DS21 Pallas had a roomy interior with luxurious beige cloth.
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The reason was that the D was clearly designed for the mixed-quality French roads of the period, making it a long-legged machine that seemed to thrive on great journeys, even over severe potholes.

But though this chassis worked very well most of the time, there were situations -- humpbacks taken at high speed were the most notorious -- where the rear end would bottom out with an enormous crash as weight "unloaded" and temporarily deprived the spheres of pressure.

Continue on to the next page to see photos and learn more about the features of the 1955-1975 Citroen D-Series.

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Features of the 1955-1975 D-Series

The 1965 Citroen DS21 featured taillights in the bumper and high-mounted lights and reflectors that rode outboard of the upper part of the bumper.
The 1965 Citroen DS21 featured taillights in the bumper and high-mounted lights and reflectors that rode outboard of the upper part of the bumper.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

Appearance was a triumph of practical function, though as with other features of the 1955-1975 D-Series, opinions were sharply divided about it. Yet at a time when most cars, American and European, were still looking rather dumpy, with craggy profiles and lots of fussy details, the DS19 was a miracle of smooth, sweeping lines.

Do note that the shape, with its severe rearward taper when seen from above (the rear track was nearly eight inches narrower than the front), was owed to Citroen's own Faliminio Bertoni; contrary to most published reports over the years, there was absolutely no involvement by the famous Bertone coachworks of Italy.

At 123 inches, the D-Series wheelbase was very long by European standards, and in fact it was the same as the 1955 Lincoln (though overall length was 26.6 inches shorter due to far less overhang).

This allowed Citroen to achieve both a spacious five-seater cabin and excellent aerodynamics. The DS had what was dubbed a "shark-nose," with an engine air intake tucked beneath the bumper and just a narrow slit above the bumper.

Throughout its life, the big Citroen was virtually bereft of decoration on its smooth flanks, and the short tail -- which nonetheless allowed for a 17.5 cubic-foot trunk -- was as carefully profiled as the nose. We won't get into drag coefficients, which mean different things to different people, but the D-Series was a better wind-cheater than any car in the world when it appeared, and was still among the very best when discontinued in 1975.

There was innovation under the skin, too, for this was the first car to use what is now known as "base unit" construction. Also known as a "birdcage" or "space frame," this involved a monococque skeleton onto which all body panels were bolted. This meant that a D could be driven in its "naked" state, completely functional save for a lack of lights.

Though more expensive than welded-on panels, the skeletal construction made the car easier to build and somewhat simpler to repair. Rover's mostly aluminum-paneled P6 used something similar in the 1960s and 1970s, as did Pontiac's plastic-skinned, two-seat Fiero of the 1980s.

A concern for safety was also evident, as Citroen pointed out by touting the early D-Series as "the safest car in the world." As an example, the D's unique single steering-wheel spoke was actually the top of the steering column, bent in such a way as to minimize chest injury in a crash.

With the under-bumper air intake, the spare tire could live ahead of the radiator without blocking engine air-flow, thus serving as a kind of "safety bumper" years before the U.S. government thought of such things.

This silver DS21 marked the September 1964 arrival of the new DS Pallas, which was notable for its luxury fittings.
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Likewise, auxiliary taillights rode at the upper corners of the rear window for ready viewing by following drivers, an early forecast of America's now-required high-mount center stoplamp.

Other body innovations included frameless side glass, a removable rear window, and a tall wraparound windshield for exceptional visibility. And there were even embryonic "child safety" door locks -- little tabs that prevented opening any door from inside or outside, even with the key.

A companion sedan to the "Goddess," the 1956 Citroen ID, arrived in late 1956 (1957 in the U.S.). Continue on to the next page to learn more about this car.

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Arrival of the 1956 Citroen ID

The ID19 Station Wagon was introduced in October 1958, and was often called Safari.
The ID19 Station Wagon was introduced in October 1958, and was often called Safari.
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Citroen wasted no time in introducing Goddess variations. A companion sedan, the 1956 Citroen ID, or the ID19, arrived in late 1956 (1957 in the U.S.) to replace the Traction, which went out of production entirely the next year.

At $2,595, the ID -- Idee Depouille, or "idea despoiled" -- cost $900 less than a DS because it lacked the hydraulic gearchange and standard power steering, and was somewhat less luxurious. Still, that was about the price of a Pontiac Star Chief sedan.

In 1957 came DS and ID station wagons in Familiale, Commerciale, and even ambulance versions. All were called "Safari" -- with no apologies to Pontiac's sporty wagon -- as Citroen was then coming to dominate the East African Safari rally.

In 1961, noted Parisian coachbuilder Henri Chapron began selling custom-crafted D-Series convertibles (which sold for about $5,600 in the U.S., $100 more than a Cadillac Sixty-Two ragtop).

The D quickly established itself as not only Citroen's flagship, but France's most prestigious car. In spite of its daunting complexity (novice mechanics were advised to take a tranquilizer before lifting the hood for the first time), it settled down to be a reliable, likable, and above all a successful machine.

This 1958 ID Deluxe, or Luxe, featured bucket seats, a 66-horsepower DS engine, little hubcaps, and painted headlight rims.
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In its early years, however, the D looked much faster than it was, for the old-style four-cylinder engines were never very powerful, and driving the high-pressure hydraulics only sapped their strength even more. The inaugural DS19 had a top speed of just 87 mph and took all of 22 seconds to reach 60 mph from rest.

Britain's The Autocar magazine, which was not then known for being rude about any car, stated that "the method of gear change and its use does not appear to justify the added complication." Surprisingly, the entry-level ID19, with a mere 66 horsepower at first, was no slower, for which its conventional four-on-the-column gearchange can surely take credit.

But customers seemed happy to put up with such lethargy. No matter how underpowered they thought the engines might be, they were delighted with the big Cit's distinctive appearance, amazing ride and handling, its spaciousness, high seat comfort, and -- despite a well-known tendency to easy, early rusting -- the car's sheer class.

Moreover, what the D lacked in acceleration was more than made up for in stamina, and the car distinguished itself in competition right away. A DS19 won its class in the 1956 Monte Carlo Rally, and an ID won outright in 1959, when 12 other cars finished the grueling event to give Citroen the Manufacturer's Cup.

Many other victories followed, including an overall first in the Liege-Sofia-Liege "Marathon de la Route" rally in 1961. The 3,400-mile loop included 90 hours of uninterrupted flat-out driving, and of 85 cars entered, only eight survived -- three of them Citroens, including the winner.

Citroen followed up by capturing this event again in 1962. That same year, Pauli Toivonen was proclaimed the Scandinavian rally champion because of his numerous victories in a DS19, and the following year the DS was the outright winner in Finland's Snow Rally.

A DS21 competes in a rally, a form of racing in which the DS established an excellent rally.
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Many changes to the 1965-1975 Citroen DS and ID took place in order for the cars to compete in the marketplace. Continue on to the next page to learn more about these changes.

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Changes for the 1965-1975 Citroen DS and ID

Although the DS would be produced into 1975, 1972 was its last year in the U.S.
Although the DS would be produced into 1975, 1972 was its last year in the U.S.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

Changes for the 1965-1975 Citroen DS and ID were ongoing -- a necessity in order for the models to compete in the highly competitive automobile market.

The Goddess remained her idiosyncratic self for a decade before seeing significant changes. The first occurred in October 1965, when the old long-stroke engines were swept away in favor of more potent new short-stroke designs with sturdy five-main-bearing crank-shafts.

A 1985-cc unit with an initial 78 horsepower was installed in renamed ID20 models; a bigger-bore 2,175 with an even 100 horsepower went into newly titled DS21s, which could reach upward of 107 mph and accelerate from 0-60 in about 12.5 seconds.

Appearing at the Paris Salon in early 1967 were facelifted models bearing a reshaped nose with four glass-covered headlamps (still circular), which steered with the front wheels on upmarket versions. Alas, U.S. regulations prohibited both the covers and the swiveling feature, so all models for that market wore fixed, unadorned sealed-beam lamps.

By 1969, the ID20 had spawned D Special and nicer D Super replacements, and fuel injection was optionally available on the DS21, which could be had in super-deluxe Pallas form. (Earlier trim levels were variously called Luxe, Confort, Super, Aero Super, and Grand Route.)

The following year brought a five-speed gearbox (developed with an eye to the forthcoming Maserati V-6-powered SM coupe), as well as a three-speed automatic transmission option (called "Citromatic" in the U.S.), which was not easy to package on this front-drive car.

Along the way, the dashboard lost its original oh-so 1950s look for a more modern -- if still unorthodox -- arrangement dominated by three round dials. The final development arrived in 1972 as the DS23, with an even bigger-bore engine of 2,347 cc and 115 horsepower in basic carbureted form.

Citromatic-Drive (three-speed automatic shift) was standard on the DS21 Pallas sedan.
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With the five-speed and fuel injection, which upped horsepower to 130, the DS23 could reach nearly 120 mph and do 0-60 in a sprightly 10.4 seconds, this according to Britain's Motor in 1973.

So at last, the Goddess was as fast as she had always looked, but unfortunately the DS23 was not imported into the U.S. With impending emissions and safety regulations -- particularly the 5-mph crash bumpers required for 1973 -- Citroen withdrew the D-Series from the U.S. market after 1972.

The 1972 DS21 Pallas featured 117 horsepower. Note the location of the spare tire.
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This was hardly surprising, given that Citroen sales in the U.S. hadn't even averaged 2,000 units per year. For example, only 1,145 cars were sold in the States in 1958, just 2,364 in 1959 (and these figures included the two-cylinder 2CV).

In any case, the D-Series was long past its prime after nearly two decades, so it stepped aside in 1975 for the CX -- even smoother and faster, and even more complicated.

Still, it was a worthy successor to the D and lived nearly as long (all the way through 1989 and the debut of the current XM). Yet, it's the Goddess that most people still regard as the definitive big Citroen (along with the Traction). In their eyes, it remains a car whose genius will never be matched.

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