A Look Back at the Citroen DS: Arguably the Most Innovative Car Ever Built

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Shortly after its founder André Citroën passed away in 1935, the French company went bankrupt, but it was miraculously saved by the famed tire manufacturer Michelin who took full control of its operations. Citroën was quickly revived, mainly thanks to another pioneering car called Traction Avant, yet during the Second World War, it was reduced to producing military vehicles.

Despite this, the men behind the aforementioned model, Italian sculptor, and industrial designer Flaminio Bertoni, along with French aeronautical engineer André Lefèbvre were working in total secrecy to develop the most revolutionary cars ever built.

It took them no less than 18 years to complete the project and in 1955 the DS made its public debut at the Paris Motor Show. According to the carmaker, 743 orders were taken in the first 15 minutes and by the end of the day, that number rose to 12,000. It was an absolute record that stood for more than 60 years, and was only surpassed by Tesla when it introduced the Model 3.

People were in awe with its design, which looked nothing like the cars roaming the roads at the time, yet what really made them so eager to own one was the unprecedented number of pioneering features it boasted.

Let’s start with the suspension, easily its most famous innovation. Not only was it among the first fully independent suspension designs to be fitted to a mass-produced vehicle, but also introduced a new hydropneumatic system developed in-house by Paul Magès. Although a similar system was used on the rear of the Traction Avant, the version on the DS enabled automatic leveling and variable ground clearance on all four wheels.

This gave the car supreme handling and an unprecedented level of comfort which was essential on the poor, war-ravaged roads of the time. Even today, many experts consider it the best riding car the world has ever seen.

Apart from the suspension, the handling was improved by the low center of gravity that resulted from the low-slung body that featured a fiberglass roof. Furthermore, understeer was greatly reduced by using different front and rear track widths.

This marvelous Citroën was also among the first mass-produced cars to employ disc brakes and instead of a conventional brake pedal, it came with a rubber button. Yes, it was weird and needed a little time to get used to, but owners have reported that it eventually made driving easier and more comfortable. Furthermore, it came with power steering and a 3-speed semi-automatic gearbox that functioned as a conventional manual but didn’t require a clutch pedal to shift gears. Later models got a revised 4-speed version along with standard 4- and 5-speed manuals.

Another famous feature that was implemented on the 1967 Series 3 was the use of directional headlights. Behind each glass cover, the inboard high-beam lamp could swivel up to 80 degrees in sync with the steering, similar to the central headlight of the 1948 Tucker 48.

The DS should have been powered by a powerful yet fuel-efficient flat-six but due to government regulations in place at the time throughout Europe, a modest inline-four made it under the hood of the production model. It initially made a meager 75 hp, yet owners didn’t complain since virtually all of them purchased the car for the unparalleled ride quality it provided. Power was increased in future models to 83 hp, then 105 hp, and finally, a respectable 141 hp in 1973.

It was manufactured in 1,455,746 units from 1955 to 1975 and throughout its production run, the groundbreaking DS was available as a 5-door wagon and a 2-door convertible, in addition to the popular 4-door sedan. Most of them were sold in Europe but the French carmaker also brought the DS to North American shores where it was offered from 1956 to 1972. Although it came with a conventional brake pedal, the less-than-thrilling engine, quirky design, and a poor marketing campaign didn’t help it succeed.

Although 66 years have passed since it was introduced, the DS remains one of the most innovative cars ever created. It helped revitalize both Citroën and the French automotive industry after the Second World War and pioneered many features that are still in use today.

If you want to learn more about it, we recommend the 2015 episode of Jay Leno’s Garage that you can find below.