Words and photography Vijay Sankar (pink_helmet)

Arriving at the sprawling farm draped over the hilly landscape of Castro Valley, I was greeted by a sanctuary carefully preserving the cream of French automotive avant-garde. It was fitting that the entire locality felt detached from the modern world, seemingly living in its own dreamy bubble of rural France. Every element was mellow and dainty – the French cars in the barn, the farm animals, the roads meandering through it, and the people living there.

From the collection of esoteric sheet metal housed at the farm, we picked out the two most era-defining examples to spotlight for this story – the Citroën Ami 6 and the ID19, harking back to the 50s and 60s. Speaking of the farm, the Ami 6 is based on the eminent 2CV platform, which had a very fabled design brief – be able to carry a basket of eggs across a ploughed field without making a mess inside. The engineers just went to work and… accomplished it. While also managing 80 miles to the gallon!

Cars from Space!

When Citroën pulled the covers off the DS at the 1955 Paris Auto Show, the world saw what appeared to be a whole new genre of car that came through a time portal from the future. It still takes your breath away, the DS, with its unification of classical beauty and a low-drag profile. It simultaneously manages to appear elegant and understated, futuristic and yet simple. No matter how hard you try, it’s nigh on impossible to be critical of the shortcomings of these cars’ inner workings. They are endlessly fascinating, their engineers looked fearlessly into future, and implemented wizardry 50 years ahead of time.

To pick on their reliability quirks is missing the pointing completely, because the engineering, styling, safety and innovation are the stars of the show in these cars.

Lifting up a Nation’s Spirits

The Citroën 2CV can be held in the same light as the VW Beetle, the original Mini or even the Ford Model T, given the magnitude of its positive impact on a nation. It was simple, rugged and effective. In contrast to the VW, Mini and the Ford, the 2CV is still one of the best riding cars ever made, perhaps attesting to the French attitude that if something is too unpleasant, might as well not bother with it.

It takes an enormous amount of optimism and motivation to lift the spirits of an entire nation after the throes of a World War. Citroën did just that with their trailblazing innovation in the DS. The general public was left starry-eyed in front of the futuristic spaceship conjured up by their compatriots, and embraced them with both arms – the DS raked in 80,000 pre-orders at the Paris Auto Show reveal, a record that stood unbroken until the Internet-era reveal of the Tesla Model 3.

Suspension of Disbelief

The famous party trick of the Citroën DS is the self-leveling suspension that achieves the best of all worlds to an extent that has never since been replicated. The established knowledge in the field stated that a supple ride quality cannot go hand in hand with good handling. The inventor of Citroën’s new-fangled suspension, Paul Magès, begged to differ. Interestingly, he may never have solved this conundrum, had he received better technical training.

Magès kept a copy of this famous quote on his desk, “Everyone thought it was impossible, except an idiot who did not know, and who created it.”

The hydro-pneumatic suspension in the DS combined an easily compressible gas in a cavity with the non-compressible, force-multiplication properties of hydraulic machinery. Oil and air, instead of conventional springs and dampers. It was able to achieve the ‘magic carpet’ feel, while also keeping the car stable under cornering, staying totally level. A pump was capable of raising or lowering the ride height of the car at the flip of a switch. The same central hydraulic system could control the power steering, brakes and transmission. One might say Citroën put all their eggs in one basket when it comes to reliability.

This system was so capable that it allowed you to drive the DS on three wheels – something that came in handy for French President Charles De Gaulle to escape an assassination attempt wherein two of his DS’s tires were blown up, but he was still able to drive away to safety. A marketing gem for the ages.

The cheaper 2CV and the Ami 6 had been equipped with much simpler mechanical systems. During cornering, the effective wheelbase of the car gets lengthened on one end, forcing the car into ground for better stability while still offering the pillowy ride.

Eggs – safe. Wine – still in the glass. Passengers – happy.

Driving Impressions: Not Just Skin Deep

Inside the cars, the aura is airy, delicate and calm, with artistic details noticeable everywhere down to the AC vent lever. Both cars have their roof held up by tiny pillars, and a wraparound windscreen that give beautiful all-round visibility. Even the font on the speedometer looks squiggly – the French cannot help it, can they?

The seats are essentially lounge chairs laid across the cabin. You think the car is too small because it appears packed with seat cushioning, but when you sit down in it, you sink in deep and are absorbed by comfort. The control efforts are light. The car floats so smoothly over imperfections of the pavement, it’s uncanny. This is perhaps the only car that truly deserves the claim ‘magic carpet ride’.

The shift pattern is strange, but easy to get used to, the gear lever in the Ami sticks out of the dash like an umbrella handle. The engine in either car is merely functional – nothing to boast about, they get the job done. You can have your foot to the floor through the corners, and rest assured that the car will go around without much drama. It’s pretty much impossible to roll an Ami. With two people on board, it floats along with ease, feeling lightweight but not insecure. Four passengers will perhaps pose a challenge to the Ami going uphill due to its modest power output. The soft suspension and its compliance over rough surfaces made the DS a wonderful choice for rallying – it won the Monte Carlo Rally twice in 1959 and 1966. However, I never felt the need to drive the car to the ragged edge. I just wanted to find the prettiest route, and waft along, enjoying the scenery in exquisite comfort.

Shattering Every Existing Norm

A short read such as this cannot do justice to the ambitions exercised by the Citroën engineering team in period. Such technical bravado would hardly be permitted by the accountants of today, for good reason. Ironically, some of the most iconic products were passion projects undertaken in the absence of bean counters. They were mad scientists let loose at Citroën – the good kind. Some of the features they implemented are more cutting edge than cars of this day and age. The Traction Avant was the first front-wheel drive production car, the DS was the first to bring disc brakes, and movable headlights that swiveled with the steering, invented by Edmond Henri-Biabaud.

First to have radial tires, extensive crash safety in design – no one could compete, no one moved the needle further in one single leap as Citroën did. Arguably, not even the Tesla Model S made a splash as big as the DS. The budget friendly ID19 pictured in this story featured conventional brakes and steering, and was launched a year after the moonshot that was the DS.

Styling: Only the French Could

As a child, you are often fascinated by form factors of cars – it’s the first avenue of interest in cars for some of us growing up. The quintessential French characteristic exemplified by Citroën is visual oddity. French cars also tend to be soft-riding, with very cushy seats.

The DS was aptly named with a play on the French word déesse, meaning ‘Goddess’. It lives up to that name with futuristic teardrop proportions created by the coalescence of art and aerodynamics, and a greenhouse unlike anything else on the road in 1955, complete with art-deco like elements flanking the sides and the turn signal. It became even more beautiful with the covered headlights later on. The interior is a delightful space to spend time in, with every little detail touched by French quirkiness.

Although the Ami 6 was considered hideous by some in period, Flaminio Bertone’s bold penwork is now enjoying its time in the sun. The reverse rake to the C-pillar, and the pagoda-style roof improved cabin space at the expense of alien looks, which only the French would have dared to produce. Looking at the Ami 6 today is a throwback to mid-century modern architecture.

The Zeitgeist and The Philosophy

The Ami 6 and the ID19 collectively stand for the optimistic mindset of post-war France. The roads were ravaged by potholes after years of war waged upon them. But the Citroën engineers pushed through, giving us a perfect example of cars directly reflecting their place of origin. They envisioned an automobile that can do everything better than every other car. Not only did they dream of futuristic transportation, but they also had the vision and boldness to put them into production. Sure, it’s not for everyone to live with Citroën’s flaws in the modern day, but for those who value personality quirks, character and clarity of purpose, these cars are unmatched.

Road and Track magazine in 1956 said, “The DS-19 drives boldly off the beaten path – and never feels the bumps”. Some may have seen this car as a bag of gimmicks at the time, but every car being produced today owes its existence to the DS to some extent.  

The Greatest of All Time?

No matter what strata of the automotive universe interest you – styling, engineering, safety, motorsport, marketing – Citroën’s cars made landmark achievements in them. From the 1940s to the 70s, this group of mad scientists challenged the status quo more than anyone else since – they were so far ahead of their time that the sales of the DS peaked in 1970, fifteen years after it was launched.

Granted driving and owning these cars today is certainly a leap of faith – you need to know and learn what you’re getting into – their appeal is timeless. To me, every other car seems a little less interesting, having now experienced these monuments from France’s vision of the future.

Thanks to the Citroen Club of San Francisco and Ian Flanagan of Hagerty for making this story possible.

References: Sam Smith (Hagerty Media), Road and Track, Classic and Sportscar, JayEmm on Cars | YouTube, Big Car | YouTube, Classics World | YouTube, Motor Trend, Top Gear

One response to “Why Citroën was the Pioneering Misfit of the Car World”

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: