Green goddess: driving the original Citroen DS

13 June 2015

Citroen ID 19 front view

I’ve always wanted to drive a Citroen DS and I suppose, technically, I still haven’t. The car pictured is a 1961 Citroen ID, a cut-price not-quite-DS produced to compete with the boxy Peugeots and Renaults of the era. And this one was built in Slough rather than France. But never mind the details, the unmistakeable shape is pure DS.

Undoubtedly one of the most aerodynamic cars of its era (and for quite a while afterwards) the DS looked like nothing else on the road. Its wraparound screens front and rear, smoothly curvaceous panels, flat underside, fared-in rear wheels, teardrop shape and narrowed rear axle helped it to cleave cleanly through the air, while weight-saving features like a plastic roof kept unnecessary mass to a minimum.

These futuristic measures also allowed the slippery Citroen to get away with a much less advanced powerplant than you might suppose from the outside. The 1.9-litre four-cylinder petrol engine offered was unimpressive even in its day, the version fitted to the ID producing just 66bhp. But that was enough to haul the spacious saloon to 84mph.

Today, the Citroen feels like a rolling contradiction. Overall it looks much too modern to have arrived in the 1950s – more like the 1970s – but the details do remind you of its true vintage. The door handle, for example, is a chunk of chromed metal that must weigh at least a kilo and feels strong enough to hoist the entire car. Nothing made in more modern times feels remotely as sturdy.

Citroen ID 19 interior

The handle seems a good place to start, so I prod its big release button with my thumb. The frameless door swings easily and I climb aboard across the wide carpeted girder of the sill, sinking into a big soft leather armchair.

I’m greeted by a musty smell and a flat plank of dashboard. The steering wheel is truly enormous, easily big enough to steer an ocean liner. Its rim feels as slim as a cigarette and is wrapped in cream-coloured plastic strapping. There’s just the one spoke, pointing off at a jaunty angle towards my right hip when the wheel points dead ahead.

The indicators are controlled by a floppy switch sprouting from the centre of the dash, the handbrake resembles a slim umbrella stowed beside my right knee, and I’ve absolutely no idea where the horn might be. I’m similarly clueless about all the knobs and buttons that march in a row across the width of the car, stretching as far as the passenger-side radio without a single legible label. There’s presumably a choke and wiper controls among them, but which is which I’m unsure. Best leave well alone.

Happily the warm engine thrums into busy life with the first turn of the key. The gearstick pokes out sideways from the column shroud and employs an unconventional H-pattern. It’s towards me and down for first, up for second, a middle slot for third and fourth, or push upwards towards the plank for reverse. The slim wand of a stick, topped with a rattly white plastic ball, thwacks against the column’s shroud during upshifts. Screws have been loosened to let the black plastic lift up a bit for 2nd, 4th and reverse.

As part of its cut-price descent from the DS, the ID had to make do with a manual gearbox with a clutch where its more upmarket sister had a clutchless, hydraulically controlled semi-automatic.

Citroen ID 19 dashboard

Throttle response is as leisurely as you’d expect of a 55-year-old car. Happily, the brakes feel much more sharp and modern. The DS was the first mass-produced car to feature disc brakes, hydraulically assisted and mounted on the axles inboard from the wheels. There’s very little pedal travel and enough stopping power to shame many cars half the age of a DS.

I swing into a tight corner – arms flailing frantically at the slow-witted wheel – and the car sways and leans like a yacht in a gale. It’s almost but not quite as unnerving in a corner as a 2CV, a palpably lighter and more upright car that can often seem in danger of scraping its door handles. With tyres that look almost as skinny as a 2CV’s, the much heavier DS manages to cling onto corners just as tenaciously as any tin snail.

When this particular car left the factory it had unassisted steering, hence the enormous helm, but during a 2009 rebuild it acquired period DS power steering.

Vision from the driver’s seat is superb, with slim pillars and a low waistline combining to give a panoramic view. The curved rear-view mirror, mounted low atop the dashboard, is another matter however. It’s handy mostly for reminding you why other rear-view mirrors aren’t anything like it.

Over lumpy surfaces the Citroen shows off its pièce de résistance – hydro-pneumatic suspension that whips away lumps and bumps like a smart waiter vanishing crumbs from a linen tablecloth. Combined with the springy seats, there’s no danger of any shake or rattle with your roll.

All too soon my short test drive in the ID 19 is over. It’s an experience to remember – and as a bonus, I can remind myself I haven’t yet driven an actual Citroen DS. That’s something I still have to look forward to.

Citroen ID 19 rear view

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