I had a rare treat recently. A friend of mine let me drive his beautifully restored 1967 Citroën.
Never seen one? Not surprising since not many were ever imported to the US. It's that funky looking car from the TV show The Mentalist. I think it looks like a UFO, but I've heard "upside-down bathtub" used as well.
Now I've driven French cars before. I've had plenty of Renaults and Peugeots as rentals over in France. I'd never so much as ridden in a Citroën, however, and certainly not one from the 1960s. When offered a chance to drive it I jumped at it. He got to drive my 1957 Desoto so it wasn't totally one-sided. I still think I got the better part of the deal.
The Citroën DS was introduced in 1955 and would have been one of the most technically advanced cars of its time. It boasted front wheel drive, fully independent suspension, front disk brakes and a 4-speed semi-automatic transmission. It had a fiberglass roof to reduce weight and lower the center of gravity.
The French call it the "Déesse" (goddess).
The most amazing piece of technology on this car is the hydropneumatic suspension. Instead of conventional springs each wheel is suspended by hydraulics. A lever inside the car allows the driver to adjust the ride height. The car can be raised to go over rough terrain or lowered until the frame rests on the ground.
It's a terribly complex system with over 350 feet of hydraulic lines. I'm told it was very expensive to restore and not many people know how to work on them.
Now my friend's car isn't a true DS. It's actually an ID19. The "Idée" (idea) was a lower cost version of the DS that lacked some of the complexity. Instead of the complicated semi-automatic transmission it has a 4-speed manual transmission. It has manual instead of power steering.
This car actually did serve as a taxi in Paris at one time. I have no idea how or when it was imported. My friend specifically sought out an ID19 to save money on restoration and maintenance. It was a difficult restoration even so. He had most of the work done at a shop down in Kentucky (I think) that specializes in older Citroëns.
Another interesting safety feature, the speedometer (in kilometers of course) shows estimated stopping distances based on your speed.
My friend starts the car and after a few seconds it raises up on its suspension and finds its level. He demonstrates the ride height adjustment lever. The suspension travel is amazing. It's like watching one of those custom "low riders" do its thing.
I remember cars with "three on the tree" manual shifters from my youth, but this is the first 4-speed column shift I've driven. The clutch is, of course, hydraulic and requires very little effort. The manual steering is also very light and I'm thinking that power steering on the DS might have been overkill.
For such an advanced car, the engine is a rather basic little 4-cylinder producing only 83 horsepower. Still the car moves out well enough and I'm told that it will cruise happily in the 80-100 mph range all day.
I'd always heard that the brakes on the DS were extremely sensitive but the ID19's brakes aren't boosted quite as much. I step on them cautiously and they seem to work quite well. Nobody's head hit the dashboard.
The most remarkable experience is the ride. Nothing rides like a hydraulic Citroën, nothing. I don't care what 1960s or 70s luxo-barge you used to have, trust me, I've driven 'em all. Caddies, Lincolns, Buicks, Chryslers even a Packard. Nothing matches this car. The XJ12 Jaguar I used to drive came close but not quite. Even my current Audi A8 doesn't ride like this Citroën.
It's been described as a "magic carpet" and that's as good a description as any. It's like the bumps simply aren't there. I'm told that the approved solution for a rough road is to speed up and let the suspension work its magic.
I don't push the car very hard, since it's 45 years old and not mine. They did fairly well in rallying due to their ability to go fast over rough roads. They didn't have a lot of power but they went fast by never having to slow down.
I'm amazed at how advanced this car is for a 1955 design. It was ahead of its time in many ways. It was many years before things like disk brakes and independent suspensions started finding their way into mainstream American cars.
There's an interesting story about the DS. When assassins targeted Charles de Gaulle's Citroën DS in 1962 the car was able to escape at full speed despite two tires being shot out. De Gaulle actually credited the Citroën with saving his life.
I'd almost be tempted to buy one of these. Good "drivers" can be found in the $15k-$20k range.
I think the mechanical complexity and the difficulty obtaining spare parts would scare me away. My shade-tree mechanic skills are sufficient to keep a Desoto running but I don't think I'd want to tackle 350 feet of hydraulic lines.
I very much enjoyed driving this car. It was quite an experience and I hope my friend gets many years of enjoyment out of it.