From Issue Seven of Gear Patrol Magazine.
“It is possible that the Déesse marks a change in the mythology of cars. Until now, the ultimate in cars belonged rather to the bestiary of power; here it becomes at once more spiritual and more object-like.” – Roland Barthes, Mythologies (1957)
Idon’t know if the French philosopher Roland Barthes had ever ridden in the Citroën DS when he wrote the essay “The New Citroën” for his book Mythologies. But I’m sitting shotgun in a gleaming red DS21 Pallas from 1972, rolling at a leisurely pace through a forest some 25 miles west of Chicago’s city center, and all I can think about is that quote. As sure as the sun will rise, Mythologies will be referenced in almost any discussion of the DS (which, by the way, is a phonetic play on the French word déesee, which means “goddess”). Experience one in person and you almost immediately understand why: Barthes fucking nailed it.
It’s the line “more spiritual and more object-like,” that gets me. Cars, at least good ones, can be more than the sums of their parts, but it’s usually because of their driving characteristics. The DS, though, doesn’t need to be driven. You merely need to observe its details and design up close and in person to see what Barthes meant by “object-like,” and why he and the rest of the European populace viewed it as almost otherworldly when it debuted at the Paris Motor Show 1955. “It is obvious that the new Citroën has fallen from the sky,” Barthes went on.
Start at the front where you’ll notice the slim, long chrome hood ornament doubling as a handle. Move to the front quarter and witness the line of the front fender flow smoothly into the beltline of the greenhouse, then ever-so-gently drop off into nothingness at the back, forming a teardrop profile. The chrome strakes that comprise the roofline similarly run uninterrupted and parallel with the bottom of the car, ending gracefully in a pair of rear turn indicators. The pillars holding the lid up are thin, accentuating the glass greenhouse and making the roof appear as though it is floating.
Then open the door and step over the chrome doorsill adorned with subtle, crosshatched texturing. Fall into the plush, cloud-like leather bench, which puts every other car seat ever made to shame. Gaze at the sleek, simple dashboard and the elegant single-spoke steering wheel, which has practically become a minimalist design icon in its own right. Pull the sculpted chrome door handle. Feel the supple leather loop grab handle mounted to the ceiling. Every little detail is a visual and tactile delight.
The DS was so thoughtfully designed, so ahead of its time, that the car remains a source of design inspiration today. In 2009, a panel of influential auto designers crowned the DS — over Ferraris, Jaguars and Lamborghinis — “the most beautiful car of all time.” Giorgetto Giugiaro, the founder of Italdesign, called it “the only example of a car really conceived ‘outside the box’… just impossible to imitate.” Leonardo Fioravanti, who designed some of Ferrari’s most iconic cars, called it “a real road car that, at its time and perhaps still now, has represented the ‘dream’ in its extreme progress.”
Progress. That’s evident in the design, but it’s also prominent in the mechanics. The DS introduced tons of automotive technologies decades before they became mainstream. The European-market version, for example, featured headlights that turned with the steering rack to enhance nighttime visibility while cornering (these were retrofitted to this U.S.-market example). It featured the first disc brakes of any mass-produced car and what’s more, they were actuated by a (very) pressure-sensitive button, rather than a pedal. Most crucial, though, was a self-leveling, hydropneumatic suspension.
When stationary, the DS sits low and flush with the ground, almost as if its wheels are retracted within its body. But upon start-up it slowly, silently and gracefully ascends, rear levitating first and then followed by the nose, until the entire fuselage is level and hovering several inches above the ground. Like a Harrier jet’s vertical takeoff, it’s an effect that feels alien, but it builds anticipation and is irrefutably satisfying to behold.
It also lends itself to a transcendently smooth ride. It simply glides over bumps. It’s not floaty, cushy or wavering like many vintage luxury cars tend to be. You aren’t isolated, either. You feel a connection to the road, yet at the same time, the car effortlessly irons out imperfections as if it instinctively knows where the bumps and potholes are. “Comfortable” is one way to describe it, but there’s more to it than that. The DS provides an idealized feeling of motion, one that lets you feel attuned to the road but without the pesky reality of poorly maintained road surfaces.
You do not have to drive the DS to understand its charm. Just riding in it, even at slow speeds through a serene setting, is a meditative experience. Sitting inside the car, hearing the faint purr of the inline-four engine and gently coasting along is enough to induce pure, relaxed joy. Without fail, people turn their heads and crack a smile as you go by. When you inevitably break down, pedestrians stop and cheerily ask questions as you wait for someone to give you a jump.
Sali Salievski runs Hi-Tech Import, an auto shop just outside of Chicago, and is the owner of this particular red DS. As we drove, he told me about how he’d admired the DSs he saw growing up in his native Yugoslavia, and how he dreamed he would someday own one of his own. He now has three. I asked Salievski the almost reductively straightforward
question, “How does it feel to have and drive this car?” His earnest and succinct response spoke volumes. “It’s such an experience; a pleasure to drive. I am just so happy to have them.”
Hardly gets more spiritual than that.