“It is obvious that the new Citroën has fallen from the sky inasmuch as it appears at first sight as a superlative object” wrote French philosopher and linguist Roland Barthes, in his celebrated 1957 book Mythologies. Would the same be said of the automobile designs of of 2013?
Restaurateur and car nut Ben Musu muses on an era when cars weren’t designed with computers and the industry created designs that warranted the nickname Goddess.
I was waiting in traffic the other day on St Kilda Road and I saw two cars parked parallel at the kerb. One was a newish looking Subaru, the other a recent model Citroën C4.
At first I thought they may have been two of the same car – in the twilight of a winter afternoon, it was a real strain telling them apart and this, my design-enthusiast friends, is a cause for concern. I am of an age that I remember the last days of each car company representing and embracing unique qualities. To my father’s generation, or even those like me who started noticing cars as a kid in the 70s, you would never have thought that the time would ever come when you couldn’t tell a Citroën from the rest of the flock. But in an era where computer-aided design teams and marketing departments predominantly create cars for the mid-market consumer, the era of truly individual, distinguishable car design is a thing of the past.
Citroen C4 (Pic: Citroën Australia website)
For anyone older than Gen Y, the car that springs to mind and represents all that was great and good about Citroën is the DS. The Deese, or Goddess, ID, D-Special call it what you will. We all know them. Even those who say they don’t like cars have probably had their head turned or their stride stopped by a pristine DS parked on the side of the road. In fact, suggesting that you do like cars, but dislike the DS is like telling people that you like good food, but don’t like to cook. It’s just not right.
Naturally, I can’t help myself around a classic Citroen. I will cross a busy road to ogle almost any example and stop en route to somewhere to photograph one. This is a car, shaped like an egg with a flat bottom, topped with a glasshouse and a series of openings to facilitate wheels and headlamps. So unique is its styling, so individual its personality and so intertwined its identity with all the icons of French culture that it almost forces a stereotype in the people who own them, and a special type of behaviour; as if no example would be quite right without a packet of Gauloises on the dash.
The Citroën DS was the ruthless ideal of Italian stylist Flaminio Bertoni – just like the model that preceded it, the Traction Avant. Itself a unique car of the post-vintage era, both were far from small in their dimensions and proudly and successfully front wheel drive, at a time when it was often frowned upon, or simply misunderstood. The Traction was the first design to be interpreted in three dimensions via a clay model, rather than by blueprints and full-sized steel prototypes, and likewise the first Godess. When the ID19 was released in 1955 it was the vision of the future, as Citroën saw it.
The virtues of its hydro-pneumatic suspension made it seem at first complicated, but the knowledge of its robustness came in time. This suspension is what makes the car so curious, and ethereal – found parked, and sitting at its lowest setting, the car will seemingly be sitting on the ground and when started, will rise effortlessly to a height appropriate for driving. It can be raised and lowered from the cabin while driving to suit the conditions and, most curiously, will lift a single wheel off the ground to facilitate its changing, without the use of the jack.
The DS’ detailing is exquisite. From the headlamp and bonnet treatment surrounded with the detailing of the stainless bumpers that fit like a modern car, into the body – to the trumpet-tips on the roof gutters that double as indicators and the roof sitting atop slim and delicate pillars and offering the occupants an airy and pleasant glasshouse where you’ll find the single spoke steering wheel fronting a sculpted dash that could almost be a product of 2013. And although the DS has been constantly remarked upon for being “ahead of its time”, that cliché is probably not as significant as the fact that it was built until 1975 – and its shape was largely unaltered in that time. On the day of its launch in 1955, it is reputed that Citroen took 20,000 orders for the car, a somewhat marvellous accomplishment as these days, if a car so different to its contemporaries was launched it would take some time for the market to get used to the idea.
The one part of this car that may have disappointed some might in fact have been the part that saved it; its engine. A flat-six was mooted (an engine that would’ve made it a through-and-through technological marvel) but was substituted with a development of the in-line four cylinder that powered the Light 15 versions of the Traction Avant that preceded it. Boring it might have been, unrefined even, but reliable and robust it was too, and it gave the car useful torque and driveability.
The Citroen DS is a mechanical and sculptural thing of mystique; a car for some, a piece of rolling art for others. It put Bertoni on the map, and gave Citroen a cult-car, icon and symbol of France’s industrial capability. Next time you see a DS parked kerbside, sitting low and concealing its wheels, take a look inside and try and remember that it is 38 years old at its youngest and almost 65 at its oldest. Remember it was shaped largely by one man, and he didn’t have a computer.
By Ben Musu
Restaurateur, aesthetic observer and car-nut