Mike’s Citroen DS Love Affair

I once had to forget how to drive so I could drive…Confused?

Bienvenue la Citroen DS!

I first saw a DS in the film Scarface. Al Pacino’s gangster character Tony Montana was set the task of blowing one up, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. Not because he fell in love with the looks, but because the target mark unexpectedly had his family in the car. Tony Montana was an ethical chap of sorts. I however, did fall in love with the looks and never planned to harm a DS in any way. I didn’t think I would ever meet one for real though.

But I did, in the flesh in fact, during my wonderful time working at a classic car hire firm. I immediately loved the fact it had two big spikes protruding from the front bumper, sat hugging the floor and wore a series of neat chrome touches from front to rear. It was a grand looking motor car, with presence. This particular one was presented in a colour I call ‘hazelnut’. A colour that I am quite sure modern manufacturers charge a premium for today. It even had a black roof. And interestingly, a black roof seems to be the modification fashion for modern high performance cars at the moment.

Citroen DS Side ViewStepping into the DS was a real event. The driver’s seat was soft and welcoming, allowing me to sink into it and offering my back support at just the right moment. Never mind modern day seats with lumbar support and massage function, the DS is living proof that well thought out and constructed seats, using traditional materials, such as those found on an old faithful sofa, work. And work well.

Citroen DS Interior PicA single spoke steering wheel, sat off centre, acknowledged my arrival on behalf of the chic dials, now in front of me. What a gorgeous interior. Try as I may to think of many other exciting words, I think gorgeous says it best. Surrounded by thick carpet, lashings of leather and vinyl, chrome detailing blending it all together, I was most impressed with the imagination behind the design and the implementation of it inside this Citroen DS. Even the roof lining was special, it consisted of stitched panels and a huge interior lamp with chrome surround, it really was the epitome of luxury roof lining.

The stalks and dash switches were strong and heavy, displaying themselves purposefully. Resembling items machined from solid metal, they made nice ‘clunks’ and ‘clicks’ upon moving them. Sat producing these satisfying noises by playing with switches, I move my head around in a 360 degree motion admiring this four door art work, oblivious to my colleague standing by the passenger door watching me. I jump slightly as I spot him. He gestures for me to unlock the door for him. I reach across to the chunky door handle, and after a couple of seconds of fiddling I found the secret movement for the locking system… again it felt like the metal components were unbreakable.

He settles in next to me, and with the non-existence of a centre console in the front of the car, both big seats pretty much become one, meaning he really was next to me. He was in the middle of the car, sitting close by my side as if we were madly in love with each other and joined at the hip.

We weren’t. Not guilty on both counts.

A lesson on how to drive the Citroen DS!

This was in fact my driving lesson. He needed to be close to show me all the unconventional controls that the DS lived by. Speaking to each other through the reflection in the rear view mirror because we were far too close to turn our heads safely, I understood there was one thing I had to do, and the more I thought of doing this thing, the more I couldn’t do it.

“Forget what you know about driving a normal car mate. Forget how to use the brake ok? Most important.”

How could I forget how to use a brake? But I trusted my colleague and forced myself into a calm, open minded mode, genuinely allowing my brain to think it was starting from scratch with driving. He leans across and puts the key in the ignition and turns it to produce a deep metallic click. A big red light on the dashboard with an oil can and battery symbol within it begins to glow. He leans completely across me now, reaching about in my driver’s footwell. I am still. Dead still. “I am checking the handbrake is on mate.”

Oh good I thought. He now rests his finger on the metal stalk living on top of the steering column. “ok my friend, are you ready to fire her up?” I nod, feeling somewhat scared that if I was incapable of driving this car I would never live it down, and I myself would look upon myself as a lesser person in the motoring world.

He pushes the stalk to the far left, frantically pulling out a lever from the middle of the dash as if it just crossed his mind to do so. That will be the choke then I guessed. As he held the stalk in place, the whole car rhythmically wobbled to the movement of the starter motor, becoming completely still the second the engine burst into life. My first thought was how good the sound insulation was. It was very quiet in the cabin. Having released the stalk instantly and taken a few moments to push the choke in, my colleague points down into the footwell.

“Give her a rev Mike and hold it there for a bit. We need to warm her up to wake her up.” I pressed what I could clearly see was the accelerator and held it. A nice hum filled the cabin. And then I spotted what had gone unnoticed for a good few seconds…I could hear swooshing and gurgling, accompanied by sucking sounds and a deep mechanical beat that resembled something turning on and off. I had totally forgotten that when I entered the DS she was sitting on the floor. Now was her time to rise, the hydraulics were in full swing.

And rise she did, within thirty seconds or so, like a big lazy dog rising up from the sat position, one corner of their body at a time, she sat high, on all four wheels. “Never ever drive off before it is up in the air Mike, or you will be in trouble, no brakes! And you will not be able to turn the steering.” I nodded yet again. This was indeed new. My Subaru Impreza at the time didn’t do this. I was glad I had forgotten all about driving. Especially as when I had looked into the footwell, I was extremely baffled.

“Try the brake pedal” my colleague said with laughter in his voice. My face must have shown that I was unsure. “That is the brake pedal mate, try it.”

Citroen DS RearA round rubber button. Like half a tennis ball, sitting in the footwell floor. I pressed it. And then realised it is not something that lends itself to being pressed. Wrong action. It was designed to be squeezed. And thus I did so, by about half an inch, and it would take no more. I now called it the ‘brake bubble.’ It was not a pedal. The mechanical noises and gurgling sounds changed in pitch as I squeezed and released it, with the bubble itself pulsating a little.

“This brake pedal is on and off Mike, you have to be very careful, just a little press is needed or we will fly towards the windscreen.” I made a mental note.

Right, so she is an automatic, how would I put her in ‘D?’. My colleague was clearly telepathic and read my thoughts. “You see this?” He was holding onto the stalk that he had used to start the car. “This is your gearlever. But this car is not automatic. Nor does it have a clutch.”

Behold the Playstation Generation baby’s line of the century – ” So it is like an SMG gearbox on an M3 right?”

“Yes mate. You got it!”

I tried to toggle the solid metal gearlever back and forward. My colleague began a fit of laughter. “Come on, this is not a racing car Mike!”

“Press and hold the brake.” I did so. He moved the gearlever right and one click and forward, and that point I notice some markings around the circumference of the space the lever travelled about in. This looked like first gear. I also note, because I expected it to, that the car’s engine note did not change. “This is first gear.”

Was it really? Surely being a semi automatic the idle should dip a little with the car now being in gear…or did it have a proper clutch system just like an SMG? It was all adding up, modern day paint colour, black roof, and now the gearbox technology. This was advanced for a classic car, clearly ahead of its time.

“Ok mate, release the handbrake by pulling that rubber lever to your left, and then use the throttle to move forward a bit and gently stop. Get used to the brake. Gently. Ok?”

I said “ok” too. We seemed to be using the word “ok” a lot between us, perhaps we were both looking for reassurance, that the teacher would teach me correctly and that the pupil would listen and drive safely.

Releasing the handbrake made a heavy thump, confirmation it was off. But there was no creep. This was no slush box for sure. I nudged the accelerator pedal slightly. By now an automatic should be moving I thought…and then, a millisecond or so later the DS began to roll. I could hear and feel her clutch engaging and she moved forward on biting point, only be to stopped extremely sharply by my right foot squeezing the brake bubble too hard.

Fast forward twenty minutes and I could now move the DS back and forth without lurching, brake smoothly and had a good grasp of all the controls. Time to take her out on the real roads where I would put my practice moves of selecting second gear into action! It had fallen dark in the meantime, and thus I flicked the lights on with the awesome stalk. They were yellow. How cool. This car really was quirky but carried it off correctly and with grace.

I begin to turn in the yard…”Wow! No way! Look at that!” I exclaim as I wiggle the steering wheel from side to side. The headlamps were following my every move. To do this day I still think that is one the most amusing features a car can have. Oh, but wait a minute, I think I saw a TV advert for Audi recently, apparently new ground breaking technology in the form of adaptive headlamps that follow the steering movement is now available…

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I motor on into traffic enjoying admiring glances and looks of appreciation left right and centre. My colleague is now sitting at an appropriate distance on his own side of the car. Happy to have taught me well. Powering up in first gear, feeling that second is required, I simply back off the throttle and push the gearlever one click further to the right, and as I feel drive ensue again, I ease the throttle back into position. Same for third. And fourth. So smooth. Seamless acceleration.

I am now up to normal road speed. But I need to stop. First time I have stopped from a higher speed than crawling in first. I sheepishly press the brake bubble, feeling on edge. The instant I pressed it I found that the caring Citroen did it all for me. At speed her brake bubble’s half inch travel worked beautifully and with minimal effort the three of us swooped to a standstill.

I was smiling from ear to ear. Feeling great. I could drive a DS now. “Well done mate, you see, she is not that scary is she?”.

Citroen DS became one of my all time favourite cars.

She looked great and her forte was comfort. Every single component that came between your body and the road surface was engineered for comfort, creating what is the highest level of ride quality I have ever experienced. The huge profile tyres, advanced hydraulic suspension and soft seat all worked in harmony together. The light throttle and minimal effort requiring brake bubble made the DS a pleasure to drive, and I always felt that I could drive her anywhere for any length of time and I would never feel fatigued. If I was to ever take part in a Le Mans 24 event, it would be in a DS.

The DS was fast. Poor road surfaces and bumps were non existent in her. She made progress with ease. When I stepped out of her and into any other car, especially a modern car, it felt like someone had gone round stealing the tarmac on all the roads the DS and I had previously roamed. And having to press a brake pedal by a couple of inches on a car with a conventional brake pedal, well, that seemed like too much effort now.

The DS felt solid, put together properly, extremely well thought out and logical. And yet so quirky. The steering wheel is deliberately off centre to avoid it impaling the driver should the unfortunate scenario of a crash occur. And the horn press, a tough metal lever that one pushes inwards has two settings – push hard for a tame beep, all the way in for almighty horn. Again, a great design that I wish all cars had. It just makes complete sense.

She keeps you on your toes though. Don’t park a DS with your driver’s door kerbside because you might not be able to open it when she sinks. Maintenance wise she is pretty specialist, but ironically when a car is so unique, left-field and older there is often more in depth expertise out there and common problems are usually known inside out. Parts are becoming hard to find but search hard enough and they are out there. Should she suffer any form of hydraulic failure such as the drive belt for the pump slipping off, she will sink to the floor and you will lose brakes and steering. There is no limp home mode on a Citroen DS. She is an all or nothing type of soul.

But her all, is a lot. An eclectic mix of style, quirks, technological innovation and party tricks. I am proud to have driven a DS. In my fantasy garage of twenty cars I would have one in a heartbeat.

Citroen DS Engine PictureSo is the Citroen DS an easy classic car to own?

I think so. It can only rise in value like it’s suspension, and just like the suspension, the value will remain high with proper maintenance. Find a good specialist to look after it, drive it regularly and research the internet to familiarise yourself with the hydraulic suspension system and how to keep an eye on key components under the bonnet.

But, whatever you do, pronounce the name correctly…a friend French friend of mine gave me a massive telling off when I spoke of this Citroen DS with her…”It is NOT a lemon my dear!”

Since then I now ensure I say “Cit-ro-en” and not “Citron.”

Because the Cit-ro-en DS is far from a lemon, she is an awesome, lovable, super-cool classic.

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Mike Atwall
This article was written and published by Mike Atwall. Mike works for Trade Classics as an in-house journalist and copywriter and has many years’ experience in the classic car sector – for over 8 years he was the General Manager of the Classic Car Club in London and responsible for a fleet of over 100 cars worth multi-million pounds. So there’s not much Mike doesn’t know about makes, models, maintenance and idiosyncrasies of these old cars. Mike’s a true petrol head with a deep passion for the classics and he loves to talk cars all day, so why not write a reply on this article below.

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1 Comment
Drew Collier
Drew Collier
3 years ago

Great write-up. Reminds me of my first tentative drive in my 1970 DS21 Pallas EFi, purchased 2 years ago . . . except I had no tuition and had never driven one before I handed over the money for it. I then had an 80 mile drive home! It is still an event every time I drive it and the best car I have ever owned.