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The car that time forgot

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology

Simple gray rule

Citroen: The car that time forgot

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1985, The Syracuse Newspapers

Aerodynamic styling. Air suspension. Front-wheel drive. These are the latest selling points for cars on the leading edge of technology in the mid-1980s. Three cars exemplify these attributes:

  • For aerodynamic styling, the Audi 5000S.

  • For air suspension, the Lincoln Continental Mark 7.

  • For front-wheel drive, the Volkswagen Golf—one of many modern cars with front-wheel drive, but the one that stands out for space efficiency.

All three are fully modern cars. However, as remarkable as each one is, they are outated by another automobile.

It has aerodynamics that make the Audi's shape look tame, with a very low hood and a tapered tail.

Its air-suspension system would deflate the pride of any Lincoln owner; not only does the car have three different ride heights for normal driving, but it can be set for full-up and full-down as well (for tire changing, you merely shoot the car up to its full height, slip a tripod under one side, and then retract the wheels to the "full-down" position).

Its front-wheel drive yields so much space under the hood that the brakes are there, out of the way of salt and rain (the driveshafts feed braking forces out to the hubs). And the spare tire even fits under the hood, too.

What kind of wondercar is this? Is it for sale yet, or just a prototype?

The answers may surprise you. And, if you are like many who believe that technology is not always an upward-moving force, the answers may astound you, depress you or even anger you.

To tell you more about this car, I have to tell a personal story. The first time I saw it, I knew I had to own one. I bought one, and later I bought a second version, more powerful than the first.

Neither of them was a prototype. Each one was a regular production model, manufactured with only minor changes since 1955. And so, on its 30th anniversary, it seems fitting to honor the Citroen DS—the car that time forgot.

Rumors that the engineers at the Citroen factory in France were working on a revolutionary vehicle filled the automotive press in the early months of 1955. Citroen had already pioneered front-wheel drive with its long black sedans, and had teased the public with a new rear suspension that used nitrogen and oil to replace steel springs; the nitrogen was sealed inside a flexible bag, which worked as an air spring, with the oil adding a variable force that could be used to pump up the air spring when the car was loaded.

Nothing, however, prepared the world for the car that Citroen rolled out to public view later that year. The most dramatic and contoversial aspect of its design was the shape itself. Although no wind tunnel was used in its development, it was truly shaped by the wind.

However, unlike previous attempts at streamlining—the disastrous Chrysler Airflow, for example—the new Citroen was not bullet-shaped or rocket-nosed. Citroen's chief designer had looked at nature's own classic steamlined object and given the car the same contours. The DS became the first production car that resembled a teardrop.

The front of the car was low and rounded, with no grill whatsoever (a scoop beneath the bumper pulled air into the radiator). The DS was widest at a point even with the front seats and then tapered off quickly at the rear, with the rear wheels much closer together than the front wheels.

The shape gave the DS the look of a shark from the side, the look of a surfboard from the top, and the look of an unfinished baby buggy from the back. Many who saw it thought it was ugly, but I fell in love with the DS and bought my first one in 1970. It was a 1964 DS-19 (the number standing for its 1.9 liter engine).

The car had seen very rough service and was badly rusted underneath. It gave a sinister meaning to the word "used."

"Used? Used for what?" my father asked when I showed it to him.

I bought my second DS a short while later. It was a 1970 DS-21 Pallas, almost new. If The name doesn't mean "palace" in French, it should. The seats were shaped from six-inch-thick foam rubber, the carpeting was two inches thick, the back seat had its own heater, and the engine ran like an electric motor; I used to earn quarters in sucker bets by showing how I could balance a 25-cent-piece on its edge on top of the big four-cylinder engine while it was running.

But it was the engineering, not the luxury or the odd looks, that made for a lasting love affair. Front-wheel drive, or course, was central to Citroen's philosophy, as was the practice of putting as much weight as possible over those wheels. Weight distribution was about 70 percent front and 30 percent rear (almost certainly making the DS the most front-heavy production car ever).

To help the front wheels bring such a load to a stop, the brakes, as mentioned earlier, were mounted inboard. Because they were located at the inside end of the left and right driveshafts, the disc brakes could be made much larger than any that would fit inside the wheels, an of course they were kept out of the road spray kicked up by the tires.

In addition, each brake disc was air-cooled by a little duct that pulled air from under the car.

And speaking of that area, the entire underside of the DS was covered by a belly pan, to cut down on wind resistance; only the tailpipe and muffler interrupted the smooth shape down below.

The nitrogen-and-oil suspension of the DS was powered by a central hydraulic pump. When the car sagged (because someone had just got in, for example) a sensor at that corner of the car signaled the pump to increase the oil level in the suspension unit. The sensors on both of my Citroens were so sensitive that they even compensated for sharp turns (if the car started to lean to one side, it was quickly brought to an even keel), and they did wonders on uneven ground when I was parking (it was great fun to let one wheel slip into a pothole and watch the suspension arm push the wheel deep into the hole to level the car).

The central hydraulic system powered more than just the suspension. The brakes were true power brakes—not, as on other cars, power-assisted brakes—that worked off the central hydraulic system, too.

There was no brake pedal. Instead, a small button on the floor in front of the driver varied the pressure applied to the brakes. The button responded to pressure, not to movement, and in fact it barely moved at all. Once you got used to it, it made perfect sense: The harder you pushed on the unyielding button, the faster you stopped.

Gear-changing was controlled by the central hydraulic system also. The shift lever opened or closed a series of hydraulic valves connected by high-pressure lines to the transmission. The clutch worked by remote control, too, except that it was automatic, engaging by hydraulic signal when necessary.

And, of course, a car with 70 percent of its 3,300-lb weight over the front wheels needed power steering, and it, too, was actuated by the central hydraulic system.

As if all these innovations weren't enough, Citroen added a few more. The headlights on DS models sold in Europe swiveled with the front wheels, so you could see where you want to go (instead of where you'll go if you swerve off the road) when you're rounding curves at night.

Actually, Citroen engineers discovered that the headlights should turn faster than the wheels, to light up any dangers on the inside of curves, so that's how they rigged them. And the headlights also were self-leveling, keeping an even light path even if the car bounced up and down.

The rear lights were mounted as high as possible, at each side of the top of the back window (30 years ahead of a U.S. government requirement for a single high-mounted tail light on cars sold here).

So if this car was so great, why aren't we all driving Citroens? For the answer, we have to look back a bit into history, and at who we are.

History, an old Armenian once said, is a lie we tell about the past. This is particularly true in our understanding of technology.

Somehow, perhaps because most of us have grown up with a peculiar Western notion of progress, we have come to think of technology as a line extending from "primitive" to "advanced." By this understanding, those who cme before us were, of course, primitive in their technology, and we are, by definition, advanced.

Those who come after us will therefore live in a wonderland of technology, unimaginable to those alive today.

This may, in fact, be true. But it is almost certainly nothing more than narrow-minded wishful thinking. Progress does not work at all like our Western model. Things may change, but they do not necessarily get better.

One can grasp this from a few examples from the distant past—the triumph of democracy in old Athens, for example, or the rise of mathematical learning among ancient Arabic cultures—but an easier example is the Citroen DS.

In France, the Citroen has sold very well. Are the French that different from us? aybe. But perhaps, when the DS was introduced, the French were simply more willing to take the risk of trying something new.

No car like the DS has ever been made by any other company. In the early 70s, almost two decades after it went into production, the DS was replaced by another model, the Cx. The Cx got its odd name from the worldwide engineering term for aerodynamic efficiency, "Cx," usually expressed as a decimal fraction.

The Cx was designed with the aid of a wind tunnel, and emerged from the styling studios with such a clean shape (a low "Cx") that the aerodynamic term itself was used as a model name.

The Cx could have looked just as radical as the DS, but Citroen's old guard stylists, who liked to create shapes that no one else would ever consider, were losing their influence, and the Cx ended up looking more or less like a modern, normal car. Anyone used to Chevy Citations and Volkswagen fastbacks would have no trouble recognizing the Cx as an automobile.

And so the spaceship Citroen DS was retired, its looks safe for historians and cranky technologians. The company did keep most of the unsual innards, however, yielding only to a demand that it install a real automatic transmission in place of the "you flick the stick, we do the rest" automatic clutching design that had endured since the 50s.

By the early 70s, Citroen's American dealer network—not many more than a dozen or so dealers—was waiting for a decision from France. The U.S. government had decreed that all cars had to have crash-proof bumpers, and the DS's little front and rear blades would need a total redesign if the car was to be sold in 73 and later.

The company considered what it would cost to redesign the frames and bumpers of the few hundred cars it sold each year in the U.S., and, as expected, Citroen pulled the DS out of the market altogether. For a while the company supplied an outstandingly styled and unfathomably unreliable sports coupe to American dealers, but this model—the SM, with a Maserati engine—lasted only a few years here.

Critics of the company say Citroen could have sold thousands of cars here every year. They say Citroen could have beefed up the bumpers of its cars just like Volkswagen did or any other manufacturer did. But Americans never took to the DS to start with, and it is unlikely that Citroen could have convinced very many to try its product.

The reason has to do with that peculiar American notion of progress mentioned earlier, which had held for hundreds of years that whatever we were doing, we were doing it best.

It was part conscious, part subconscious: America had the wildest frontier, the plainest plains, the biggest cities, the tallest buildings, the loftiest ideals, the grandest technology. All of these things were true, even if none of them were. We were a Big Country, and we could do things best our own way.

That's the way things stood well through the 50s and into the 60s. Then something happened to the fabric that held America's chauvinism together. There was Vietnam and national trauma.

But on a more mundale scale there was a tide from the East, as Japan unloosed wave upon wave of cameras and transistor radios and TVs and stereos and video recorders, and cars that ran right and didn't come apart when you turned your back on them.

It suddenly became fashionable to think of technology as something that somebody else knew how to do. If we couldn't do it right—if we couldn't, for example, make a good small television set—somebody else in Japan or some other Oriental place could do it just as well, or maybe better. And certainly cheaper.

And so the irony of the Citroen DS is that it came and went too soon. When we were ready for it, it was gone. And it won't come back, unless you can find a used one that hasn't succumbed to rust.

One of the Citroens I used to own has gone its own way and I'll probably never know where it rests, but the other is in an auto graveyard not far from where I live. It still looks dignified, even in defeat.

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