Sunday, October 09, 2005

Citroen 'goddess' feted in Paris

Citroen DSAs the BBC piece says, France has marked the 50th anniversary of one of the great design icons of the last century - the Citroen DS, or Deesse, saloon car.

A deserving observance it is.

My Mother bought one of these things back in the late '60s (this was in Guatemala - I don't know if the car was ever brought to the United States). I thought it was a great car. Not perfect, just great.

My Mom's car looked just like the one in the picture here except for the lights. I think the one in the picture is a '68 or '69 model, whereas my Mom's was one year earlier, before Citroen put in the directional headlights. The larger light was stationary while the smaller, inboard lamp followed the steering.

This article says: Citroen DS: They Said it Was 20 Years Ahead of its Time - 20 Years Later it Was Still Ahead. When Would the Others Catch Up?

Well, the car certainly was ahead of its time.

As far as I know, the Citroen DS was the first car to incorporate a crumple zone for occupant safety. The steering wheel had one large, curved spoke that pointed out the driver's door when the wheels were in center position, the idea behind which was to prevent the driver from becoming impaled in the event of a head-on crash (the wheel would deflect inward and the driver would tend to slide toward the center of the vehicle.

The suspension on this vehicle was wonderful, like riding on a cloud. In the "road" position you could drive over railroad tracks and never know it, and yet somehow the driver retained a very good feel for the road. "Road" position? Yes, the suspension was configurable from inside the vehicle, with five positions on the lever. The "road" position was the lowest of the three driving positions, while the two higher positions were for off-road and really-off-road. In the upper two positions the ride became more like that of a Land Rover - pretty rough - but the ground clearance became like a Land Rover's, too.

The car was very, very stable with the suspension in "road" position. Some said you couldn't flip it if you tried. I never tried to flip it, but I can attest to the car's stability.

The car had no jack for changing tires. Rather, you'd put the suspension in the highest position, put a post under the side with the flat, and then drop the suspension to the lowest position. The flat tire would lift up off the ground and you'd change it. If you had no spare, you just made sure the flat was on the rear and drive the car on three wheels with the suspension in the high position.

Want to take the doors off for some reason? Easy! Just unscrew the pin hinges and off they came.

Want to ford a river without flooding the engine, or drive in arctic conditions? Pull the chain to close or damp off the radiator air intake.

Even the radio was cool: a Blaupunkt with short-wave and whatnot. In the evenings we'd drive up to the top of the mountain and listen to radio station KAAY from Little Rock, Arkansas, which in those days played great rock and roll (which we didn't necessarily get the best of down in Guatemala). On short-wave we'd tune to the Voice of America to hear how many commies we'd killed in Vietnam, and Radio Moscow or Havana to hear the other side.

For tax reasons, the car my Mom bought had been imported to Guatemala as an ambulance, and it came with a stretcher. I drove my Grandfather to the hospital in that stretcher the day he died. All of the other memories of that car are better than that one.

The engine was a four cylinder thing with enough power to maintain a good highway speed, but insufficient power for the drag strip. Twenty second, 60 mph quarter miles anybody?

I remember driving down the Pan American highway near Guatemala City one time (racing is probably the better term for what I was doing). I rounded a turn and there was a Guatemalan Army rat patrol (two jeeps with machine guns mounted on posts in the rear) stopping traffic. Well, there was no way I could stop before going past them, and I think the soldiers were kind of pissed off at me for that. (I'll never forget the feeling I got from seeing the machine gun swing around at me in the rear-view mirror as I'm braking to a stop way too far down the road from them.) After they searched the car I got on their good side by showing them where they had missed a big hiding place in which a bad guy could hide all kinds of weapons in the Citroen.

There was one bad thing about the car: the same hydraulic system ran the steering, the brakes and the suspension. It so happened that the year after my Mom's car came out they changed the hydraulic fluid formulation. At one service they changed the hydraulic fluid and put in the wrong kind, which wound up blowing out all kinds of seals. Later on I found myself driving down the highway when all of a sudden the steering got hard, I had no brakes and the car sunk all the way to the lowest suspension setting. That was a little dangerous! The same thing happened another time when a filter clogged in the hydraulic system, probably from residue left over from the wrong-fluid fiasco.

All in all I really like the "Sit-tron" (as my friends called it). Most people thought it was plug ugly, but I thought it was cool looking, all aerodynamic and such. I'd like to have one today.

Maybe I can some day. I just found the The Citroen Club Of America!

I had some really good times in and with that car. Some of them would have curled my Mother's teeth, but hey, I was a teen-ager, OK?

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