x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

This one ruined the jackal's day

The Citroën DS was so far ahead of its time when it was launched in 1955 that it was like Francis Drake sailing off to repel the Spanish Armada in a nuclear submarine.

The Citroën DS had a self-levelling suspension system that made light work of rough French roads. Mind you, some found it a bit wafty too.
The Citroën DS had a self-levelling suspension system that made light work of rough French roads. Mind you, some found it a bit wafty too.

The Citroën DS was so far ahead of its time when it was launched in 1955 that it was like Francis Drake sailing off to repel the Spanish Armada in a nuclear submarine. Indeed, it was so technologically advanced that, even after 20 years of production, it remained the most impressive vehicle on the road. To a motoring public reliant on redoubtable Rovers and austere Austins, still cumbersome, crudely engineered boxes on wheels, the DS was like a dreamy vision of a utopian, ultra-cool future. It was so much better than any of its contemporaries that to attempt a comparison would be absurd. The Deesse literally translates as Goddess and its ethereal styling and futuristic design prompted philosopher, Roland Barthes, to say it looked as if it had "fallen from the sky".

For a vehicle that is still one of the most distinctive designs on the road more than half a century after its launch, it is no surprise that it caused quite a stir in 1955. A mere 15 minutes after it was unveiled at the Paris Motor Show, more than 700 orders had been placed. It had captivated the public imagination and over the next twenty years, as 1.5 million rolled off the production lines, it earned a place in motoring folklore. It was recently named the most beautiful car of all time by Classic and Sports Car magazine. The DS is, quite simply, automobile as art.

While the rest of the world admired at a distance with awe, the French adopted it as a national symbol of the ingenuity and style of their nation. It became as synonymous a symbol of the Gallic country as pungent cheese and black berets. French presidents arriving at state functions in a DS were certain to be respected and revered. In fact, the DS did more for French stature in global affairs than any politician, policy or publication. A country that could produce such a car earned the right to be at the forefront of forging the modern world. Such is the power of era-defining design.

For those who think I am guilty of over-egging the pudding, let's examine the car's credentials. The DS used hydraulics not only for braking but for the suspension, clutch and transmission. Fifty years later, few cars have matched the DS's legendary ride quality. Hydraulics self-levelled the suspension, enabled the driver to select the ride-height dependent on terrain and controlled the idling speed under braking and acceleration, leaving the driver with an effortless driving experience. It has taken four decades, billions of dollars in development budgets and the installation of on-board computers for other marques to produce a comparable effect.

The car's unusual abilities were showcased to full effect in saving the life of Charles de Gaulle, the former French president, in a scene recreated in the classic thriller The Day of the Jackal. Despite his unarmoured DS having two tyres being shot to pieces in an assassination attempt in August 1962, the car sped away, evading the assailants and preventing a tragedy that would have shook the world. tbrooks@thenational.ae