There are only a very select few cars which can truly be considered revolutionary, whether it be for their design or their technology. The Citroen DS can be considered revolutionary for both.
During the 20 year production run, the DS pioneered numerous features which left rival manufacturers falling decades behind, most notably in the form of its ingenious hydraulic setup. The suspension, power steering, brakes and semi-automatic transmission were driven by a pump and maintained by a pair of accumulators – one for the brakes, the other for everything else. Not only did this make the DS feel easy to drive, even by modern standards, but allowed it to deliver its famous ride quality and maintaining a near-perfect level at all times.
This remained the case even with a punctured tyre – something which turned out very handy for French president Charles de Gaulle during an attempt on his life. Despite gunfire bursting two tyres of the car he was on board the suspension compensated to allow a quick getaway, effectively saving his life.
The pneumatic setup is just as practical when you're not being shot at, too: the height-adjustable system allows a tyre to be changed without the use of a jack. Ensuring the best possible contact patch with the road helped it grip well – something proven by DS pilots scooping two victories at the Monte Carlo rally and another at the 1000 Lakes.
Then there’s the styling. Replacing the Traction Avant – itself a revolutionary car when it was launched – the DS still looks space-age today. Imagine how it must have looked at a time when the Morris Minor was one of the most common sights on British roads!
Which Citroen DS to buy?
From its 1955 launch the DS was offered in the form of a four-door saloon. Three years later an estate variant (known as Estate or Safari in the UK, Break in France) used a steel roof in place of the saloon’s fibreglass panel, allowing it to support the standard roof rack. Early versions of the DS were powered by overhead valve four-cylinder engine derived from its predecessor, the Traction Avant, albeit with upgrades to the head and combustion chambers.
At the budget end of the DS range sat the ID. To reduce price it ditched the hydraulically-operated clutch and power steering, and featured a less powerful version of the DS 19’s 1.9-litre engine. First-gen DS and ID models can be recognised by their two individual spotlights at the front, a look which from the Series 2 onward was replaced for a pair of twin lamps.
At first, the Series 2’s changes centred mainly around the cosmetic, but halfway through its life came the introduction of a pair of new engines. A 1985cc unit replaced the old DS 19, and range-topping DS 21 offered 109bhp from its 2175cc. A fancier Pallas trim level debuted at the same time, increasing comfort with extra soundproofing and optional leather trim.
From a maintenance point of view, it’s worth searching out Series 3 models. Released in 1967, an overhauled hydraulic system featured a fluid known as LHM (Liquide Hydraulique Minéral) - a mineral oil-based compound. Unlike the previous brake fluid-derived setup, LHM is hydrophobic, so corrosion – and eventual failure – due to water absorption was vastly reduced. Unfortunately it isn’t possible to simply replace the fluid in pre-’67 models for LHM – the new fluid would corrode the seals. LHM cars can be spotted under the bonnet courtesy of hydraulic components painted green (older cars are black).
Further updates to the Series 3 cars include the faired in headlamp units featuring another revolutionary piece of DS tech: the inner lights can swivel up to 80 degrees, following the angle of the steering to ‘look’ around corners at night. The outer pair, meanwhile, use a self-levelling function to give the driver a clear view ahead even over a bumpy road.
It should be noted that UK-market cars were built in Slough from 1956 until the end of 1964. These cars were generally better equipped than the left-hand drive cars, although values are not hugely different.
The rarest DS variants of all are the ‘Decapotable’ cabriolet models. Produced by French coachbuilder Henri Chapron, the roofless variants featured a reinforced frame to maintain the beautiful shape. With only 1365 built over a fifteen year period, they’re the most highly collectable examples today.
Thanks to the glut of advanced features all over the car – and the desire from DS purists for completely original examples – modifications are rare. The most common exception is an upgrade to electronic ignition. Buyers searching for British built model should look out for the standard-fit leather seats and a chrome number plate mount at the front.
Performance and specs
Engine 2175cc inline four
Power 107bhp @ 5500rpm
Torque 128lb ft @ 3000rpm
Top speed 109mph
Fuel consumption approx 25mpg
Gearbox Four-speed semi-automatic
Dimensions and weight
• As with any car of this age, it’s likely that rust will have set in at least one area. The body panels are not structural and replacements remain relatively easy – but pricey – to source. Check along the bottom of the doors and the rear wings at the base of the C-pillar
• Body panels are secured by only a handful of large bolts. Removal is easy, so it’s worthwhile removing them to assess the condition of the chassis if the seller is happy with this. If they’re not keen on you removing panels then you should ask why.
• The most crucial place to look under the skin is where the boot floor meets the rear crossmember – any rot here will very expensive to fix, probably leading to a serious rebuild or even scrapping the car!
• Other areas that succumb to corrosion include the floorpans, most notably around their edges and beneath the fuel tank
• Elsewhere, the DS is fairly reliable. Unlike body parts, mechanicals are usually very cheap
• While the hydraulic setup – particularly in LHM cars – is more reliable than its reputation suggests, some garages are nervous to work on an unfamiliar system, so finding a specialist is strongly recommended. Replacing spheres is a DIY job, and can be done in a matter of minutes.
• It might seem obvious, but you should not climb under a hydraulic Citroen (especially when checking for corrosion) as it could drop without warning. As the car can be raised to a useful height, it can be tempting to stick your head underneath, but don’t!
• The only pricey regular maintenance will come in the form of front brake replacement – the discs are mounted inboard, and access involves many hours’ labour. A recent overhaul is certainly a bonus, and you should find out when they were last serviced
• The engines themselves may not be advanced relative to the rest of the car, but well-serviced examples should see hundreds of thousands of miles pass with little concern.
Oct 1955: Citroen DS publicly revealed at the Paris Motor Show
Jun 1956: Right-hand drive production begins at Slough factory
1957: Citroen ID released. Features simpler mechanicals and cheaper purchase price
1958: ‘Break’ estate variant released
1958: Production of coachbuilt cabriolet models runs through to 1973. 1365 examples sold
1961: Power increases from 75bhp to 83bhp through the introduction of twin-bodied Weber carburettors
1962: Series 2 model revealed. Changes include an extra pair of headlamps and improved ventilation
1965: DS 19 gains new 1985cc engine in place of old 1905cc unit. DS 21 introduced with more powerful 2175cc four-cylinder. Pallas trim included.
1965: UK DS production ceases, with all subsequent right-hand drive models built in France
1967: Series 3 model released. Debuts fared-in directional and self-levelling headlights. LHM hydraulic fluid introduced
Sep 1969: DS 19 renamed to DS 20. Mechanically unchanged
1970: DS 21 offers the option of electronic fuel injection, boosting power.
1973: DS 23 introduced. The 2347cc inline-four produces 141bhp
1975: DS production ceases. 1,455,746 units built worldwide
Owners clubs, forums and websites
Summary and prices
Those searching for a project car are still able to pick up a DS for a relatively low figure - typical non-runners start from between five and ten thousand Pounds.
Working cars begin from £10,000 and climb up to around £25,000 depending on condition, though nut-and-bolt restorations can fetch significantly more. Right-hand drive values don’t significantly differ from the more common left-hand drive cars. The same applies to rarer Break models – prices still float around the £20,000 for a clean example.
By far and away the most valuable are the Decapotable cabriolets. A 1967 DS 21 example fetched £146,297 at auction in October 2015, and today sellers ask for as much as £170,000.
Words: Alex Ingram