Jethro Bovingdon wanted a Citroën DS, and the best he could afford was in Athens, a long way from home. Is that a problem – or an opportunity?
It feels real the moment the front wheels touch the ramp for the tatty-looking Grimaldi Lines Olympia ferry that will take me, my new car and 100 lorry drivers from Patras on mainland Greece to Brindisi on the heel of Italy. The panic crashes in a wave through my stomach, into my ribcage and through my arms until they feel almost rigid. Rolling to a jerky stop (those brakes!) I’m in automatic pilot, stirring the still-alien manual column-shift into first, stomping on the parking brake to make sure it’s secure, gathering my bags for the 15-hour journey ahead, locking the doors – well, three of them as the passenger door lock barrel slides whole with the key – and then trying to work out how I get up on deck. My mind is scrambled.
As I fumble to lock the boot, a black Austrian-registered Mercedes SL rumbles behind me. The driver hops out, maybe six-four, well-groomed and looking ready for a week on a yacht rather than a night on a creaky ferry. His girlfriend is impossibly glamorous. ‘Wow, nice car,’ he says in unmistakable clipped tones. ‘I have one of these back in South Africa.’
He begins to poke around for corrosion with a well-trained eye. ‘Looks like you’ve got a good one,’ he says. I tell him I’m driving it back to the UK over the next few days. He raises his eyebrows, there’s an awkward silence, then a simple ‘Good luck’ and they’re gone. I’m left alone with the DS as it slowly sighs down on its suspension. God, it looks cool. God, I hope it gets me home.
So how did I come to find myself dazed and mildly panicked on a ferry leaving Greece and bound for southern Italy in a 1972 D Super in a lovely shade of Brun Scarabee? I can barely remember myself but it went a little like this…
My much-loved, highly unoriginal Porsche 996 Carrera was paid off, recently resprayed and ready for many more miles of enjoyment. Consequently I had that itch. The one that sees you scouring the internet for something, anything, of interest. I intended to buy a Nissan Skyline R32 GT-R
, maybe a Mitsubishi Evo VI Tommi Mäkinen: something with that unique combination of focus, technology and unbridled craziness that only the Japanese can conjure. Then a detailer and friend Richard Tipper of Perfection Valet posted a picture on Twitter of the car he was working on that day. A green Décapotable, looking mouth-wateringly beautiful in this, the DS’s 60th-anniversary year. Memories of my dad’s old DS resurfaced, I fired up the laptop and there was an ad for a Pallas, basking in Greek sunshine and available for a suspiciously tempting price. > Find your dream Citroen DS for sale in the classifieds
The advert was mysterious. Typed in CAPITALS, telling a story of a one-owner car in Athens but with the advert location said to be ‘Camberley, UK’. I closed the laptop. Then opened it again. I reasoned it was probably a scam but, then again, that’s what everyone else would think, right? Why not drop the guy an email? So I did. He replied (in CAPITALS) almost immediately. He sounded genuine. Soon I discovered he was a reader of Evo magazine, to which I regularly contribute, and Octane too, of course. He had a large collection of cars, he said. I’ll book a flight, I said. He assured me he wasn’t an axe murderer (the wife made me ask) and, sure enough, when I went to look at the car Andreas was a lovely chap, passionate about cars, and the DS had been his father’s since ’74 when he bought it as an ex-demo from the importer in Athens. He took me for a long drive, we had an unbelievable lunch overlooking the shimmering Saronic Gulf, he bought me Ouzo, the deal was done.
The next two or three weeks were testing. I knew little about the DS except that it’s a car I love, yet slowly I realised this one wasn’t a Pallas (it will be painfully obvious to many of you) but had been dressed up to look a bit like one. The excellent Citroën Conservatoire helped trace its history: a 2.0-litre D Super built in ’72 with a four-speed manual gearbox. As was often the way in Greece, the dealership had brought in a basic car for tax reasons then added Pallas C-pillar trim and the chrome strip (since removed), and had the interior trimmed in soft olive-green leather. It left the factory painted Vert Charmille but, before Andreas’s father bought it, the importer had changed it to the gorgeous Brun Scarabee.
Why? Who knows. Did uncovering its true identity put me off? A little, but I couldn’t afford a mint Pallas so it was almost irrelevant. Plus my family had completely bought into the idea of flying out to help me bring it home. A couple of hours after arriving in Italy I’d pick up my two brothers and my dad at Brindisi airport (10.30, Saturday morning), aim for Maranello that night, then head into Switzerland and over the St Gotthard Pass on Sunday, hoping to make it into France. On Monday it’d be an easy stroll to the Chunnel and then home to Northamptonshire.
Rolling onto Italian soil feels pretty damn intrepid. There are 1500 miles to go but the sun is shining and the customs staff are friendly. The guy checks my passport with a smile and shouts to a colleague who bounds over when he sees the car. His English isn’t great but I get the gist. Pointing, he says: ‘I have… I have this. Bianco. Mine is bianco.’ Another DS owner. It adds a further twist of the surreal to this already remarkable adventure. I explain I’m driving it home as best I can. He sticks his thumb in his mouth for a moment then says: ‘Bambino. Treat it as bambino.’ Then I sink back into those incredibly soft, beautifully aged leather chairs and head for the airport, wending through tiny sun-bleached streets, feeling elated and (almost literally) floating on air.
Things aren’t so rosy once Nathan, Toby and my dad, Roger, arrive. The previously flawless D rises swiftly but, with four blokes, their luggage and the LHM a little below maximum, it won’t go high enough to extinguish the massive red STOP sign in the oval warning cluster on the dash. It’s a niggle but annoying when you’re showing your new bambino to the family.
It’s well over 30 degrees outside and Toby has had some comedy ‘DS Adventure’ T-shirts made for us. They’re 100% polyester. So all four windows are down and it’s blowing a gale as we settle into a cruise at an indicated 110km/h. Within two minutes the interior C-pillar trims come loose on either side and dad reaches for one before it flies out into the slipstream, letting go of the map, which then swirls around the interior and is sucked towards the window opening… Thankfully he makes a crucial save at the last moment. The car and my hopes are rapidly disintegrating.
At the first fuel stop, Nath – a mechanic and the man charged with running repairs – finds a small fuel leak. ‘Is it bad?’ I ask, tentatively. ‘No fuel leak is a good fuel leak,’ he replies. My heart sinks still further but at least the ice cream is good and I dig out the email confirmation of my new ADAC European recovery membership. Yet a few minutes later we’re back on the road, having discovered it’s just an overflow and the leak stops as soon as the gruff but torquey four-cylinder is running. The miles come and go gently and our speed creeps up to 120km/h, with the odd foray to 130 when I’m feeling brave. Slowly but surely the furrowed brows and worries are washed away and we start to enjoy the majesty of a DS cruising along the Adriatic coast. Dinner in Rimini? Why the hell not.
It’s midnight when we roll into Ferrari town and check in at The Planet hotel, right opposite those famous gates. My dad bravely volunteers to share with Nathan, whose snoring measures on the Richter scale, and I share with Toby. Our room is huge and its two kingsize beds are almost as comfy as a DS armchair. In the morning dad pops in to borrow some toothpaste, looking exhausted. Turns out he and Nath had two singles with about six inches between them. I’ll never forget his slumped shoulders as he walked out clutching Colgate to hoots of laughter from myself and Toby. Of such things are roadtrips made.
Still, the horror of a night in a twin room with his eldest son is forgotten as we trundle around Maranello, peep through the gates at the Fiorano test track and soak up the place. I’ve been many times before but for my family it’s a real treat and reminds me that, behind all the tat, Ferrari still possesses real magic.
Today is The Big One. We’ll cover a similar mileage to yesterday – around 500 – but I’m really keen to take in the spectacular St Gotthard Pass, which means we need to negotiate customs at the Swiss border with our barely legal Greek FIVA-registered car (intended to allow short journeys to shows and the like), conquer the Alps, then skirt around Lausanne and Geneva and get into France. The route could hardly be more evocative: Maranello, Piacenza, Milan, Lake Como, St Gotthard, Geneva and then, hopefully, somewhere up near Dijon for a late dinner. Confidence is high, although when Nath shows me the ‘toolkit’ it dips: tie-wraps, screwdriver, toilet roll, not much else.
All is sunny in Maranello but as we head north the skies turn grey and it begins spitting with rain well before we hit Milan. I wonder when my DS (still sounds strange) last saw precipitation and, when I switch on the wipers, the perished rubber blades confirm it’s been a while. On the second arc the left one comes loose at the bottom and flaps around hopelessly. Luckily we have those tie-wraps. And the drooping door-mirror needs a little tighten-up, too.
We’re 700 miles into our journey and all agree that a bodged wiper blade and fixing a loose mirror are acceptable issues in a 43-year-old Citroën. There’s a big test to come, though. We sweep serenely into Switzerland (no customs trouble) but, 20 miles short of St Gotthard, traffic is at a standstill. It’s cold, grey and the rain is that hazy sort that soaks you in seconds. We get out for a chat with the French, Swiss and Germans stuck alongside us.
So, do we switch the car off and risk having to restart over and over again, or leave it running and risk it overheating? As the traffic finally starts to creep we have little choice but to watch that temperature needle and pray… Two hours later we’re free of the queues and heading up and up and up on the magnificent St Gotthard Pass. We should never have doubted it. What a car! Sweeping over great curves suspended on giant concrete stilts, plunging into thick fog and watching the snow build from a light dusting at the road’s edge to great shelves of white ice twice the height of the DS… we’re all alone on St Gotthard and it’s breathtaking, slightly surreal and, for my brother Toby, terrifying. I think he’d have preferred the straight, flat tunnel option but the Pass is something else. ‘What if it, y’know, stops?’ he asks, timidly, while clinging to a towel that’s become a sort of comfort blanket. I assure him we can always roll back down but, of course, we make it to the wintry summit with ease and the journey through a vast valley of mountains and beautiful villages is fantastic, the DS staying calmly unruffled even when my dad has a turn behind the wheel and seems to be channelling Paul Coltelloni on the ’59 Monte.
It’s 6.30pm when we hit the valley floor and breathe a sigh of relief. Toby is particularly pleased to be back on the flat and heading for big blue autoroute signs. But within spitting distance of the main E35 a landslide has shut the road. The Swiss police officer speaks very little English but points us towards ‘Furka’ and the ‘train’. So the DS turns around and heads for this mysterious train, panic again rising in the car. In Realp, a few kilometres away, we find an open-sided car transporter that rattles through the Furka Tunnel for 15km in almost complete darkness and deposits us in Oberwald, tired, hungry and not knowing exactly where we are.
For the first time we resort to sat-nav and ponder just how far away the French border looks right now. The answer is ‘very’. But with little choice we push on to Lausanne, past Geneva and finally into France. Now we’re really tired and roll into the little town of Châtillon-en-Michaille, more in hope than expectation of finding a hotel at one o’clock in the morning. At the first roundabout two gendarmes are waiting and request a breath test. Once I’m proven to be sober they lead us to a hotel, we pop our credit cards into a machine and two room keys are ejected as if by magic.
Monday is a breeze. We finally top-up the LHM, tighten that mirror again and just keep adding fuel every 350km or so (the fuel gauge doesn’t work so we’re being cautious). The DS really is a fantastic car in which to cover miles. The engine isn’t the smoothest but that four-speed manual ’box is light, almost effortless, the ride is fantastic but not so floaty as to make you feel queasy, and the light, quick steering and superbly responsive brakes make it feel almost modern once up to speed.
We missed our 500-mile target yesterday so the speed creeps up to 140km/h or so and still the DS just strides on imperiously. Mâcon, Dijon and Reims slip by and soon we’re gliding into the Eurotunnel terminal. We go FlexiPlus, the tunnel’s version of Business Class. This incredible car deserves nothing less. Dad climbs out and pats the roof once we’re on board. ‘It’s part of the family now,’ he says.
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Words: Jethro Bovingdon // Pictures: The Bovingdon family