Another French car

Some remarks about the Citroën DS21

Shortly after driving the Peugeot 404 (see page 613) I had a week remembering what the Citroën DS is all about. If the former is a highly desirable and practical car with a strong individuality, what can I say about the Citroën, which is quite unique? It is certainly a very difficult car to write about; it is so easy to be either unfair to it or unfair to potential customers, because emotions run strongly for or against this pneumatic-wonder, whereas a road-tester is supposed to be strictly impartial.

The truth is that the Citroën, even in its latest DS21 guise, is a car which, like De Gaulle, is difficult to understand, certainly on first acquaintance. It has been said of the General that his mysterious personality and apparent destiny have made him uncharacteristic and unpredictable, a description that fits also the Citroën car. It is difficult for a stranger to understand in the sense that it has a great many identical-looking unidentified controls (13 in all, plus nine heater/ventilator controls) scattered haphazardly about the facia, and an engine started by moving the gear lever. It has plenty of mystery in its mechanical make-up – just take a look under the bonnet! This is bound up with its destiny of being the World’s most-advanced medium-price automobile, not only now, but for all time. So the controls and specification and styling (if you can call it styling) are uncharacteristic, and the car can be called unpredictable, as the suspension lurches with sudden changes of direction or while the drive takes up, the single-spoke steering wheel rocks slightly and hisses very faintly to itself around dead-centre, the button-applied brakes come on with unwanted suddenness, and the automatic-selector gear mechanism mumbles to itself and emits sounds like imminent clutch-slip as it makes its drawnout changes.

Yet, after all this has been accepted if not mastered, it has to be conceded that the Citroën covers the ground deceptively, setting up highly respectable average-speeds without making any real demands on the driver or imparting any sense of insecurity to its passengers. In this it excels and had the Jaguar publicity boys not thought of it first, the slogan “A Special Kind of Motoring which no Other Car in the World can Offer” would fit it admirably. The lavishly-illustrated catalogue says the Citroën is driven with the finger-tips and toes and this is literally true of the clutchless gear-change, the power-braking and the power-assisted steering, the last named being heavy for parking, unlike other power systems, but light (but by no means finger-tip light) for driving, yet with plenty of “feel” to it, and retaining the accuracy of a good rack-and-pinion mechanism, geared just over three turns, lock-to-lock. The absence of a conventional brake pedal is logical, being restful, especially compared with badly-located up-in-the-air pedals as found on Alfa Romeo and VW cars, and safe. The action of the foot-button has been rendered nicer by making it bigger and softer, and there are now separate pads for the button/parking brakes. By using the foot-parking brake as a clutch, smooth hill-starts are assured but its sticky action on the test car did not encourage this. The foot-operated parking brake with its under-facia release knob, originally seen as yet another Citroën non-conformity but since made familiar because it is as used on the majority of American cars, is awkward by European standards (and can clout the right ankle if the driver is so foolish, as I was, to release the brake before getting the active foot on to the other brake or the accelerator).

The Citroën hydro-pneumatic self-levelling suspension, once THE automotive achievement, is less impressive today. Rolls-Royce have surpassed it (with Citroën’s-help) and it is still caught out by hump-back culverts, etc. Yet the standard of interior comfort of all DS Citroëns is unquestionably high. The splendid reclining seats have multi-adjustments for the driver, the pile floor carpeting is laid over latex foam-rubber, the ride is pitch-free and leg-room generous. The cloth upholstery assists by holding on to the seat of one’s trousers when the full cornering power of f.w.d. with Michelin XAS tyres is being exploited. Citroën road-clinging is such that passengers may find that cornering tires them, but to the driver this stability, the small turning-circle, and the scientifically-planned view out onto the road are important contributions to the Citroën’s ability to be driven very fast and very safely. The tyres howl rather easily, but are otherwise quieter running than “X”s. The brakes, disc at the front, now work well but the twist-and-dip r.h. lamps’-stalk calls for unwarranted concentration and, although the DS has one of the most sonhisticated heating/ventilation systems imaginable, it would have taken me more than a week to learn subconsciously how to set it for maximum effectiveness.

The biggest change has been to the engine, the 5-bearing light-alloy push-rod hemispherical-head 2,175 c.c. power unit in the DS21 producing 100(DIN) b.h.p. at 5,500 r.p.m. This gives just about adequate performance (they claim 112 m.p.h. and a s.s. 1/4-mile in 19.5 sec.) but a lot of gear selection is necessary to maintain speed, and the noise level at the higher rates of crankshaft rotation, while not objectionable, is greater than one expects in a car costing not far short of £1,800. But I got 23.9 m.p.g. in a combination of fast and slow, country and town, motoring, and 4-star fuel is acceptable with the c.r. of 8.75 to 1. After 750 miles the 9-pint sump needed no oil.

The long-established Citroën arrangements remain – for example, dual-circuit balanced power braking; the clever if “fumbly” interior door handles; the illuminated hoot with its light lid, that holds a surprising amount of luggage (claimed capacity: 17 1/2 cu. ft.); the aggressive aerodynamic shape; the big rubber-sealed windows, sans quarter-lights; the provision of a French Jaeger clock and the oblong speedometer calibrated in multiples of 20 m.p.h. along most of the dial and difficult to read quickly; the chain-controlled radiator blind; the excellent tool-kit within the front-mounted spare wheel; automatic jacking; quickly-detachable wings and doors, and the roof-level rear turn-indicators, etc., etc.

A vague fuel gauge and an uncalibrated thermometer occupy a separate panel with the trip-with-decimal and total odometers, the turn-indicators have to be hand-cancelled but their short I.h. stalk lever operates as a flasher, and there are two bonnet-release levers on opposite sides of the scuttle, both needing to be used to release the lid, although the safety-catch is well contrived. Stowage in the door pockets, facia well and unlockable cubby-hole is restricted to small objects. There is a manual choke.

There are now constant-velocity transmission joints which have removed all snatch from the steering and all Citroën models have their body panels filled at Slough with Havoline as an additional anti-corrosive, this treatment being possible because the doors, etc., have holes drilled in them for this purpose, afterwards plugged with grommets – rust-prooting which can be repeated as frequently as road-salting and other conditions demand. A notable feature of the DS21 is the provision of Cibie quartz-iodine headlamps, additional to the normal self-levelling headlamps; on British roads these are embarrassingly powerful, especially as, self-levelling or net, they lit up the tree-tops, but give superb night vision. They can easily be switched off, of course, independently of the main lamps, and they go out when the latter are on dipped beam. The 5-position height adjustment of the suspension is another unique, and at times useful, Citroën characteristic; the control lever is now on the right (but be careful not to get a shoe-lace caught on it). The anti-dazzle mirror tends to impair n/s visibility and the binding on the small steering wheel admirably absorbs sweat. The fuel range is very generous (approx. 350 miles) but while I suppose a very pessimistic petrol gauge is a product of the Motorway-age, it can be very tedious if unsupported by a warning light or a reserve tap, as on the Citroën (and although a reserve tap is usually said to be omitted on the score of expense, it is. less costly than a gauge, pace the new economy-version of the VW 1200),

That is, I hope, a fair assessment of this controversial car. If I write in enthusiastic detail of this Citroën as I did when it was virtually a new model (Motor Sport, April 1958) I may be accused of swindling those who buy one and find they dislike it. Yet Citroën enthusiasts need no convincing and indeed are likely to criticise me for daring to suggest that this “legendary dream car” (I quote from the catalogue) has any shortcomings or that any car is superior to it. – W. B.