Friday, 9 May 2008

Test Drive - Citroën DS

Innovation and inspiration have gone hand-in-hand with practical design within the French auto industry for as long as anyone with their own teeth can remember. Citroën are arguably the most daring manufacturer of the Grand Trois, their dogged persistence to make the world appreciate hydropneumatics and such bold current models as the sumptuous C6 and the staggeringly intricate C4 making them seem like a lab of crackpot scientists who make great cars almost by accident. The forefather of these gifted children is, of course, the DS.

SuckSqueezeBangBlow has a lot of respect for the Citroën DS. So, being given the opportunity to spend the day cruising around the twisting and mountainous hills of the Tarn valley in a pristine 1974 DS 21 made your narrator extremely excitable; indeed I was over the next hill quicker than you can say ‘richly stuffed leather bench seat with ultra-spongey padding and the scent of ages’.

No… the DS is by no means a sporty car, and it would be utterly ridiculous if it was. It was designed to be able to accomplish two things – to transport the President in an appropriately dignified manner to his country pile, and then to nip across a coarsely ploughed field without spilling his Pastis. This is a fact.

So let’s not rush things. That’s not what the DS is about. Before driving her, it seemed logical to take a passenger ride in the back seat, to experience what Charles de Gaulle would have felt as he was ferried up and down the Champs Elysées. The seat is so luxuriously stuffed that you sink a good couple of inches into it, with a thick layer of foam under the carpet creating a strange wave-machine effect for your feet. The suspension rolls and wallows so much that you can imagine any corner taken at speed would see the sills gouging great scars in the asphalt. Douglas Adams coined a word in The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy which describes the ride perfectly: ‘flolloping’. This car is like riding a big flolloping mattress.

The interior is a glorious place to be, particularly the aroma. It’s sitting in a car like this that makes most modern cars appear soulless; the rich, warm scent of well-aged leather and the faint whiff of petrol in the air… all cars should smell this way. The interior plastics have matured and mellowed to give the whole an inimitably lived-in feel. This is a car with stories to tell.

And so to the act of driving. It’s peculiarly alien to begin with, not because you’re sitting on the wrong side of the car, but because reaching down to locate a handbrake or a gearstick results in nothing more than a handful of leather. Most odd. The handbrake, it turns out, is actually a fourth pedal to the left of the clutch (but of course!) and the gearstick is a stalk poking out of the steering column. Challenging at first, but you very quickly acclimatise to swapping cogs with something you’d normally use to flick your wipers on. The smoothness of the shift is admirable too.

What takes a little more getting used to is the constant attention you receive; everybody stares and most other motorists give a wave or a flash. (In France this is rather disconcerting, as a flash generally means ‘look out, gendarmes ahead’…!) You can have a bit of fun with this attention at traffic lights – as anyone who’s driven a CX, XM or Xantia will know – by hydropneumatically altering the ride height to float from slammed lowrider stance to ultra-SUV mode. Thoroughly entertaining.

The DS is a style icon and has earned its place in the pantheon of classic designs with alacrity. Modern developments such as power steering and disc brakes are wrapped in a gorgeous shape that redefines the term ‘retro’; highly futuristic at launch, the package has aged so well that it still feels oddly contemporary.

One final suggestion – if you do find yourself in the fortuitous position of having a set of DS keys to hand, make sure you try driving it at night. Headlights that turn in sync with the front wheels may sound gimmicky, but are so effective that you almost wonder why all cars don’t do it. The design of the DS is simply a work of genius, and with the patina of 34 years under its wheels, this example is every inch the quintessential vintage sedan.

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