Cars today are packed with whiz-bang technology, but so many of them are uninspiring design variations on jelly beans, boxes and squashed hamburgers. There’s clearly no computer chip for style.
Wind your way back to the 1950s and the roads – especially in the United States – were dominated by massive futuristic behemoths with sharper fins than an intergalactic shark. But amid that decade, when many new cars could be measured in acreage, there emerged from France what would be arguably the most gorgeous car ever committed to metal: the Citroën DS.
A car for the Space Age
As car designers and manufacturers, Citroën had often been … well, quirky and eccentric – and appeared especially so to befuddled Anglo-Saxon sensibilities. For “quirky and eccentric” you might just as well say “downright weird.” The Citroën 2CV created back in 1936 – the legendary “tin snail” – set the bar for French design eccentricity pretty high.
But by 1955, Citroën had ditched the snail concept and – like the Americans – embraced the design imaginings of the emerging Space Age. Yet the results were completely different. The Americans produced cars that looked like amalgams of Looney Toons rocket ships and over-scaled pinball machines on white-walled wheels.
Meanwhile, French designers in the mid-1950s produced a car of streamlined beauty that was also remarkably technically innovative. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the designers of the beautifully proportioned and functional Citroën DS included an Italian sculptor, Flaminio Bertone, and French aeronautical engineer, André Lefèbvre. With various updates, this impressive car would be produced in 1.5 million units worldwide right through to 1975: amazing longevity in a vehicle so defiantly different from the mainstream.
The innovations of the Citroën DS included revolutionary aerodynamics, disc brakes, swivelling headlights guided by the steering wheel, a translucent fibreglass roof and hydro-pneumatic self-leveling suspension to cope with any road surface or angle.
How important was that final innovation? The most dramatic illustration of its utility came in August 1962, when terrorists launched an attack on French President Charles de Gaulle, who was travelling in a Citroën DS (top photo). The vehicle was struck by over 140 bullets and all four tyres were blown out. Amazingly, the stock-standard self-leveling suspension kept the car perfectly stable and it was able to drive on to safety.
The most beautiful car is a French goddess
And the Citroën DS was a goddess: the pronunciation of the letter combination “DS” in French creates the word “déesse” – meaning “goddess.” A year after demonstrating a rugged resistance to terrorist bullets, the goddess was on vertical display in all her sculptural and futuristic aesthetic glory on a rotating podium at the Amsterdam Motor Show. (On the floor to the right of the DS, you can see a couple of Citroën “tin snails”). So, the DS was a goddess of both strength and sublime beauty!
In 1999, a poll of twenty of the world’s leading car designers nominated the Citroën DS as the third most influential car of the twentieth century, while in 2009 the DS was declared the most beautiful car of all time. In recognition of her aesthetic divinity, “the goddess” has been displayed in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, La Triennale in Milan and in the Louvre Museum in Paris. Incomparable!
By Brad Allan, writer and wine tasting host in Melbourne, Australia and frequent visitor to France…