If Life Gives You Citroëns, Make Lemonade
THE SKY over the port was the colour of engine oil, leaking from a cracked sump onto a concrete floor.
It was early morning. Fierce storms had delayed the cross-channel traffic, and the ferry from France had arrived several hours late. When the exit ramp finally swung down, two alien vehicles appeared. They were long, low, and shark-nosed, and to the dock hands and customs officials waiting by the quayside they looked unlike any normal car. They clicked and whirred and hissed faintly as they drove off into the English dawn, and into the sedate world of Morrises and Alvises, Fords and Austins.
The date was the 7th of October 1955, and the car was the new Citroën DS. Two months earlier, the DS had been shown to an astonished public at the Paris motor show, and was now due to make its first English appearance. Citroën's management had decreed that the cars be moved in secret, concealed inside lorries, but the delays imposed by the weather meant that they had to make the journey to Citroën's UK headquarters under their own power.
Any motorists who encountered the two cars en route could be forgiven for staring. Even now, the streamlined shape of the DS is still extraordinary, with its long smooth bonnet, hidden air-intakes, gracefully tapering tail and concealed rear wheels. Place the DS next to a contemporary mid-fifties car, with its radiator grilles, lumpy wings and superfluous chrome, and the effect is even more astonishing. Comparisons with spaceships are inevitable.
When the DS was introduced, Citroën already had a reputation for innovation. At its main design studio, the Bureau d'Etudes, engineers were encouraged to think creatively and to question conventional thinking. In the optimistic world of the 1950s, where the post-war gloom was beginning to lift and the future looked bright and wondrous, the results of such thinking produced an outburst of unconventional technology.
One of the main problems facing the DS's designers was that of producing a comfortable ride on the rough and ill-repaired French roads. Comfort on harsh surfaces requires soft springs with a wide range of vertical movement at the wheels, but such springs degrade the handling, and cannot cope with a large car that has a big carrying capacity. (When empty, the car will ride too high; when full, it will bottom out.) Instead of conventional steel springs, Citroën's solution used gas-filled spheres as a suspension medium, which have the advantage of becoming stiffer as the pressure increases. (Stick your thumb over the valve of a bicycle pump and try to compress the air. The smaller the volume the greater the resistance.) A gas-filled suspension thus becomes stiffer, and better able to absorb the shocks, as the car is more heavily laden.
The suspension was linked to these spheres via pistons filled with hydraulic fluid. This was supplied from a high pressure pump, so that by introducing or releasing fluid, the car could be made to raise or lower itself. Throw a couple of crates of wine in the back of a DS, and after a few moments it will pump itself back up to its normal height. Take the wine out, and the car will rise, only to settle down again with a soft sighing sound as excess fluid returns to the reservoir. Whatever the load, the car will still ride and handle as if unladen.
The theory is simple, but delivering the high pressure fluid on demand was more complex, and required a series of precisely machined sliding valves and pressure distributors. To manufacture the DS hydraulics required sub-micron standards of accuracy, and Citroën were forced to set up their own factory, where the hydraulic components were machined and assembled in air-conditioned rooms, similar to a modern chip fabrication plant.
Given pressurised fluid, and the means to move it on demand, Citroën's engineers started to dream up new uses. The braking system of the DS was fully powered, with the pedal being simply a sensitive pressure switch. Inexperienced drivers would slam on the brakes and stand the car on its nose, but experienced DS pilots would find the system quick and responsive, with braking force balanced automatically between front and rear wheels, depending upon the load on the suspension.
The fully powered steering was light and effortless, but gave the driver precise control. The clutch and gearchange were also powered by hydraulics, and gear changes were made by flicking a lever from one position to the next while the clutch was engaged and disengaged automatically, at a speed proportional to the engine revolutions.
Heinlein's novel "Space Family Stone" contains an exposition on spaceships, in which he compares modern technology to the primitive 20th century automobile. The crudeness of the latter is emphasised by the fact that the "heroic human operator used his own muscle power" to control it. Heinlein was writing in 1952, so we can perhaps forgive him for not having anticipated the DS, where the car was steered, controlled and braked entirely through hydraulic power, with no direct mechanical link to the operator.
Such was the nature of the cybernetic technology on view at the Paris Motor show. Journalists raved, and 12,000 advance orders were taken on the first day. By the end of the show, the orders stood at 80,000, and the waiting list at fifteen months.
The cynical modern reader will know what happened next. Like any piece of sufficiently advanced technology, DS Version 1 had been rushed to market, and was riddled with bugs. The innovative hydraulic system caused many of the problems, with pipes bursting and seals leaking. Sometimes the proud owner would come to a halt in a puddle of fluid. On other occasions, the fluid would leak from the gearchange unit into the gearbox, and the mystified owner would continue to refill the reservoir until the fluid burst the seals and drenched the friction plates of the clutch.
Many of the problems occurred in the transition from design studio to production line. The car was hard to build, and sometimes workers would inadvertently damage the hydraulic units during assembly. Other problems were more subtle. Early cars had a single external lock on the driver's side, and owners who parked too close to a high curb would return later in the day to find that the car had sunk down onto its suspension rubbers as the system slowly depressurised. While this was perfectly normal, it did make opening the door rather difficult.
The bugs may have been bad, but the documentation was worse. For fear of competition, the DS had been developed in obsessive secrecy, and few outside the company understood the car. Authorised Citroën dealers, lacking any form of service manual, would find it difficult to open the bonnet on a stricken DS, let alone understand the plumbing beneath, and many refused to touch the car.
To fix the problems an elite unit of Citroën engineers was formed, who would head out to rescue the early adopters, armed with lengths of spare piping and hastily redesigned components. Wherever possible they would arrive after nightfall, and replumb the car in secret. The appearance of technical supremacy had to be maintained.
And in the end it was. The problems turned out to be glitches rather than fundamental flaws in the car's architecture, and as the details were tidied up, the genuine virtues began to shine through. The DS showed itself as a safe and reliable car, whose technical sophistication offered genuine benefits to the driver, rather than being pointless gimmickry.
As a demonstration of this, the DS was entered into rallying, with remarkable success. (This may seem odd today, when rally cars are four-wheel-drive turbocharged monsters sheathed in a plastic body shell vaguely reminiscent of an ordinary production car. In the early sixties, rallying took place in cars with minimal modification, and the DS, with its hydropneumatic suspension, was a fast and durable contender in events such as the London-to-Sydney rally.)
The DS also enjoyed success outside France. Citroën had established a factory in England in the 1920s, and in due course the DS was assembled there. Chassis units were shipped from Paris, to be trimmed and fitted out with English seats, lights, and accessories, but the hydraulic components were still sent over as sealed units, with the British engineers forbidden to dismantle them or investigate their inner workings. One wonders if any were tempted to prise off the covers, and start hacking the hydraulics...
If so they would have faced competition from the Bureau d'Etudes, who were busy with their own research projects. One mid-60s prototype car featured active suspension, which fed hydraulic pressure into the suspension units to counteract body roll in corners. Another prototype offered anti-lock braking, while the wilder edges of the envelope involved hydraulically operated windscreen wipers, window winding mechanisms, and an extending wing that acted as an air-brake at high speeds.
But is all this relevant? In one sense, yes. The original designers' genius may be shown in the fact that the DS remains a usable car today, requiring few concessions to its age. Indeed, a number of the DS's innovations have since appeared on more mundane cars.
In another sense, no. Citroën's cybernetics worked through mechanical and hydraulic components. Brilliant (and long-lasting) they may have been, but today's cybernetic systems are resolutely electronic. (Probably breaking down irrevocably in 10 year's time, and being obsolete in five.) The DS represents a technological dead-end, fascinating though it may be.
In a further sense, the entire DS concept is obsolete. The DS was designed by a team of brilliant engineers, who knew what drivers needed and gave it to them. Intelligent customers would place their orders, and the unappreciative ones could go elsewhere. In today's market-driven enterprise, where the consumers are consulted on everything from the colour of the seats to the diameter of the cup-holders, no company would dare to launch so uncompromising a design.
Car makers today tend to produce competent and anonymous blobs, and when they try their hand at something more innovative the effect is often fraudulent. Volkswagen's new Beetle, for example, may look appealing, but is demonstrably inferior (more cramped, slower, noisier) to the standard Golf that it is based on.
Arguably, the new Beetle is a post-modern car. Its form is playful and self-referential, rather than meaningful. The DS, on the other hand, is a modernist work, where form and function are closely linked. The shape of the DS may be graceful, but it is also aerodynamic. (It was not until the early 1980s that normal production cars had a similar drag coefficient.) The smooth curve of the roof improves the air flow, as well as increasing interior space. The slim window frames give a light and airy feel to the interior, and increase the driver's visibility. The rear indicators, mounted at roof level, are an elegant touch, and are more easily seen by other drivers. There is virtually no feature of the DS that cannot be justified, and it is this combination of aesthetics and logic that forms much of the car's continuing appeal.
But the very concept of a "justifiable" automotive design may be the final proof that the DS is in fact obsolete. Modern motoring consists primarily of sitting in traffic jams while feeling vaguely guilty about destroying the environment, and is an activity that seems increasingly hard to justify, either as a sensible transport policy or as an enjoyable and involving activity. If a new team of geniuses were asked to come up with a revolutionary form of transport, would they really produce yet another car?