Nobody had ever seen anything quite like the Citroen DS when it was announced in 1955. The shape was futuristic and aerodynamic, and a complex hydraulic system operated the self-levelling suspension, brakes, steering and semi-automatic gearshift.
With unstressed bolt-on panels, front-wheel drive and inboard disc brakes, the car was technologically light years ahead of its contemporaries. Roadholding was exceptional for the time, too. All this technology did not make the car fragile: the DS went on to become a successful rally machine in later years, and it still stands out as one of the most advanced and interesting cars of the 20th century.
Two problems affected the early cars: the DS19 (with 1911cc four-cylinder engine from the Traction Avant) was underpowered and rather expensive. Undeterred, Citroen introduced the ID19 in 1958, 25% cheaper and lacking the hydraulics for the steering and gearbox. This sold much better. A cavernous Safari estate was added in 1960, and from 1961 Chapron did a delicious "factory" convertible. Power went from 69bhp to 75bhp in 1961, too.
The DS was built at Slough for the UK market from 1956, with a few special features – leather seats, a wooden dash and Lucas electrics (the latter to 1962 only). Just over 8000 cars were built here before the end of 1964; Paris-built cars were finished at Slough during 1965 and then after April 1966 the cars were imported fully-built from Paris or, in some cases, the Brussels factory. The DS19 went to 1985cc (and became a DS20 from September 1969) and there was a new DS21 with 2175cc engine. Unique to the UK was the 1964-1965 DW – with DS spec but a conventional gearbox.
From 1967, the original frog’s-eye headlamps gave way to quad lamps behind glass, and these swivelled with the steering to light the way round corners. For the 1970 model-year, a more powerful DS21 EFI (with Bosch injection) became available, and a year later there were new Borg Warner automatic and five-speed manual gearboxes. The last increase in engine size was to 2347cc in 1973, creating DS23 and DS23 EFI, the latter with 141bhp.
Torque 123lb ft@3500rpm
Top speed 110mph
Gearbox 5-speed manual
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
BODYWORK & CHASSIS
Check as much of the steel skeleton inner shell as you can, such as the side rails against which the doors shut. Bubbles spell more trouble underneath. Get underneath to check the main underfloor box-sections, which rot through because of inadequate drainage, and be warned that underseal often masks problems until it’s too late. Then check the upper surfaces by lifting up the sill trim and the carpets. Back wings can be checked from inside the boot and look for holes in the boot floor too. The bootlid too also traps water inside, thanks to its sponge-like seal. You can always take off the rear wings – they’re held on by one bolt – to have a more thorough check beneath. Then check the metal around the rear suspension sphere mounts. Repairs here can be tricky, time-consuming and expensive.
Check the sills, at either end, or bulging anywhere along the length. Outer panels themselves are quite expensive now, so do check them for corrosion. Front wings go around their bottom rear corners as well as the wheelarches, and the 1968 on cars often have problems around the headlamps. Rear outer wings go around their top and bottom edges. Bonnets are aluminium while roofs on the saloons – but not Safaris or Breaks – are glassfibre. However, water does get underneath.
The engines are all four-cylinder types with simple OHV architecture. They last very well, even though lacklustre performance persuades some owners to thrash them. Replacing the timing chain means taking the engine out, because it's at the back of the block, so ask whether it's been done! If you do need to take the engine out, take the opportunity to do another couple of jobs. One is replacing the clutch plate – an engine-out job on its own. The other is to check and overhaul the inboard front brakes, which are much easier to work on with the engine out of the way.
DS engines hail from the Traction Avant. Cracks in the alloy cylinder head can be common, thanks to poor quality or low anti-freeze. Oil filters need to be fitted properly – the triangle symbol on the casing should line up with the equivalent icon on the sump – otherwise the engine can seize. Check for head gasket problems, often caused by cylinder wet liners sinking into the block. Camshaft seals can leak oil and tappets get noisy and are often left. Thanks to Bosch making the fuel injection system on the EFi cars, it is usually quite reliable, although the flexible fuel pipes can crack and leak.
With the hydraulic suspension, corroded pipework is really the major issue, so look underneath for signs of coloured fluid escaping. Putting the car suspension up to high will make this easier. Pay attention to the nearside rear wheelarch area and the rear gaiters for leaks. Suspension spheres need recharging periodically, but replacement is not that tricky. Listen to how often the pump clicks; every 20 seconds or so is the norm. On the conventional parts of the suspension, driveshaft joints can wear out – there will be a knocking on full lock – and balljoints need to have been regularly greased to stop them seizing. Clunks from the rear signal rear suspension pushrod wear. Earlier cars have semi-automatic hydraulically-assisted gearboxes and if they go wrong, changes will be difficult. It takes an expert to set them up properly. On the later cars, a whine in fifth gear points to a new differential; replacement is a very involved task. Test the brakes for their efficiency; they should be very, very sharp. The front ones are inboard, and pads can take many hours to change.
Tyres for the DS can be expensive, so check them all carefully – the spare as well. Michelins were always the original fitment (Michelin owned Citroën) but the correct size and type for later cars – 185 x 15 XVS with asymmetric tread – are not always easy to find. Some owners have fitted cheap van tyres as a quick fix. Note that the rear track of a DS was always narrower than the front, to aid handling, so don't assume the wrong tyres have been fitted! In fact, on pre-1970 cars, different tyre sizes were used front and rear, too: metric 165 x 400 at the front and 155 x 400 at the rear.
To be honest, you probably shouldn’t go for a Citroen DS if you’re more at home with conventional engineering. To appreciate the DS, you also have to appreciate a novel approach to automotive design and, seeing as this is a Citroen, also a somewhat stubborn desire to make things quirky just for the hell of it. There’s no denying that these Citroens take more looking after than most classics, and their iconic European status is now being reflected in rising prices. But the rewards are considerable; a driving experience so smooth that it’s like being on a magic carpet, blended with enough eccentricities to keep you constantly amused and bemused.
If you plan to use the car a lot, go for a late DS23 EFI, with five-speed or automatic transmission. But if it's the technological oddities that interest you, try an early car. All models have the full-power hydraulic brakes, but ID models and the 1964-1965 DW have a conventional gearbox and clutch.