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Special Feature

Mercedes 300SL 1954 Citroën DS19 1955 Mini 1959 Audi Quattro 1980
Citroën
DS19
1955

Credit: AOL

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In October 1955, as a 20-year-old Elvis Presley was changing the face of music for ever, a French car manufacturer was about to unveil its own near-20-year-old creation that would have a similar impact on the motoring world.

Elvis's shows in Texas that month started to create a serious mania; teenage girls screamed in a way that scared the living daylights out of fathers, mothers and 'right-minded' God-fearing people, while their male peers would stand there simmering, waiting for a chance to get at the hip-thrusting young buck who was all their girlfriends would talk about.

On October 5th at the Paris Motor Show, Citroën revealed the DS19. While the excitement that followed may not have been quite on the level of those early rock 'n' roll shows - and there was undoubtedly less screaming - the people who witnessed it saw something stunningly new and exciting, and like those teenage girls of Texas they absolutely had to have it, knowing that things would never be the same again.

While the Mercedes 300SL was as beautiful a car as you could imagine, the DS19 was beyond that - it was positively Space Age.

Within 15 minutes of unveiling it, once the stunned audience had regained their senses, the French manufacturer had 743 orders, and by the time the day was out, 12,000 had been taken. The car was designed by Flaminio Bertoni, a sculptor who began working for Citroën with the hugely popular pre-war Traction Avant. The body was sleek and smooth, with long sloping lines which, from the right angle, made it look like the car was disappearing into the distance. In a poll by Classic & Sports Car magazine in 2008, the world's leading car designers declared it to be the most beautiful car of all time.

Work had begun on the DS19 before the war, but it wasn't the striking lines which took so long to develop: it was the revolution under the bodywork.

The DS19 used semi-automatic transmission, meaning there was no clutch pedal but the driver still manually changed the gears. It was also the first production car to feature powered inboard front disc brakes, but the suspension was the real eye-opener: a hydropneumatic self-levelling system.

Citroën DS19 hydropneumatic
self-levelling system
Credit: Citroen

Traditional sprung suspension systems always presented engineers with a problem: make the springs soft and it will be comfortable to drive but will be significantly affected by changes of load when cornering, but make them hard to deal with load changes effectively and the ride becomes uncomfortable. Citroën's new system for the DS19 borrowed from the hydraulic system used for braking, using an accumulator sphere containing pressurised nitrogen and a cylinder containing hydraulic fluid screwed to it.

Inside the cylinder was a piston that was connected to the suspension itself. The wheels moved the piston, which acted on the hydraulic fluid and in turn the nitrogen, which provided the cushion. The key component was the height corrector valve: when the suspension was too low, the valve introduced more high-pressure fluid, when it was too high, it released some.

The result was suspension which offered a comfortable ride while maintaining a level ride height. The driver was also given the option of adjusting the ride height through a switch on the dashboard, to provide better clearance on poor terrain. The adjustability also made changing a wheel easier: simply raise the suspension, place a special stand under the offending wheel and lower it again.

It was a remarkable system and other manufacturers tried to replicate it, but it wasn't easy.

Eventually Rolls Royce and Peugeot gave up and licensed Citroën's system, while other major manufacturers brought in air suspension and rear-axle mechanical devices in the following years, but the DS19 method remains ingenious and a favourite of motoring enthusiasts.

Yet the DS19 represented more than just a peek at the future of motoring - it became a national symbol.

Credit: Darren Davis- Citroen DS sales brochure

The French had endured a difficult decade following the war, which had heavily impacted the car industry. They had been pioneers of automotive development but were struggling to get back on track, while the Germans who had once occupied their land were rebuilding their own decimated industry with gusto.

Then the DS19 appeared, and the French saw it as the perfect affirmation of their sense of style and innovation: for them, every DS19 that was sent off to other countries around Europe and the wider world may as well have had a Tricolore paint job and cries of "Vive La France!" blaring from the radio. Fêted by designers, engineers, consumers and everyone who simply enjoyed beautiful, functional things, the car inspired a whole new generation to innovate.

Credit: Darren Davis- Citroen DS sales brochure

Top photo & bottom photo by Darren Davis

But we'll leave the last word on the Citroën DS19 to the acclaimed French philosopher Roland Barthes, in his 1957 book Mythologies:

"We must not forget that an object is the best messenger of a world above that of nature: one can easily see in an object at once a perfection and an absence of origin, a closure and a brilliance, a transformation of life into matter (matter is much more magical than life), and in a word a silence which belongs to the realm of fairy-tales. The DS - the "Goddess" - has all the features (or at least the public is unanimous in attributing them to it at first sight) of one of those objects from another universe which have supplied fuel for the neomania of the eighteenth century and that of our own science-fiction."

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