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