The Goddess and the Idea
In a scene at the beginning of The Day of the Jackal, Fred Zinnemann’s brilliant 1973 film (from Frederick Forsyth’s equally brilliant 1971 novel), two black “Prefecture” Citroen DS-19 sedans speed across an intersection in Le Petit-Clamart, a suburb of Paris, one rainy evening when a dozen or more gunmen suddenly open up on the cars with a barrage of machine-gun fire from three sides. They rake both Citroens and puncture two tires in the lead car, whose driver, despite having to contend with two flat tires, a shattered rear window, and an ongoing hail of bullets, turns a potentially fatal skid into a high-speed evasion maneuver that saves the life of his passenger, President Charles De Gaulle.
So smitten was le grand Charles by the car that saved his life that he later ordered a DS for his own personal use. In doing so, he was following a trend. Back in the 60s, Brigitte Bardot, Alec Guinness, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Yuri Gagarin, and Pope John XXIII, among many others, all drove Citroen DSs.
Having spent much of my childhood in France, I recall the assassination attempt, albeit dimly; I was only 10, and the Algeria war engendered many such crises. But much more vivid are my memories of the fabled Citroen DS, or Déesse (“Goddess”) and its cheaper sibling the ID, or Idée (“Idea”; this was a de-contented DS for the masses, with a smaller engine and fewer fancy accessories). These ultrachic twins, introduced in 1955, ruled the Routes Nationales of France for nearly twenty years. In fact, if you want a representative image of France in the ‘60s, picture a long straight highway lined with towering sycamores marching toward the horizon like the legionaries who laid out the roads of Roman Gaul. In the distance a church bell rings. A small Renault, say, putters along. Then, out of nowhere, a sleek, predatory DS rapidly approaches, devours the hapless Renault, then, as rapidly, disappears into the distance. Such bravado was a common sight on the French highways of the day. They were fast, the Goddesses, not exactly champions in the traffic-light derby–at least not with the original 75-hp 1.9 liter in-line four (later upgraded to a more credible 2.3 liter with twice the horsepower and three times the punch)–but they were unbeatable as highway cruisers.
The DS/ID was the most original product of the venerable Citroen factory that had already produced such legends as the 11/15 Traction Avant (front-wheel-drive) Ultralight, favored during the war by the Resistance for its quick getaway capacities; and, starting in 1948, the iconic 2CV. Like many of his compatriots, the famed structuralist Roland Barthes was smitten by the DS and wrote at some (turgid) length about it. “It is obvious,” he declared confidently, “that the new Citroen has fallen from the sky.” In fact, it did look like an aerodynamic flying saucer, and the resemblance was appropriate, because technologically it was as futuristic as it got at the time, with hydraulic power steering, disc brakes (the first production car so equipped) and a single-spoke steering wheel behind acres of glass that afforded an all-around commanding view of the road. The hydraulics controlled the power steering, clutch, and disc brakes, as well as the famous suspension that consisted, essentially, of four air mattresses, one at each wheel. These mattresses acted as springs, delivering a soft and plush ride unknown in any other car of its time, even a Rolls-Royce. (In fact, when Rolls introduced self-leveling suspension on its Silver Shadow in the late ‘60s, it simply leased the technology from Citroen.) Later versions of the DS–the 21 and 23–had self-leveling directional headlamps that swiveled with the steering, a nice touch on a curvy road at night.
Fortunately, quite a few of them are still around, as was evident on October 9, 2005, in Paris, when over a thousand immaculate-looking Goddesses and Ideas celebrated their 50th anniversary by driving in procession up the Champs-Elysees and around the Arc de Triomphe.
As for the long-standing association between Citroen and the occupant of the Elysee Palace, it seems to be over. At least, the current President, M. Sarkozy, favors a Peugeot 607 “Paladine” for his official displacements. But the shade of his Citroen-loving predecessor, General De Gaulle, can take comfort in the fact that Citroen and Peugeot are pretty much the same company now, and that both, after all, are still French.