1955 Citroen DS19
1955 Citroen DS19. Click image to enlarge

Story and photo by Bill Vance

Andre Citroen, a brilliant engineer and former chief engineer of the Mors Automobile Company in Paris, France, set up a gear-making company in 1913. World War I brought much success, and after the war, with the huge plant available and military contracts finished, Citroen established the Andre Citroen Motor Co. in Paris in 1919.

Citroen’s cars were progressive, introducing such features as all-steel bodies in 1925, and Chrysler’s soft “Floating Power” engine mounts in 1932. Citroen pioneered mass production in Europe and within a decade had joined Renault and Peugeot as one of the Continent’s big three automobile manufacturers.

Citroen’s 1934 Traction Avant model, as its name implies, had front-wheel drive. It also had such advanced features as unit construction and all-wheel torsion bar suspension, and was low enough to dispense with running boards. It was such a sound design that it remained in production basically unchanged for over 20 years.

Although some Tractions began trickling into North America in the late 1940s, it was the futuristic Citroen DS19 (Desiree Speciale, 1911-cc engine) four-door, unit construction five-passenger sedan introduced in 1955 that really brought Citroen to our attention as a bold imaginative company.

Like the Traction the DS had a low profile and demonstrated Citroen’s interest in aerodynamics. Its hood sloped smoothly up from the low grille opening which was integrated with the bumper, and the body carried one unbroken line from headlamps to rear bumpers. A low beltline, generous frameless windows and thin pillars gave an airy feeling and excellent visibility in both sedan and wagon models. The front drive allowed a large, deep trunk.

It was under its low slung body, made of steel (doors and fenders), aluminum (hood and trunk lid), and fibreglass (roof), that the DS19 was unique. The heart of its difference was a central hydraulic system pressurized by a pump that was belt-driven by the engine. The system operated the four-wheel independent suspension, inboard disc in front (the world’s first high production front discs), steering, automatic clutch and gearshift. There were drum brakes at the rear. Conventional steel springs or torsion bars were replaced by metal spheres a little larger than a softball. These were divided horizontally by a flexible diaphragm that separated the air in the top half from the oil in the bottom half. Springing was achieved by feeding pressure generated by wheel motion through a pipe to a piston at the bottom of the sphere, which in turn compressed the air in the top half of the sphere.

This hydro-pneumatic suspension gave a very soft ride, automatic load levelling, and the flexibility of both manual and automatic height adjustment. The DS19 could be raised for generous clearance on rutted roads or slung low for smooth freeway cruising.

It also simplified tire changing. One raised the suspension to its full height, put a block under the door, and moved the suspension to its low setting, thereby lifting the two wheels off the ground. For rear wheels the fenders were removed by undoing one bolt, and each wheel was held on by a single large central nut.

The clutch disengaged at engine idle, or when the dash-mounted four-speed manual gearshift lever was moved. The brakes were operated by a small button much like the floor-mounted dimmer switches in older cars. The resulting very short brake button travel took some practice lest one pitch the passengers into the plastic dashboard. If the central hydraulics failed, an emergency brake pedal operated the front discs through a separate hydraulic line.

The DS19’s engine was its most prosaic feature. Although it did have wet cylinder sleeves and hemispherical combustion chambers, the 1.9-litre (116.6 cu in.) four was the basic 1934 pushrod, four-cylinder powerplant from the Traction model.

It drove the front wheels through a four-speed, overdrive transmission, and with 75 horsepower in a 1,234 kg (2,720 lb) car, acceleration was moderate. Road & Track magazine (11/56) reported zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) acceleration in 18.6 seconds. Good aerodynamics helped the DS reach a respectable top speed of 142 km/h (88.4 mph). Its slippery shape combined with the overdrive fourth gear, generous sound insulation and very soft foam seats made the DS19 an effortless, comfortable high-speed cruiser.

Citroen’s safety features included a steering wheel with only one spoke so that in an accident the driver would be deflected away from the deadly steering column. The direction signal blinkers were in the rear roof corners for easier visibility.

A very long 3,124 mm (123 in.) wheelbase for a 4,801 mm (189 in.) car meant that the wheels were pushed out to the corners for a spacious interior. The low centre of gravity and Michelin X steel-belted radial tires gave the DS19 tenacious cornering. This contributed to many international rally wins.

The Citroen DS19 was a brave venture, one that Road & Track’s editor John Bond, an engineer, said “drives boldly off the beaten path and never feels the bumps.”

Like its predecessor Traction model, the DS in various versions lasted for 20 years; it was replaced in 1975 by the CX series.

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