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CitroŽn DS 19 - 1957 road test

D Series brochures index page



Typical novel feature of the bizarre Citroen DS-19 is safe, yet strong, single spoke steering wheel


The strange and wonderful Citroen DS-19 with its special oil-and-air hydraulic suspension and its front-wheel drive is the hottest French export since the Can-Can


Photographed by Ralph Poole

When I first laid eyes on France’s newest car import, the Citroen DS-l9, it looked more like a greenhouse mounted on a giant clam-shell than a car. However, I hadn't been behind the wheel of this extraordinary and revolutionary car more than five minutes when I realised that here at last was a car built for the driver, a car that drivers and not just phony advertising men can rave about. It stops on a dime without yawing and pitching, jacks itself up when you get a flat, has upholstery that really puts you on a cloud and corners at 75-mph like a Ferrari. All this is a result of an amazing and revolutionary springless suspension; a powerful but ingenious hydraulic system and the kind of intelligent detail work that makes this car stand out on America's fish-tail cluttered highways, like a diamond on a plate of peas.

Don’t feel foolish if you‚you’ve never heard of the Citroen before. Most people haven’t. Until the DS-19, there was no reason for an American to buy a Citroen since - as the factory was well aware - it was a ‚”uniquely French car‚” and few were bought outside the homeland. However, all this was before the arrival on the scene of the DS-19.  Introduced in the Paris Olympia auto show last October, the DS-19 brought the house down.  Remember too, this is at a show that features dozens of Ferraris, Rolls Royces, Bentleys and Mercedes.

The new Citroen has this effect on people, even car-weary car writers.  It is a strange, unorthodox vehicle with such a strong personality that it leaves a permanent mark on everyone who has driven it. At first meeting the car’s controls and behaviour are as alien as those of a space ship built by. Martians; but after a few steady hours behind the wheel the driver feels as if the Citroen were the car he had been waiting for all his life. Behind the scenes in Detroit - in the engineering testing labs where all the foreign cars are carefully disassembled bolt by bolt, then reassembled, then driven to virtual destruction - no single car has ever received the close attention of the Citroen DS-19.

The reason for all this acclaim and hubbub is pretty simple. Glass-and-steel clamshell that it may appear, the Citroen DS-19 is the car that is giving carmakers everywhere a fistful of good reasons to take stock.

First off, Citroen has put a front-wheel drive on its car – something entirely different from all other passenger automobiles.

The power brake (and steering) is something never before even considered for a low-priced car, and those brakes are something!

There isn’t a metal spring (coil or leaf) in the whole car – it literally floats on hydraulic (oil and gas) springs.

And the car jacks itself up for a fast tire change, compensates for load; has an adjustable body height off the road and the body and the frame are one solid piece.

If this is a lot of maker's manual jargon thrown at you, let's start with the brakes. There's no pedal. A 1 1/2-inch button does the trick and does it well. While learning to drive this car, experts advise handling the brake control in stocking feet. I'll buy this, since its one-inch travel is so fast to respond that a heavy leather shoe and equally heavy foot nearly put me through the windshield the first time I braked the DS-19 to a stop. More about the brake later.

Besides the brake, imagine an automobile that can actually adjust its body height to fit terrain and you're imagining something real: the DS-19.

In the lower left section of the driving compartment, next to where your left foot would ordinarily rest while driving, is a five-position control lever. Normally this rests at the next-to-lowest position to give the entire car a seven-inch ground clearance. On rough terrain or on high-center cowtrails, you can simply raise the entire car to 11 or 13 inches of ground clearance by moving the control lever to either of the next two higher positions.

Practical French forgot nothing in designing the Citroen DS-19. All seats, including the driver's, fold down quickly to make a full-sized, double bed.
Emergency brake (left); accelerator (right) and small brake-button leave driver's floor relatively uncluttered for fast action
Eye-stopping Gallic look of DS-19: clean body styling, tremendous glass area for visibility, sloping hood that gives nose strange clam-shell effect

pic06.jpg pic07.jpg
Compact engine compartment holds engine, hydraulic pump and spare tire ahead of radiator. Bulbs flanking engine hold oil and gas for front suspension.
Special jack goes under hydraulically-raised car to make tire changing or repair a snap.

In the lower left section of the driving compartment, next to where your left foot would ordinarily rest while driving, is a five-position control lever. Normally this rests at the next-to-lowest position to give the entire car a seven-inch ground clearance. On rough terrain or on high-center cowtrails, you can simply raise the entire car to 11 or 13 inches of ground clearance by moving the control lever to either of the next two higher positions.

The other two positions are used for the automatic jacking system. When you get a flat tire, all you do is move the control lever to the top of its throw and the car will rise. Now you open the hood (the spare tire is carried under the hood just forward of the radiator) and remove spare tire, jack, and the special wrench for removing the wheel. The jack is inserted in the space provided for it in the body then locked at this height with the pin provided for the purpose. Now you return to the car and pull the height-control lever all the way to the bottom of its travel.

In 55 seconds the car settles like a deflating balloon and the two wheels on the jacked side rise free of the road surface. To remove a wheel you unlock one center lug with the special wrench and pull the wheel free. Only the sports cars have heretofore had this simple single-lug design. When the spare wheel has been locked in place, the height control lever is again raised to the top of its travel and the car rises so the jack can be removed. After the jack is removed you put the height control lever in the standard position, the car settles to its seven-inch road clearance, and you're ready to go.

This elevator action is powered by a single, belt-driven hydraulic pump located in front of the engine. All the rest of the power for accessories and driving comes from the same pump. This includes the power steering, power brakes, power clutch release, power shift and also the supply of hydraulic fluid to the four points of the suspension system. The pump operates to keep a steady 2,300 pounds

of pressure in a large accumulator. When operating, the pump draws a maximum of one horsepower from the engine, less than the power drain from the single power steering accessory on an American car, far less than a completely power-equipped American car.

The strength of this hydraulic robot is also very evident in the brakes. The DS-19 has orthodox drum brakes in the rear wheels and special inboard-mounted disk brakes on the front wheels. Disk brakes, as you probably know, are standard equipment on most racing cars and racing sports cars and have the excellent quality of gaining strength rather than fading after hard usage. Approximately 70 percent of the braking effort is absorbed by these front brakes. On my first test drive with the DS-19, a big Mercury suddenly shot out from a side street. Automatically my right foot stamped down where the brake should be and hit nothing but empty floor. The side of the Mercury by now practically filled the windshield and I really tromped down with everything I had on the brake button. My foot hit the button true and square and the Citroen obediently stopped dead. It didn't stop, nose down, the way a conventional American car does, but “froze” without any pitch.

Flying gravel under wheels graphically shows car's power applied through unusual front-wheel drive.

Before and after pictures demonstrate car's special hydraulic mechanism. Top, car is lower than U.S. car; bottom, variable suspension raises DS-19's belly above other car's.

Later I tried panic stops from all speeds up to 60 mph and in all cases the Citroen did its best to stand me on my head in the front seat-but still without the pitch and roll and rear-wheel breakaway of many American cars, and in just about half the distance of the poorer American cars.

These are, without doubt, the safest family-car brakes in production today. Once you learn to control your American heavy-foot brake pressure, they also become the most delightful brakes in existence. During several trips through the world's worst traffic - Los Angeles in rush hour – I finally learned the brakes so well I could play games with them.  My only bad moments were when the cars behind me, deceived by the lack of dip in the Citroen’s front end, would come up behind me too fast and almost climb the sloping deck.

While the brakes prove the power of the Citroen s central hydraulic power system, the ride and handling characteristics of the car prove its versatility. No one has ever built a more comfortable car than the DS-19, and I am not excepting either Rolls-Royce or Cadillac. Until you've experienced the incredible smoothness of the gas-oil suspension system, you won't believe it. On each wheel there is a spherical container, the upper half of which is filled with an inert gas, the lower half with hydraulic fluid. When the wheel moves under the impact of an irregularity in the road, it moves a piston which compresses the hydraulic fluid in the lower half of the cylinder. The hydraulic fluid transmits this pressure to a flexible diaphragm which divides the sphere into its two halves and the diaphragm transmits the pressure to the chamber of inert gas. Small relief valves in the piston’s cylinder act to damp too-rapid action of the piston, thus performing the function of shock absorbers.

cylinder act to damp too-rapid action of the piston, thus performing the function of shock absorbers.

Together with a motorcycle expert, I drove the car up into Beachwood canyon in Hollywood. This is a winding, twisting road that meanders first through a residential section then narrows into an almost impossible half-pavement, half-dirt trail. In this latter part of its travel, Beachwood is full of chuckholes of eight-inch to one-foot depth. In test trips up this street with American cars I have always found myself sideways after the first few hundred feet. The rear wheels of the American cars take off on a big bounce after the first chuckhole and from there until the car slows sideways there is no control over operations at all.

With the Citroen, I applied full throttle in second gear, silently uttered a prayer, and hit the first chuckhole at about 30 mph. My motorcycle-expert passenger had already clamped one arm around the back of his bucket seat and braced the other arm stiff against the instrument panel. WHAM! First chuckhole. My arms were stiff with force against the expected sudden twist of the steering wheel. None came. Before I could adjust myself to this odd circumstance, the Citroen had rippled—and that's the closest word in our language - over at least a half dozen other chuckholes, gaining speed all the while. We ended in a sliding stop at the dead end of Beachwood, our shovel nose within breathing distance of a startled horse, the outrider of the riding academy at the head of Beachwood.

Maybe, we thought, we had just hit all the holes at the correct speed and in the correct spot. On the way down, the motorcycle expert took the wheel. He left the car in second gear and used the brakes all the way down through the forest of inescapable chuckholes. At the bottom of the hill we were clocking 40 mph and there still had been none of the usual trouble with loss of traction and control. At the same time, he had not been forced to exert more than cruising pressure against the steering wheel.

So maybe this is a special type of hardship run, and maybe your own driving experience does not necessarily include this kind of chuckhole driving. Still, the Citroen is the only car in the world that can handle such rough terrain without special skill on the part of the driver, without extreme discomfort on the part of the passengers, without that horrible out-of-control feeling.

Aiding the natural smoothness of this system is the self-leveling device. Each wheel adjusts itself to the load imposed upon it simply by increasing or decreasing the hydraulic pressure in the lower half of its gas-fluid sphere. Thus, not only is the car always level regardless of who sits where in the passenger compartment, but each wheel's springing capacity is exactly correct for its load. On cars with conventional springs, the comfort of the ride varies directly with load-with one person in the car, the springing is too hard, with a fully-loaded car the springing is correct — but in the DS-19 the passengers always enjoy the same exceptional comfort.

During the test drive I threw the car over one classic California highway dip. This has long been a favorite sport of car testers, since this particular dip is guaranteed to throw all four wheels of any American car completely off the ground. The DS-19 acted like it was glued to the road.

In fast cornering, it's hard to say whether the DS-19's unusual capabilities are due to the suspension system or the front-wheel drive. The Citroen has always been known as one of the best of the European passenger cars for fast cornering. (It has gained a considerable reputation as an “escape” car among French hoodlums just because of this fact.) When the driving force is concentrated on the front wheels, the car is pulled through corners rather than being pushed through them. By accelerating all the way through the corner force is applied in the direction of the turn; when you accelerate a rear-wheel drive car through a corner you exert your force at a tangent to the turning curve.

But the DS-l9 is more than just good on the corners, it is superb. The suspension system operates to resist the tendency of the body to lean against the corner, with the result that you have one of the flattest cornering cars in the world in the Citroen. It reminds you of the MG TC, except that not for one instant do you have to sacrifice riding comfort to obtain flatness and sureness in the corners.

What’s more, the Citroen will turn tighter than any other four-door sedan of comparable passenger capacity and as tight as most sports cars. It will turn a complete circle in just a little over twice its length. (Total overall length, bumper to bumper, is 15 feet, 9 inches; the turning circle is 36 feet in diameter. More interesting, the wheelbase of the Citroen is 10 feet 3 inches, only slightly shorter than our Lincoln.) On the dangerous little roads that wind through any city's mountain residential districts, the Citroen is unequalled.

Under expert hands—not mine, that is, but those which have seen more than the average share of high-speed, front-wheel drive cornering —the Citroen can be road - raced on mountain roads. One French test driver hung a 90-degree corner at 70 mph without coming unstuck. This is absolutely impossible with any other sedan with comparable weight distribution - 65 percent front, 35 percent rear - because such a lightly-loaded rear end should part company with the highway under these stresses. My own most heroic effort during the test consisted of cleaving to the inside of a tight, downhill hairpin at 30 mph, a feat that would have scraped the chrome off the door handles of a stock American family car. At any speed above 30 on that same corner I ran out of faith in myself and the Citroen.

This requires a little explanation. On the standard rear-wheel drive car, the front wheels have to be held forcibly into the turn to keep them from straightening out. After years of driving, this necessary force against the front wheels becomes instinctive, so much a part of your memory that you no longer are aware of holding the front wheels into the turn. On the Citroen the absence of this front-wheel tendency to straighten gives the driver the feeling that the front wheels are actually pulling themselves into the corner farther than he wants them to. The driver automatically corrects but he shouldn't. Time after time I found myself steering across the centerline of the highway in a tight turn, correcting what I thought was an improper desire of the car to run itself into the inside bank. There is one Chevrolet owner somewhere in Los Angeles who has seen all he wants to see of Citroens on the highway. I almost split his V emblem in half on the blind side of one corner.

The steering is actually outstanding. The DS-l9 has full-time power steering and a low steering ratio. There are only three turns lock-to-lock, and the lock-to-lock angle is greater than on any of the rear-wheel drive cars. The Citroen can turn a full 45 degrees left or right. An adjustable cam exerts enough pressure to hold the DS-19 in a perfect straight line even with the driver's hands off the wheel, regardless of the roughness of the road, even under severe braking. As with braking and cornering, the DS-19's steering is actually too good for the average driver in his first test run. Unless you're an unusually skilled driver, you’l1 find yourself over-controlling to the extent that the car will seem to waver rather than go straight ahead.

With so many truly exceptional features for any customer of any type of driving experience, it is only fitting that there should be some shortcomings. My own nomination for the most troublesome major feature of the car is the transmission.

This is one of those in-between transmissions, neither automatic nor manual. The driver does not have to use a clutch pedal (there is none) but he does have to select each gear manually. He doesn't do the actual shifting, this being another function of the ubiquitous central hydraulic power system, but it is up to him to move the lever to the gear he desires. Standard procedure is to remove your foot from the accelerator, move the lever, replace your foot on the accelerator. The three top gears are synchromesh so you can go back and forth between them pretty much at will at lower speeds. At higher speeds it is necessary to speed up the engine during downshifting (fourth to third, third to second) to keep the transmission healthy. First gear is not synchromesh, and is a simple place for the novice to cause trouble. If he inadvertently shifts down to first while the car is moving, the full pressure of the central hydraulic system applies itself blindly to the difficult task of meshing two sets of gears moving at different speeds. Such an occurrence can scatter gear teeth from here to Paris and back again.

The transmission can be adjusted to provide very little delay in the shifting process and, under practiced hands. Wi11 effect the gear changes with as much alacrity as the Hydra-Matic. It cannot match a good sports-car manual transmission, but then the Citroen is not intended for racing. It is faster than the old Chrysler Fluid Drive transmission since you don't have to wait for vacuum pressure to change gears.

Objection is this: In this era of full automatic transmissions, it seems ridiculous to stop halfway. There are many good points about the full automatics, equally many good points about the stick shifts. There has yet to be devised the transmission that will have the good points of both. Certainly Citroen has not done it. The fact that you must lift your foot from the accelerator to make the shift means that a true speed shift, as performed on the good sports cars, is impossible. The instant availability of all four gears, perhaps the most telling feature of stick shifts, is also missing.

One of the reasons why Citroen stopped short of the fully automatic shift is the small, by American standards, engine. The displacement of the Citroen's four-cylinder power plant is only l9ll cubic centimeters, about 121 cubic inches. This compares closely with Britain's Triumph sports car. It is a full 62 cubic inches less than the old Willys six-cylinder engine, half the size of engines in the Ford-Chevy-Plymouth group and a third the size of engines in the Cadillac-Chrysler-Lincoln group. With this size engine, there is not enough power to handle a fully automatic transmission with a fluid clutch and still provide sufficient performance to keep the car out of the way of others on an American highway. Yet, for the French and other European customers, some kind of work-saving transmission was necessary to justify the price of the automobile. Hence the compromise.

Though small, the DS-19's engine is a good one. The cylinder block is the same as that of the Citroen 11, but the cylinder head is new. Citroen engineers have designed a cylinder head with inclined overhead valves (like the Chrysler except that the Citroen’s valves are tilted to 60 degrees rather than 90 degrees) that increases engine efficiency over the old design. Output is 85 brake horsepower at 4,500 rpm, 101 foot-pounds torque at 3500 rpm. Due to the notoriously bad quality of French gasoline, the compression ratio of the Citroen is only 7.5 to 1, a figure that suggests a logical way to improve the engine's performance in America. Our current crop of Detroit engines are running with compression ratios as high as 10 to l and the Citroen’s admirable valve set-up could certainly stand the additional air intake problems imposed by the higher compression ratio. One can probably assume that the main and rod bearings could absorb the higher load without too much stress.

During the test the little Citroen engine behaved with valor. Low-speed torque is poor, as indicated by the high peaking speed for the torque curve, but once the engine is brought to more than 1500 rpm the results are excellent. You can go up to 30 mph in 1st gear, to 50 in second, to 75 in third and to an honestly clocked 90 or more in fourth. Nothing you can do through the gears will scare a good Chevrolet V-8, but acceleration is not the strong point of this car. Any hope of success in stop-light drag races is killed by the nature of the first two gears - first is too low, second is too high for top-grade acceleration. Yet during high-speed cruising—-70 to 80 m h (if a Los Angeles policeman is reading this I'll deny it in court) -on the Los Angeles freeway system I was more than ever impressed with the ability of the Citroen to deliver the kind of performance the average American wants.  The DS-19 is quieter, smoother, safer than any American car I have ever driven in this cruising range, excepting the Corvette and Thunderbird.

Other items are impressive. Glass area is tremendous, giving maximum visibility in all directions; front window posts are very small, thanks to the absence of window frames; the foam-rubber upholstery is sumptuous; the no-spoke steering wheel (the steering column bends left as it exits from the instrument panel to form the sole support for the steering wheel) is a good safety feature; head room is greater than you will find in most American cars, though the overall height of the Citroen is only 58 inches. The unit body-frame construction is very strong; the turn indicators not only flash an interior warning light but also buzz like a rattlesnake to make sure you don't keep them blinking except when necessary.

The power steering of the DS-19 eliminates the last complaint -hard steering during low-speed operation.

It is certainly true that the owner of a DS-19 is S.O.L. if the central hydraulic system fails. This is a weakness, but no more of a weakness than the self-starter or hydraulic brakes or automatic transmission of modern American cars. Our entire technical civilization is founded on the assumption that well-built, work-saving devices are desirable, whether they can, by breakdown, cripple a- factory or not, whether they can inconvenience the individual owner or not. It should be remembered that, thanks to front-wheel drive, the DS-19 is fitted with a full belly pan to protect the hydraulic lines. With no long drlveshaft running from engine to differential there is no need for the usual exposed bottom.

At least two of the radical features of the Citroen will show up on American cars in the future. One is the brake control button. During the few days I had the Citroen, four people drove it, some only for a few miles. All agreed that the brake button was the best form of brake control lever they had yet experienced. As the clutch pedal has disappeared on American cars, so will the long-travel brake pedal disappear, I think. Still in the brake system, the Citroen’s front-wheel disk brakes are eminently worthy of imitation. Chrysler, in this country, has already equipped its Imperials with disk

brakes and the improvement is well worth the additional expense.

The other feature that should achieve at least some measure of popularity in Detroit is the gas-fluid suspension system. By varying the capacity of the individual wheel spheres, the system can be extended to any American car. In fact, some of our trucks are now using a mild form of the Citroen set-up, and the big passenger buses have long appreciated the advantages of air suspension. These systems require no lubrication and provide the most satisfactory ride yet devised. Many of the DS-19's best features — comfortable ride, magnificent cornering, self-jacking for tire change — are directly due to the special suspension. The first Detroit firm that gets to market with this will have many, highly salable assets.

This next is strictly personal. I don't like the body styling of the DS-19. Unquestionably it is aerodynamically correct, except for the unusual height above the belt line, and it is certainly eye-catching. Compared with the old Citroen 11, which looks something like a 1933 Ford it is from another world. I feel the lines are too angular to be pleasing to the American eye and the car is too large to please the average foreign-car enthusiast.

I'll state this flatly. Even if you don't want to buy a new car, even if you can’t afford to look at a car at all — go to the local Citroen dealer and demand a demonstration drive. If you do, I guarantee you'll be hanging corners like a Nuvolari, bursting with sheer delight as you smoothly cross a rocky, rutted field or howling along at 75 on your favourite freeway. If you don't, you'll be missing what is one of the most wonderful experiences of the l957 automotive year.


© 2017 Julian Marsh/CitroŽnŽt/Thanks to Greg Long