Joel Simms, now the enthusiastic owner of one of the rarest models to wear Citroën’s twin-chevron badge, says he didn’t believe his eyes when he saw his first example of these still rather startling French cars drive past on just three wheels back in his university days.
“I was on my way home late one day in the late ’60s after studying at the library and was quite sure I saw a car drive by on three wheels,” he says. After mentioning it to friends, he was told, “You’re probably not delusional, it was likely a Citroën.”
Simms still isn’t convinced of what he saw or didn’t see, but it’s possible he was right, as the DS model’s unique suspension system can perform this feat.
And legend has it this capability saved the life of an earlier fan of these unique cars. French president Charles de Gaulle is said to have escaped in his DS after having a rear tire blown out in a sub-machine-gun ambush in a Paris suburb.
Simms’ perhaps half-imagined experience remained filed away until a decade ago when he decided to buy himself a 1950s Ford Thunderbird convertible for his 55th birthday. But early in what was to prove a long search, he was diverted by a Citroën SM (the DS’s sexier successor) that triggered his college days memory and introduced to him the name of French coach builder Henri Chapron.
Internet searches didn’t uncover any SM convertibles, but did reveal Chapron – who had opened his carrosserie in 1919 and created special bodies for Talbots, Delages and Delahayes in the 1930s – had taken on the task of transforming DS sedans into open-top “decapotables” for Citroën in the early 1960s.
“I never knew there was such a thing a DS convertible. But when I saw a picture, I said, ‘Wow, I’ve got to have one’,” he says. He began a search of the world that uncovered cars in Britain, France, Italy, Switzerland and the United States, but after travelling to look at a number, his quest ended almost in his own back yard.
North of Edmonton actually, where it was part of an ex-pat Frenchman’s eclectic collection of 60-plus cars. “It was like being in never-never-land, in the northern wilds of Alberta,” he says.
The Chapron was lowered into Simms’ sight on a hydraulic lift in a small separate garage in all its pristine, just-restored glory. And following a long and determined haggle over the price, a deal was finally struck “while I was literally in the queue waiting to get on the plane home.”
Citroën, one of France’s pioneering auto makers – producer of the famed Traction Avante in the 1930s and the tiny, tinny 2CV, better known as the Deux Chevaux after the war – was recovering by the mid-1950s and believed it was time it built a more luxurious sedan again. This duly appeared, in the form of the oddly aero-looking and technically ahead-of-its-time DS19 at the Paris auto show of 1955, with the DS21 on which Simms’ car is based following a decade later.
The DS19’s Flaminio Bertoni-designed bodywork was draped over an unusual monocoque central structure which housed a not very newfangled 1.9-litre, overhead-valve, four-cylinder engine making 75 hp. But then things got interesting.
The hydro-pneumatic suspension employed hydraulic fluid pressurized by nitrogen contained in spherical containers to provide independent suspension that delivered a “magic carpet” ride, but also handling that allowed the DS to win the Monte Carlo rally.
It also offered five ride height settings, at the highest of which a prop can be inserted to allow a flat tire to be replaced.
Hydraulics also operated inboard front power disc brakes applied by a rubber-covered “button” on the floor, the power steering system and a three (later four-speed) semi-automatic transmission. The driver selects gears with a small vertical lever atop the steering column (also used to activate the starter) and a complex clutch engagement and engine management system handles the rest.
Simms’ 1968 model boasts a larger 2.2-litre, 115-hp engine and headlights that turn with the front wheels.
Between 1955 and 1975, Citroën built almost 1.5 million DSs in sedan and station wagon form, and Chapron 1,325 convertibles and 307 coupes, including the topless “goddess” (DS is pronounced day-esse in French) that now graces Simms’ Toronto garage.
Simms was born in Montreal in 1947, attended McGill University, then moved on to business school in Syracuse, after running himself over with his own Corvette, a now-funny story involving a botched push start.
For a couple of decades, he made his living in the business world, but says, “I never wanted to be a businessman” and made the switch in his mid-40s to his first love, psychology. After obtaining his PhD, he was involved in consulting and counselling, but is currently making another move, to the virtual world. On his new website, and in his online persona as “Dr. Mo”, he offers guidance to help people “maintain momentum” and “get difficult things done” to meet their goals in life.
He’s been keen on cars as long as he can recall. “I was the kind of kid that when I drove around in the back seat of my dad’s car I was busy looking at cars. And I could identify them, by year and make, at a distance.”
His first was a teen dream machine, a 1967 Camaro SS350, followed by a Hurst-shifter-equipped Oldsmobile 442 and then a Corvette. An exotic 1968 Ferrari 330 GTC followed – “A magnificent car. I never had the radio on, I just listened to the singing of that V-12” – but was left behind in Montreal. He currently also owns a 1975 VW convertible and a 600-hp Dodge Viper.
But his joy in owning the Chapron was evident during a sunny fall afternoon top-down drive, perhaps proving the claim made in a 1960s U.S. ad for the DS21 that, “It takes a special person to drive a special car.”
Back in 1968
* Pierre Trudeau becomes Canada’s 15th prime minister while Richard Nixon is elected president of the United States, Saddam Hussein climbs to revolutionary council power in Iraq and former U.S. first lady Jacqueline Kennedy marries Greek tycoon Aristotle Onassis.
* Toy maker Mattel introduces its die-cast and fast freewheeling Hot Wheels model cars, intended to run on plastic race tracks, and go on to become popular with collectors.
* The original Hawaii Five-0 cop show and 60 Minutes debut on CBS and Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In premieres on NBC, while Hair opens on Broadway and 2001: A Space Odyssey opens in theatres.
* British racing champion Jim Clark is killed in a crash in a Lotus F2 car at Hockenheim in Germany. Fellow Brit racer Graham Hill win his second World Championship in a Lotus F1 car.