Ex Machina is a writer's exploration of automotive style and meaning. Peter Cheney's lifelong obsession with machinery began as a small boy, when his father took him to an airfield racetrack in Germany's Black Forest. Since then, Peter has pursued an award-winning journalism career, with time out to work as a professional Porsche-VW mechanic and write a book on gliding. Starting this week, his column will appear in Globe Style.
To say that the French have unique style is like saying that Mount Everest is a decent-sized rock formation. This is the nation that gave us the Chanel jacket, wine with lunch and the guillotine (the machine also known as "the national razor"). But now we come to what may well be the most Gallic device of them all: the Citroen DS.
Even though it was designed more than 60 years ago, the DS looks like it was teleported to us from the future. A collection of artful swoops and just-so curves, it is once nostalgic and forward looking. If Matisse had worked with sheet metal instead of oil paints, he might well have created it – unless he were beaten to the punch by Salvador Dali.
I drove a DS for the first time back in the 1970s when I lived in Brussels. It was an experience, as they say. Not long ago, I reacquainted myself with the car by borrowing a 1966 model for a test drive, and it all came back. As I approached it, the DS lay on the ground like a French low-rider, its steel belly just millimeters from the tarmac. I started the engine and flipped a steel lever – this is the control for hydraulic pumps that regulate almost every aspect of the car, including the brakes and suspension. Its nose lifted, then its tail, like a camel preparing to accept a load. A minute later, the DS was riding as tall as a Jeep. I flipped the lever again to initiate a descent to normal driving height.
Driving the DS is an art – but so is maintaining it. Peel back the skin of a DS and you will find a plumbing system worthy of a submarine, a vast and complex concatenation of valves, hoses and manifolds. This is the car's genius, and its curse: When things go wrong with the plumbing of a DS, you will require the services of a skilled French technician. Or a sorcerer.
Never mind. Cruising the streets of Toronto, I looked over the curved hood and marvelled at the duvet smoothness of the ride. I might as well have been on the Champs-Élysées – I pictured sidewalk cafés and beautifully dressed women strolling in the spring sun. Each engineering and design detail transported me to France: the brake pedal a tiny rubber mushroom, the steering wheel a Bakelite hula hoop, the windshield curved around me, a wondrous hemisphere of glass. When I applied the brakes, the DS performed a counterintuitive yet useful manoeuvre: The rear end squatted, limiting forward weight transfer, a bit of engineering legerdemain accomplished by clever valves buried somewhere deep in the vehicle's bowels.
The Citroen DS is a signature engineering and design accomplishment. Its roots reach back to the late 1930s, when Citroen decided to create a successor to its legendary Traction Avant, the first mass-produced car to use front-wheel drive. The DS was first shown to the world at the 1955 Paris auto show after 18 years of development. It was a sensation. In the first 15 minutes of the show, the company took 743 orders for the car. By the end of the first day, orders had reached 12,000. The DS captured the world's imagination with its futuristic styling and advanced engineering. It was the first production car to feature disc brakes, and its suspension was straight out of a science project – instead of springs and shock absorbers, the DS rode on rubber spheres filled with high-pressure fluid. This system is at the heart of the DS's ride – and its mystique. It is self-levelling, and doesn't need a jack; to change a tire, you can lift one wheel off the ground with the suspension system. When gunmen tried to assassinate French President Charles DeGaulle in 1962, his DS saved his life, remaining level and drivable even after the tires were shot off the rims.
Like computers, cars are constantly being rendered obsolete. And yet some old things have a way of holding on to us. Neil Young still plays old-fashioned tube amplifiers, refusing to convert to solid state because he prefers the raw, analogue sound of amps that use vacuum tubes, a sonic stream is both imperfect and deeply human. Tubes get hot, and must be cooled with fans. Their sound wanders and varies. Humans vary, too. As I drove the DS, I thought of Neil's amplifiers, and of the analogue age that had produced the DS. The Citroen is all curves, switches and pumps. And more than 60 years after its launch, it still stops you in your tracks. It is a tube amp on wheels – imperfect, yet perfectly so.
As I said, only in France.
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