When Citroën unveiled the DS in 1955, they did so before a Paris Motor Show audience who found their jaws on the floor. With its sleek, futuristic styling and laundry list of advanced technological features, the DS quickly became the most impressive car in the world.
But what that audience and the DS’ creators couldn’t have known is that one day, the car’s incredible technology would be instrumental in saving the life of French president Charles De Gaulle.
Join us as we explore a very interesting chapter in the DS’ history, or as I like to call it, “DStory.” (See what I did there? Folks, that’s the kind of quality writing you’re only gonna find here.)
Citroën long had a history of developing cars that were well ahead of their time in terms of design and features. The 1934 Traction Avant was the world’s first unibody front-wheel-drive car, pioneering a setup that would become the standard in most passenger cars. Just before the outbreak of World War II in Europe, Citroën engineers began working on two future cars: an innovative but basic economy car and a highly advanced, feature-laden luxury car.
But then Nazi Germany invaded France in 1940. As Ate Up With Motor tells it, Citroën chairman Pierre-Jules Boulanger hated him some Nazis. He told his engineers to hide their designs and prototype cars from the Germans for fear that they would weaponize them.
But Boulanger knew the war wouldn’t last forever — and when it did end, France would be in bad shape. The two cars they were developing, which as you might guess became the 2CV and DS, would have to be fuel-efficient and built to handle extremely rough terrain. He also wanted the DS to be most sophisticated car in the world, a shining example of what France was capable of.
Being defined by World War II was something the DS and Charles De Gaulle had in common. De Gaulle was a hero from the Great War who unsuccessfully lobbied for France to modernize their military prior to the outbreak of war with Nazi Germany. De Gaulle also hated him some Nazis.
He was adamantly opposed to surrendering to the Germans, and when the French finally did capitulate, he became the leader of the Free French Forces and led the country’s government in exile from England. After the war, De Gaulle briefly served as prime minister of the provisional government, but ended up coming out of retirement after a political crisis and was elected president in 1958.
By that time, the DS was a huge success, and was the preferred mode of transport for France’s wealthiest and most powerful. In addition to its gorgeous, streamlined shape, the DS had a long list of technical features that put it well ahead of other cars from that era. The car was front-wheel-drive and had standard front disc brakes, unibody construction, a roomy and comfortable interior, and a slick automated manual tranny.
But Citroën’s crowning achievement — and the key to our story — was the DS’ hydropneumatic suspension. Most cars, then as now, used springs and shock absorbers in their suspension systems. Not so with the DS. It had a fully independent suspension with short shock absorbers filled with pressurized oil and gas on each wheel. This allowed the car’s suspension to adjust its firmness and ride height automatically depending on load and what type of road the car was on. This system meant the car would always remain level, and the driver could adjust its ride height manually.
Put together, these features made for a car with superior handling and comfort. Many have described driving in a DS as “riding on a magic carpet.”
Fast forward to August 1962. De Gaulle granted independence to Algeria, a North African country that was until then a French colony embroiled in a bitter and bloody war for sovereignty. His decision greatly angered the OAS, a paramilitary group who wanted Algeria to stay French, so much that they decided to assassinate him. (Apparently De Gaulle was the subject of some 30 different assassination attempts. The guy had a talent for pissing people off.)
So when De Gaulle was being driven with his wife from the Elysee Palace to Orly Airport on the Avenue de la Liberation, 12 OAS gunmen opened fire on the presidential Citroën DS. As History tells it, “A hail of 140 bullets, most of them coming from behind, killed two of the president’s motorcycle bodyguards, shattered the car’s rear window and punctured all four of its tires.” Other reports I’ve read said the bullets blew out two or three tires instead.
At any rate, the DS was way too high tech to get shut down by something as simple as gunfire. While it went into a skid at first, the car’s suspension kept it level and drivable, even without the aid of tires. De Gaulle’s driver managed to escape the situation, and the president and his wife made it to the airport unharmed. This attempted killing was dramatized in the film “The Day of the Jackal.”
The DS’ role in thwarting the attempt on his life made De Gaulle love the car even more. He refused to travel in anything else. And in 1969, when Fiat sought to take a troubled Citroën over in 1969, De Gaulle limited their stake to 15 percent. Citroën would end up staying in French hands as part of the PSA Peugeot Citroën group.
Sometimes, under the right circumstances, a car can change the world.