The Citroën DS 19: Radically Different

The Citroën DS 19 was one of the most innovative production vehicles of the 20th century. It’s “glass escargot” design evoked French philosopher Roland Barthes to remark in 1957 that the DS 19 had “obviously fallen from the sky.” The DS 19’s origins can be traced to back to the 1930s, and the work of sculptor and designer Flaminio Bertoni, aviation engineer Andre Lefebure, and suspension engineer Pail Mages. Introduced at the 1955 Paris Auto Show, it immediately became a symbol of French technological and design ingenuity at a time of post-WWII economic recovery, reconstruction, and decolonization. Approximately 1.5 million units were produced between 1955 and 1975.

With the exception of the 1991 c.c. engine carried over from the Traction Avant, almost everything visible and invisible on this car was utterly new and radically different.  A front/mid-engine layout moved front wheels that were wider than the rear.  The front of the car had no grill, but a shallow nose slot; its bobtail rear was marked by turn signals fixed to the roof, which in turn were flanked by removable fenders graced by spats.  A fiberglass green roof rendered the car as a glass house that featured comfortable front seats. For safety, the DS 19 had a one-spoke steering wheel wrapped in plastic cord.

What made the DS 19 different than any other car on the road, however, was a self-leveling independent suspension made possible by an engine-driven pump and two bulbous accumulators. This complex system employed both an organic liquid and nitrogen gas at 2,400 pounds per square inch, thus enabling the car to be raised and lowered as well as assisting a semi-automatic transmission and inboard disc brakes. The result was a car that glided over the countryside. In sum, the DS 19 is as distinctively French as a French car can be.

The Citroën DS 19 changed the world. Many of its innovative features were later adopted by other manufacturers. Most significantly, however, was that in an age increasingly characterized by global interrelatedness and uniformity, the DS 19 stood for individuality and difference.

About the Author

John Heitmann is a Professor of History at the University of Dayton and the author of The Automobile and American Life and Stealing Cars Technology and Society from the Model T to Gran Torino.  His is a Past President of the Society of Automobile historians.  He has a passion for all things automotive except when paying for mechanical work on his German cars! He is also currently working on a history of driver education in the U.S. and the changes made in the curriculum over time.  You can keep up with his work by looking at www.automobileandamericanlife.blogspot.com.

About the Series

This series of essays explores the vehicles that made up our Ten Cars that Changed the World exhibition.  The exhibition was a partnership with the Society of Automotive Historians