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
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
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
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