The relentless march of the SUV means that every other car you see on the road is essentially an oversized toaster on wheels; anonymous cuboids, anaesthetising out any sense of driver engagement. Naturally, there’s not a lot of ‘sport’ involved in a sport utility vehicle – so if you’re resigned to the idea of getting something spacious and practical that’s not especially sporty, might I suggest an alternative? You don’t need to shell out twenty grand on a new Nissan Qashqai like everyone else… that money would be better spent on a Citroën DS.
Wait, no, come back! This actually makes perfect sense. And I’m speaking from first-hand experience here; my dad has a DS, and it’s what we use as a family runabout when we pop over to France for our summer holidays. It’s a handy airport shuttle too – you can get two full-size suitcases in the boot, and thanks to the bench seating you can fit two child seats AND a grown-up human in the back, and two more grown-ups and a folded-up pushchair in the front. Why would anyone possibly choose a Qashqai over this…?
This was no off-the-cuff purchase either, my old man had been kindling a burning desire for Déesse ownership for some time. Remember the old Observer’s Automobiles book you used to thumb through as a kid? I’ve got my old 1983 edition in front of me right now, bristling with Countachs and CXs and Delta 88s and whatnot, and this is clearly a genetic imperative, passed down through the DNA. It was the same with dad, he had an Observer’s book with a spaceship-like DS in it. One to firmly chalk up on the I-will-own-one-someday wishlist.
Fast-forward to the 1990s, and the pieces of the puzzle started to slowly but surely slot themselves into place. “A dear neighbour, where we had our holiday home in northern France, had a sideline restoring and selling DSs,” recalls my dad (who I shall hereafter refer to as Rick, as journalistic integrity dictates, despite it sounding very weird to me). “We became firm friends, and I would offer translation services when buyers arrived from Belgium or Holland with no French. I got to drive a full range of DS; saloon, Safari, cabriolet in both manual and semi-automatic guise, along with the beautiful but fragile SM. It was no great surprise to discover that my 14 year old son had his first driving experience on the French country roads at the wheel of a DS.”
Yes, that boy was me, and it’s safe to say I’ve had a bit of a soft spot for the DS ever since that day too. And years later, when Rick retired to the south of France, he simply had to own one. It’s an essential part of the rural French lifestyle, is it not?
“The problem was getting one in reasonable condition,” he says. “A DS can become a vast hole to throw money into if you buy a bad one. I took a chance on a 1972 Super 5 manual saloon in baby blue; the car had been sourced in Dunkirk, exported to the UK and then re-imported. It needed restoration but, as the French say, ‘petit à petit’. The first breakthrough came when the trailer of a passing farmer detached from the tractor and crashed onto the DS. It damaged the bonnet and came through the windscreen, but luckily trashed the one wing that was rusty! The insurance paid for a front end renovation, and an almost total respray.”
In the years that followed, the crumbly door bottoms were replaced, and the rear of the car was resprayed to match the smartened-up front. A driveshaft failure necessitated removal of the engine, so while that was out Rick took the opportunity to revamp the running gear to an as-new standard. “In fifteen years of ownership, it’s only broken down twice,” he says, which is frankly the sort of success record you can probably expect of a new Qashqai anyway, isn’t it? “It rides like a dream, ignoring any and every bump. There is a bit of a knack to drive around the country lanes; like wrestling a water buffalo at times, but the mattress-like comfort of the seats and carpet and the funky headlights that turn with the steering make the journey a pleasure. Our DS is a passport to acceptance: at the supermarket, other shoppers will gather round sharing stories of their childhoods going on holiday in a DS, or saying that it was their first car, and did we know that a DS saved President De Gaulle’s life during the assassination attempt? Other motorists flash and wave, and it always raises a smile.”
He’s right, it really is a surreal and charming thing to drive. Everything feels wrong, with the self-centring steering making slurp-slurp noises, the barmy column shift and the four pedals, and the two inches of foam under the carpet to match the ludicrously squishy seats. Wrong, and yet so right. It’s like wafting along in a cloud, with everybody waving at you like you’re a film star. Very few cars are able to provide such an intoxicating mix of the joyous and the absurd.
“It’s a fairly rare sight on the French roads nowadays, but we use ours all the time,” Rick continues. “It’s a reliable daily runabout and such fun to drive – and the boot’s big enough to fit a couple of bodies in. [I don’t want to ask how he knows this.] Few mechanics are capable of working on it though, and most garages refuse to touch it. The Citroën main dealer in nearby Albi said ‘Don’t bring it here, we can’t get the parts and our guys are only technicians. They just look at the diagnostics, unbolt a part and bolt a new part on’.”
Find an old-school French mechanic, however, and such concerns melt away. Having found a reliable local garagiste in the depths of the Tarn valley, Rick’s reassuringly advised with a trademark Gallic shrug to ‘order the parts, bring them to me, I will mend your car’. And that’s precisely what he does. Interestingly, DS parts and spares are cheaper to source from the UK, being affordable and instantly available from citroenclassics.co.uk, and Longstone Tyres sell the correct Michelin rubber cheaper than it can be bought in France (including carriage charges, even though they’re made in Clermont-Ferrand). All of which tells an encouraging story about DS ownership: these are dream cars for so many, elevated to a pedestal by virtue of their iconic and near-mythical nature, but the reality is that you can buy one for the price of a new SUV, and it’ll be equally reliable and practical while also plastering a huge smile across your face every single day. So why wouldn’t you?