Think about the high-tech features in modern cars today: headlights that turn with the steering to provide better visibility in corners; height-adjustable suspension; rain-sensing wipers; variable-assist power steering. For these now-common features, you can thank French automaker Citroen, which introduced them to the mass-market automobile marketplace decades ago.
The Citroen DS, introduced in the mid-1950s, was the brand’s true technology pioneer. Its styling was so futuristic the makers of the Back to the Future trilogy felt it fit their vision of the year 2015 but, more importantly, it was the car that introduced the company’s height-adjustable hydraulic suspension and steerable headlights.
Christian Thurler, founder of the Citroen Club in Ottawa, drives a 1969 DS sedan, which he bought as a “safer and bigger” car (compared to his wife’s tiny 2CV) to drive to club events with his family.
“To understand what’s so special about the DS you have to drive one,” says Mr. Thurler. “Even on very rough Canadian roads, the driving is smooth.”
He points out that the adjustable ride height, in concert with the car’s narrow tires and flat underbody, made it a champ in deep snow compared to many other cars of its time. However, rustproofing was not among Citroen’s technical innovations. Former Citroen salesman have been purported to say the cars sometimes started rusting on the lot, before they were even sold.
In 1967, Citroen added directional headlights to the DS’ option list. In that car, the inner pair of the quad lights could rotate up to 80 degrees in the direction the driver steered the car.
Citroen’s lineup got even more interesting with the 1970 launch of the SM. This two-door touring car was envisioned by Citroen as a more sporting successor to the DS, powered by a Maserati-built V6 engine and designed with the mandate of comfortably carrying four people and their luggage from Paris to the south of France on a single tank of gas.
Montreal-area resident Michael Moss owns a 1972 SM, a car he’d been interested in for some time before he bought his in 2010.
“When I was 11 years old, I received a (classic car) book for Christmas, and of all the cars in there, I was most intrigued by the SM,” which he says is described in the book as “the most complex road car ever built… and one of the most perfect aerodynamic bodies yet designed.”
The SM’s technological centrepiece was also its hydraulic suspension. As with Mr. Thurler and his DS, Mr. Moss cites the suspension as one of the SM’s best features “because of the smoothness of the ride, (along with) the sound of the Maserati engine and then, of course, the shape of the body.”
In both cars, the suspension boasts a self-levelling function that keeps the back of the car from sagging under the weight of passengers, cargo or a trailer. Under hard braking, the entire car squats down, rather than diving to the front, which ostensibly makes the car more stable in emergency stops. Mr. Moss demonstrated the former feature by starting the car and hopping up on the trunk lid. As expected, the car sags under his weight, but then pushes itself back up to the selected ride height.
Directional headlights were a standard feature on the SM, too, as was the industry’s first variable-assist power steering system. Common in modern cars today, it was novel in the 1970s, providing extra assist when crawling through parking lots, and almost none at highway speeds. Mr. Moss showed us one of the cool quirks of the SM’s steering: a self-centering function that automatically brings the wheel back to straight ahead when the car is stopped.
As much as Citroen’s technological advances set the DS and SM apart from contemporary cars, both Mr. Moss and Mr. Thurler agree those features also led to the brand’s departure from the North American marketplace.
Neither car is easy to service, as Mr. Thurler indicated with a gesture to his DS’ very crowded engine compartment. In Mr. Moss’ SM, the suspension, steering brakes and directional headlights all use the same proprietary hydraulic fluid, pressurized by the same pump, requiring specialized knowledge for service and repairs.
“If a mechanic did a brake job, and mistakenly topped up the system with regular brake fluid, it would destroy the seals in the hydraulic lines that run throughout the car,” effectively rendering the car undriveable, and its owner much lighter in the pocketbook, explained Mr. Moss. “Technical-minded people were drawn to the innovative ideas, but there wasn’t a large enough base who understood the car to enable proper maintenance and repairs.”
Certainly, some potential buyers were put off by the complicated nature of the DS and SM, but North America’s safety regulations were a more serious problem for Citroen.
Directional headlights were such an unknown in the 1960s and 70s that, to North American safety regulators, the feature looked like something out of science-fiction, and required DS and SM models sold here to be fitted with stationary sealed-beam lights.
These cars’ height-adjustable suspensions also put their bumpers out of spec with crash safety regulations: the U.S. government told Citroen it had to retrofit the SM with a regular suspension or it couldn’t sell the car there.
Mr. Thurler says he feels North America safety standards at the time were geared to help the “Big Three” American automakers: General Motors, Chrysler and Ford.
“Everything that was smart on a Citroen the company was forced to change because of North American regulations,” he says.
For Citroen, the suspension ruling was the last straw: instead of ditching its hydraulic setup for typical steel springs, the French automaker told North America to stuff its narrow-minded rules, and took its toys home.
Every few years, Citroen (which merged with French competitor Peugeot in 1976 to form PSA Peugeot-Citroen), announces a desire to return to North America. In 2006, one of its vice-presidents suggested the company might use Canada as a “beachhead” into the massive North American auto market, and in the spring of 2014, CEO Carlos Tavares announced a plan that would see the company revamped to “operate anywhere in the world” by as early as 2017.
The likelihood is miniscule, but reaction to the idea of Citroen making a comeback is mixed among the enthusiasts we spoke with. Mr. Moss said he “would be seriously drawn to check out” the brand’s new cars, but Mr. Thurler is cooler on the concept. “They are nice cars, but now they look and drive like any other brand.”
We’d argue Citroen’s designs would still turn heads here, but Mr. Thurler is spot-on in the sense that, at least mechanically, not much sets the cars apart from most other brands’ products. Rather than saying that French automotive engineering has slacked off since the 1970s, it probably more correct to say it took decades for the rest of the auto industry to catch up to Citroen’s vision.
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