Citroens UFO spawns a brand

Written by New York Times | Updated: Oct 18 2014, 06:45am hrs
The Citroen DS was sprung on an unsuspecting public at the 1955 Paris Motor Show, its torpedo-like body draped over technical innovations like a self-levelling suspension, a semi-automatic transmission and inboard front disc brakes. Almost any of those features would have caused a sensation. Together, the package was almost too much to absorb at a time when many carsincluding Citrons venerable Traction Avant and 2CVstill clung to an upright pre-war look.

This car was considered a UFO when it was launched, said Arnaud Ribault, the sales and marketing director for PSA Peugeot Citrons new third brand, called simply DS, which is being introduced to the European public at the Paris Motor Show, which runs to October 19. Just in the middle of those square cars, you have a rocket.

The otherworldliness of the original DS, at a time when Europe was finally emerging from wartime darkness, inspired the philosopher Roland Barthes to include it in Mythologies, his 1957 exploration of French culture. Of the DS, Barthes wrote, The new Citron has obviously fallen from the sky, describing it as a goddess (the letters DS are pronounced like desse, the French word for goddess) that might mark a change in the automotive mythology.

But myth-making or not, Citron was in business to sell cars, and while the French public clamoured to buy the DS, there were bugs to be worked out, said Rudy Heilig of Citron Concours of America, a San Diego restoration and repair shop, and the author of a buyers guide to the DS. They had a lot of teething problems with the brakes, the transmission, the hydraulics, he said.

By 1960, the initial problems had been resolved, and Citron sold well over one million DSs and its variants before production ended in 1975. Outside of France, the DS appealed mainly to buyers with a bit of an odd personality for whom Saabs or Peugeots were too tame, said Heilig, whose family has been servicing or selling Citrons since 1949.

For those who needed more convincing, he said, his father offered a simple demonstration of the DSs magic carpet ride. He would put customers in a DS, Heilig said, take them to an alley near his Vancouver dealership that was pothole city, and run it up and down that alley at 35 or 40 miles per hour, which no other car was capable of doing without your head hitting the ceiling.

Fast-forward 60 years and the DS name has been reborn as a PSA luxury brand intended to have special appeal in the lucrative Chinese market. The DS display in Paris, with its muted colours and thick carpeting, featured a scissor-door concept car, the Divine, and a version of the DS3 coupe styled by the designer Ins de la Fressange.

Citron had revived the DS name in 2010 for the DS3, a premium hatchback in the vein of the Audi A3, followed shortly by the DS4, a five-door hatchback, and the DS5, a high-style crossover. New in the past year are the DS5 LS and the DS6 sport utility.

Ribault said that since 2010 PSA had sold some 500,000 cars with the DS nameplate around the world, including 10,000 in China in the first six months of 2014. There are now 66 dealers in China with a goal of 100 by year-end.

By 2020, PSA hopes the DS brand will expand to a full line of premium cars along the lines of Audi. This is the start of a big adventure, Ribault said.