Travel/Experiences  •  Why I Drive

Why I Drive: 1975 Citroen DS

Automotive Designer “Pok” Thaitun explains why he drives a Citroen.

July 25, 2017
I hadn’t seen the Citroen DS until about ten years ago, but I specifically remember, in middle school, seeing a kid get dropped off in a Citroen CX, which looks like a spaceship. I just thought “wow”, and the feeling of admiration for the car never faded. I’ve always been an engineering guy, so I stayed far away from the Citroen because I knew it was absolutely one of the most unreliable cars on the market.
Now that I own one, I look at it from a different perspective: it’s a piece of history; it represents a turning point in automotive design. It still looks ahead of its time. The DS was the first teardrop-shaped car designed by an aeronautical engineer. The DS’s hydraulic suspension came about because cars simply couldn’t cope with the horrible roads in Europe after the war–the car was launched in 1955–so the suspension was designed to “float” over the potholes and bumps in the road. It’s odd, but the front wheelbase is actually wider than the rear, helping create that unique teardrop shape. The headlights also swivel with the steering wheel. Companies advertise this technology now, but it was around in ‘75!

I wanted to buy this car five years before I actually did, but when this specific car came up for sale my cousin swooped in and snatched it up–it’s rare to find one of these in working condition. Of course, I didn’t want to have the same car as my cousin, so I just let it go. Five years passed and when he had his third kid, I finally got the chance and promptly bought it from him.

It turned into a mission to bring the car to a fully functional state so I could drive it as often as I wanted. I took it to a shop and asked them to overhaul everything. When they were finally done with it, the shop owner and I took it out for a test drive; moments later, he looked at me and told me we had to go back–the main hydraulic pump powering the brakes was leaking, so we had to use the handbrake the whole way home.

Despite the reliability situation, there’s actually a strong car culture around the DS in Thailand. On routine cruises, a service car follows the caravan in case anyone breaks down, which is very likely to happen. It’s always been a niche car here, but in France it was produced in mass. Citroen has always been brave; while other brands play it safe, Citroen takes design risks. The French mentality is simple: style over substance. But the DS really does have a functional side: it comfortably fits four.

Driving this car is like floating on a cloud. The first time I was out in this car, I was driving and I saw a speed bump quickly approaching. As I went to pump the brakes, my cousin told me to ease off the brakes, saying there was no need, and we sailed right over the bump as if it wasn’t even there! It’s also a little like a boat in the sense that you’re riding on hydraulic suspension. My old boss used to say that “every time you take it out it’s like and automotive event.” You have to wait while the car slowly rises up to its normal ride height as the oil wells in the suspension system fill up. There’s no brake pedal! It’s essentially just a rubber button that activities a valve that stops the car, and if you look at the speedometer there’s a ring that counter-revolves to the sweeping speed needle. It’s a braking distance gauge. If you were to slam the brakes “right now”, that number is how long it would take the stop the car. I’ve never seen that feature in any other car.