Citroën, a much-renowned French automobile manufacturer, has a long tradition of building mass-produced cars that feature innovative engineering and head-turning looks. In keeping with this tradition, Citroën dropped a bombshell on an unsuspecting motoring public at the 1955 Paris Auto Show. At this prestigious international auto show, the firm unveiled a technologically advanced luxury car that looked completely unlike anything else on the road: the Citroën DS 19.
Designed by André Lefèbvre, the DS 19 was an enormously advanced car for its time. It employed a longitudinal, front-wheel drive layout, which was a setup Citroën previously used on the Traction Avant, a successful luxury car built by the firm between the early 1930s and mid 1950s. The car rode on an uneven wheel track featuring a front wider than the rear, which reduced the inherent understeer characteristic of front-wheel drive cars. Power was originally provided by an overhead valve inline-four engine, which produced a relatively modest 75 horsepower. The engine was mated to a semi-automatic transmission, which required the driver to shift gears manually, but did so without a clutch pedal.
But the one design feature that truly set DS 19 apart from all other cars was its extensive use of hydraulics. The DS 19 was the first car to be equipped with a central hydraulic system, which provided power assist to the transmission, steering and brakes. It was also one of the first cars to employ a self-levelling hydropneumatic suspension, which permitted the driver to adjust to the car’s ride height and provided a remarkably smooth ride. The hydropneumatic suspension also blessed the car with outstanding road-holding abilities.
Although the DS 19 was noted for its advanced design, it was even more renowned for its otherworldly looks. The car was fitted with a streamlined body styled by Flaminio Bertoni. The body was of a monocoque construction and employed detachable steel panels and a plastic roof. Styling cues included a long, low hood, a short, streamlined rear end, and covered rear wheels. Not only was the body striking looking, it was also quite aerodynamic. Rated at a then impressive drag coefficient of 0.38, it made the DS 19 capable of fuel economy of up to 30 miles per gallon of gasoline and a claimed top speed of 90 miles per hour. The body was also designed for passenger safety, featuring front and rear crumple zones.
Over the course of its production life (1955-1965), the Citroën DS 19 became a much-beloved luxury car in postwar France. Its combination of a comfortable ride, good economy, and excellent performance proved well-suited for driving conditions characteristic of France at the time. Largely due to its innovative design and futuristic looks, the DS 19 also came to symbolize France’s recovery from World War II. The DS 19 later became the basis of two additional model lines produced by Citroën: the ID 19 (a DS 19 stripped of its central hydraulic system) and its eventual replacement the DS 21 (essentially a DS 19 with a larger engine).
The last Citroën DS 19 rolled off the assembly line in 1965. Surviving examples are highly collectable today.
Citroën DS 19, Citroën: Trade Catalogs: Specific Models, DS, 1955-1962, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.
Covello, Mike, Standard Catalog of Imported Cars, 1946-2002; Iola, Wisconsin: Krause Publications, 2002, p. 185-194.
DS 19 Prestige, Citroën: Trade Catalogs: Specific Models, DS, 1955-1962, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.
Georgano, Nick, ed., The Beaulieu Encyclopedia of the Automobile Volume 2: A-L; Norwich, England: The Stationery Office, 2000, p. 299-300.
Untitled, 1958 Citroën DS 19 Trade Catalog, Citroën: Trade Catalogs: Specific Models, DS, 1955-1962, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.
Kenton Jaehnig is the Project Archivist for the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection at Hagley Museum and Library.