The profile of a flying saucer...
A friend said it looked like General De Gaulle’s nose on wheels, and certainly the Citroen DS23 EFi I briefly owned had a Gallic beakiness.
Film lovers might remember The Day of the Jackal, starring Edward Fox as a hit man attempting to assassinate De Gaulle. One scene involved him machine gunning a big Citroen. After several months of owning mine I wanted to do the same. It might have been fabulous to look at and a fuel injected design classic with a working cartridge cassette player, but it was also a steaming pile of trouble.
When the DS appeared in 1955 it had the profile of a flying saucer, and with its self-levelling, hydropnuematic suspension was considered about as weird and technically advanced as cars got.
The one I bought in 1984 would look relatively simple compared to many of today’s cars, but despite styling myself as a 20-something car expert, and having landed a job as a copywriter for a motoring PR agency, I demonstrated my considerable ignorance by buying this one.
The original owner had died, and his family were getting rid of the DS, which wasn’t well either, although as I squinted at it in the gathering gloom of a Neasden winter evening, I thought it looked great.
So I ignored the fact that the front wings were starting to rot, and the gold velour interior had a strange odour of air freshener and damp. The car started and drove OK, rising majestically on its self-levelling suspension. Instead of a brake pedal it had a frankly mammalian rubber dome, a conventional accelerator but no clutch pedal, as the steering column mounted gear selector worked in conjunction with a clutch that used hydraulics to do its thing independently.
All those hydraulic bits made hissing and slurping noises as the car floated serenely over the North West London potholes. I was smitten, paid £400 and drove home in the dark.
En route a warning light that resembled a big red gob stopper flashed into life, giving the dash a jolly, Christmas tree-like glow. I wondered if this was significant, and soon discovered it was.
That light was a precursor to the car coming to a grinding halt and sinking the ground, something it did for the first time a few days later. There is a busy road junction at the bottom of Harrow-on-the-Hill, not far from the public school, where the car expired, sitting down like a hippo with back trouble in the middle of the road.
Pushing it out of the way required a great deal of effort, but eventually it subsided by a side street kerb and I went in search of a bus. When I returned 24 hours later, the car started and pumped itself up as normal, so the pair of us made our way to an alleged specialist DS mechanic the previous owner’s family had recommended. En route I noted that the exhaust had started to blow.
The ‘expert’ changed some fluids, adjusted a few non-specific things and pronounced the car cured. Within 24 hours it proved him wrong. We went back twice for further blarney and the opportunity to give this spanner-wielding fantasist more cash.
I forswore his company after he complained bitterly about ‘the noisy foreign music.’ By straining every sinew it was just possible to hear a distant, pleasant, tinkling melody. Deciding his problem was bigotry rather than noise pollution I limped home in the saggy Citroen and sought out a real expert.
This person told me the car had a component called a brain, which distributed hydraulic fluid to vital parts of its anatomy. This had developed a vehicular mental illness that meant it could never be relied on. The mechanic also pointed out all the other things that were wrong with the car (it was a long list), said he was reluctant to take my money in exchange for a brain transplant, and that I should get rid of the DS.
The buyer turned out to be a name-dropping Scottish yuppie with leather trousers and a hot air balloon-sized ego. Inevitably, he lived in Islington.
“I know all about these cars,” he brayed. “I’ve driven them in Africa.” He also claimed to have been to a party with 80s cocktail lounge music chanteuse Sade, and said that he was friends with the Aga Khan. Lucky them.
Nevertheless, he bought the DS and paid cash, so I let this torrent of self-aggrandisement wash over me. For reasons I can no longer recall, having sold the car I had to follow it to the new owner’s designer flat in my Citroen Dyane. This was in a torrential rainstorm, and he drove like a lunatic, tailgating other cars and inserting the sickly Citroen into eye watering small gaps. Tearing round the White City roundabout I winced as he nearly sideswiped a number 88 bus.
Having made it unscathed to the London Borough of Media Darlings I bade the car and its new owner a less than fond farewell, but I still hadn’t escaped them.
Subsequently I had to put up with weeks of phone calls and letters (this was very much a pre email world) about the inevitable mechanical maladies, lost documents and general woe, and what was I going to do about it? Cleary this McAlpha Male knew even less about classic Citroens than I did.
Eventually a letter arrived saying he’d lost my phone number, and would I please get in touch as the car had developed a new problem. I wonder if he’s still waiting for that call.
Images: Giles Chapman
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