1970 Citroen DS21 BVH

About the DS

The Citroen DS is a unique car  – you either love it or you hate it.   It ignored all the conventional wisdom about how a car should work and went its own way – a gamble that has never been repeated on a mass produced vehicle since.

The DS was launched in 1955 and such was the impact of the launch that 12,000 orders were taken on the first day.   At a time when most cars had big radiator grills and boxy designs, the DS with its streamlined shape looked like it had arrived in a time machine.   It was the first mass produced car with disk brakes, it brought with it a revolutionary hydraulic system that provided for an unsurpassed ride, excellent braking system, a manual gearbox without the need for a clutch pedal and the party trick of being able to change tyres without jacking up the car due to the height adjustable suspension.   The interior made the first extensive use of plastics in the dashboard and the body panels all bolted to a central frame.

Even after an almost 20 year production run, the car was still ahead of the game in many respects, and along the way had a few face lifts and various engine and hydraulic improvements.   Later models even had headlights that could ‘see around the corner’.

Today the DS is somewhat of a cult classic – They are still available for reasonable money and with good parts supply and are practical enough to use as more than just a weekend cruiser.

About this car

This car is a 1970 DS21 BVH.   What does all this mean?   The DS range was always fairly complicated.   Generally the models can be broken into two groups – the DS which has the full hydraulic system (including hydraulic gear change), and the ID, which had a simpler system and generally more spartan interior. (Later IDs were known as the D Special and D Super)  Over time the differences shrank and IDs were available with some DS features and DSs were available with a manual gearbox, but nevertheless the distinction remained and the hydraulic gear change was only ever available on the DS.   In addition, you could have a Berline (Sedan), Break/Safari (Station Wagon), or the rare and expensive cabriolet.   The DS was also available with the ‘Pallas’ option, which was a package of luxury features (such as chrome strips, plush carpets, leathers etc).   The ‘Pallas’ option was only available for the DS and was commonly chosen by DS buyers.  The semi-automatic gearbox (BVH) was a must for me, so that ruled out the ID/D Special/D Super which are more common and easier to find.

The DS as I bought It.

This particular car is a DS21, which means it has the 2175cc DX2 engine and the full DS hydraulic system.   BVH stands for boîte de vitesses hydraulique, which means the hydraulic semi-automatic gearbox (i.e. a clutchless manual).   Unlike many DS21, it does not have the Pallas package, and it is not an IE model (Bosch Fuel Injection).    BVH was not popular in Australia, and there are not many cars left on the road that have it.   1970 was actually the last year it was officially offered in the Australian market as in 1971 new regulations enforced a park position which meant future DS were either manual, or later models with a Borg Warner auto transmission.   This makes a 1970 DS21 BVH non Pallas a fairly rare car in Australia.  (in an interesting way, not a $$ way).   I am not sure if this car was originally sold in Australia, or was imported privately at a later date.

The car was originally delivered with a white exterior.   It is currently Rio Red, a 1971 colour, with a black targa (plastic) interior.   From 1997 to 2012 it was on the Sunshine coast in Queensland, living with a Blue DS21IE BVH and a While D Special, as well as a Traction Avant.   It was purchased before that in Ballina from a man called Richard Foley-Jenkins, and before that was in South Australia (I would love to be able to talk to him and find out about his time with the car, but I have no contact details).   I have a photo of it in Red with South Australian plates on it, so it must have changed colour before that time.  It would would have originally had a Jersey Velour interior, but I do not know the colour, although I suspect gold.     I purchased the car in September 2012 and drove it back to Sydney from Queensland.  The trip back was a lot of fun and the car made it with no problems.   This car has character as the next morning after the return trip it would not start – but it made sure it got me home safe!

The DS in 1997

Why a DS?

I like the DS because it is the antithesis of the ‘design by committee and offend nobody’ philosophy that seems to dominate current cars.   The DS was designed by a group of people with a vision of what they thought the car should be and they executed that vision despite what anyone else is doing.

The styling is still distinctive,  with great details such as the rear indicator lights, the C-Pillar pattens and so on.    More importantly the DS was so ahead its time from a technology point of view.

In selecting my DS I had a few key requirements.    It had to be a BVH car – not everyone will agree, but to me this is part of the whole DS experience.   It had to be solid and generally rust free.   It had to be in good condition mechanically and I didn’t want a white car.   (I don’t like white cars).   I also wanted a later car that ran on LHM.   While the slopey dash and a Pallas would have been nice, these are very rare and this car me all my core requirements.

Major Changes to the DS

Major Changes to the DS

Driving a DS

When you approach a DS, it will be sitting down low, like a sleeping cat.   You sink into the most comfortable car seats you’ll probably experience and then you can begin the starting procedure (only boring cars just turn the key and go).  Inserting the key and turning on the ignition greets you with an array of warning lights including a large “STOP” light in the middle of the dashboard – a master caution switch which looks more in place at a nuclear power plant.   The gearstick is between the single spoke steering wheel and the instrument cluster and it is used to start the car (so it cannot be started in gear).   Once the car has started, you’ll need to wait for the hydraulic system to build pressure and raise the car to its running height.   It will rise at the back first then the front, kind of like riding a camel.   Once the car has awakened, you can push the gear leaver forward into first gear and start moving.   Changing gears is a simple flick of the wrist, and taking your foot off the throttle for an up shift, or adding a little for a down shift.   The DS does not have a brake pedal, there is a button on the floor that is pressed – the amount of pressure determines how quickly the car will stop.   At the time, Citroen had done studies on braking reaction times to develop this system.

What is next for this car?

This DS is in good shape mechanically but needs a little work cosmetically.   Over time I plan to enjoy the car as it is and start tacking some of the jobs that it needs, such as polishing the paint & chrome, replacing the ripped and faded blue carpets, etc.   At some point I would like to repaint it, my preference would be in a slightly darker shade of red.   I don’t plan to try and turn it into a Pallas look alike with carpets, and trim improvements, but I do want to replace the targa upholstory with velours.

I have done quite a lot to the car since I owned it, which is outlined here.

Buying a DS

A DS is a good choice for a classic car because it is practical seating 5, they are reasonably inexpensive, has good parts supply, good club support and it does have that X factor that is needed in a classic.     The biggest enemy of the DS is rust, so finding a relatively rust free example is more important than anything else.   The easiest DS to start with would be a late model car, like a D Special that gives you the full DS looks and ride and comfort without additional complexity.    The main thing is to find a rust free car, and if you want to be particular about the model, year, spec etc, be willing to wait for the right car to come up.

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