General De Gaulle liked his Citroëns. During his ‘wilderness years’ out of power, between 1946 and 1958, he was often to be seen extracting his lanky frame from the rear of a Traction Avant. As President of the newly constituted Fifth Republic, he felt that he had escaped death in the famous assassination attempt of 1962 largely thanks to the hydropneumatics of his chauffeur-driven DS, which had allowed the car to continue at speed after one of its tyres had been shot to bits. An attempt to persuade him to adopt a Chapron-modified version of the Belgianassembled Rambler-Renault apparently met with Gaullian disdain.
But France’s head of state could hardly continue forever to use the two special-bodied ceremonial 15-Six Traction Avants that had been inherited from the previous régime. So it was that, in late 1968, the very twilight of de Gaulle’s presidency, the Elysée Palace took delivery of the most extravagant DS ever to be made.
In fact, according to Henri Dargent, who was then assistant to Citroën stylist Flaminio Bertoni, the project goes back to 1960 or thereabouts, when the Elysée first intimated to Citroën that a new presidential vehicle was required. Work began – astonishingly enough based around 15-Six mechanicals, despite the fact that the six-cylinder Traction Avant had ceased production in 1956 – but soon ground to a halt.
Not surprisingly, Dargent says it was difficult finding 15-Six components, and this might have been a factor; one can only assume that the seemingly bizarre decision to use Traction Avant components might have been prompted by the long wheelbase of the Familiale version of the older Citroën. Some sketches by Bertoni survive (top right), and show an angular design with a reverse flick to the front wing recalling that of the Ami 6. The car was intended to have a folding metal rear section to the roof, and as a result there was a long flat boot to accommodate this.
In 1965 the project was revived, on the initiative of the Elysée, and under the direction of new Citroën styling chief Robert Opron, who had taken over following Bertoni’s death in February 1964. Legend has it that the only stipulation from de Gaulle himself was that the car had to be longer than the US President’s stretched Lincoln. His staff, however, drew up a huge list of requirements, without consulting the General himself. These included the ability to climb the hill at the Mont-Valérien war memorial at walking pace in the full heat of the summer, and to crawl at 3-4mph for several hours without cooling problems. Despite its size, the Citroën also had to have a turning circle tight enough to allow it to enter the Elysée courtyard from the rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré and then pull up at the steps in a single manoeuvre.
Extrapolating from Dargent’s memories, it seems that the design work took about a year. Carried over at first from the earlier venture was the idea of a folding metal section to the roof, and the long rear deck of the Opron design reflects this – although the folding roof was ultimately abandoned. ‘The proportions of the vehicle were determined by the mechanism that we were going to make,’ says Dargent. ‘It was because of that that the boot was so long – because we wanted the rear of the roof to fold into the boot, in two parts.’ The slightly recessed headlamps, meanwhile, echo Bertoni’s proposals for a facelifted DS, as subsequently developed under Opron and launched for the 1968 model year. Opron himself is dismissive of the project. ‘It was routine stuff – I didn’t have a particular enthusiasm for it. We didn’t have the time to do a proper study, or to develop the folding roof. That was a shame, as it would have made it easier to enter and leave the car.’
If the long tail was wasteful of space, this was clawed back when it came to designing the interior, according to Dargent. ‘We did an interior mock-up and, when the two Elysée chauffeurs arrived, they positioned themselves right against the steering wheel. They said they always drove like that, to allow the maximum amount of room in the back. So we went along with it.’
Dargent was responsible for supervising the vehicle’s construction at Chapron, a process that took nearly two years. ‘Chapron was starting to get old. His wife, who was a good manager, looked after the workshop and there was an excellent foreman, who brought in the metalworkers, the trimmers, and so on,’ he recalls. ‘All the elements of the body were formed at Chapron, by hand. They had extraordinary metalworkers.’
Despite the prestige associated with building a car for the President of the Republic, the project was apparently undertaken through gritted teeth by the Levallois-based coachbuilder. ‘He followed to the letter what we gave him, but he wasn’t happy about it,’ says Opron. ‘Chapron was a pretentious sort of person. I didn’t like him much.’
For Henri Dargent, it was a demanding time in his life. ‘I shudder to think of the acrobatics I went through,’ he sighs. ‘It was really a one-off handbuilt vehicle.’ In particular he recalls a windscreen moulding that refused to stay in position, the painstaking lamination of the dashboard woodwork – and when he got the French colours the wrong way round on the acrylic emblem for the bonnet. Light units, door handles, badging: all the detailing was created by hand. There was also the small question of colour.
‘We chose two-tone metallic grey, in agreement with Opron – dark grey below and light grey above. Then we had a note from the Elysée saying that Mme de Gaulle wanted a green. They’d asked the director of French TV at the time what colour looked best on the television and he’d said green. I had an idea – because we didn’t want to change the colour. We’d do some samples on a domed bit of metal, because how a colour is seen depends on the surface. On a domed surface a grey with a bit of green in it would look green-ish. So that’s what we did, and we sent that to the Elysée and they said “OK”…’
Eventually the car was completed, and given a shakedown at Citroën’s La Ferté-Vidame test track. Things didn’t quite go as planned, remembers Dargent. ‘Opron wanted chrome embellishers for the closing faces of the doors. I hadn’t allowed for that in my drawings, and of course it added some thickness to the doors. We did our best, with recessed screws and so on, and it looked beautiful. We took the car for a test run at La Ferté, and all of a sudden we found that we couldn’t get in – all the doors were stuck shut. Because the car was very long, the body had distorted slightly. At the Vélizy design centre a whole team worked for hours to get the doors to open and shut with the chromed trims in place.’
The end result was a mastodon of a car, weighing 2280kg (almost twice the 1300kg of a regular DS) and measuring 21ft 6in long and 7ft 10in wide. This made the Citroën 5in longer than the US president’s Lincoln, and 4in wider than a Cadillac. Equipment included a curved division incorporating a jump-seat for an interpreter, as well as a bar and a refrigerator. With the electrics having to cope with rather more than normal, the system was doubled-up, with two alternators and two batteries. Power-assistance and braking were also uprated, as was the cooling, but the engine remained a standard DS21 unit, matched to a regular manual gearbox.
Despite what might be suggested by the car’s huge weight, interestingly it was not armour-plated. De Gaulle disapproved of the idea. If a head of state had to travel in a bulletproof car, he said, it showed that there was a problem with the public’s opinion of him. The General’s chauffeur, Paul Fontenil, tried the car at La Ferté-Vidame before the Elysée took delivery, and before its first official function he practised parking manoeuvres so he could draw up and pull away in one movement rather than the three that the US chauffeurs were obliged to use. Despite the DS being longer than the Americans’ cars, he astonished onlookers by extricating it with barely a cigarette paper’s clearance.
The cost of all this? The equivalent of some £700,000 or so, in Citroën’s time and money, according to Dargent. That was a theoretical figure rather than one that was actually invoiced, but it roughly amounts to an eyebrow-raising £5.5m in today’s money. This was a considerable budget over-shoot – now there’s a surprise – as the original estimate, says Dargent, had been for £400,000. Doubtless for this reason as much as any other, the notion of making replicas for tin-pot Third World heads of state was quietly shelved.
Alas, other than its exorbitant cost, there was one (rather fundamental) snag with the President’s super-DS: despite earlier remonstrations by Fontenil, the rear division was fixed, with no sliding glass. De Gaulle was not pleased, as he particularly appreciated being able to talk to his chauffeur, and had no intention of using the telephone-set intercom. Grouchily demanding why nobody bothered to consult him about what was, after all, his car, he returned to the Franay-bodied 15-Six. Or so the story goes.
As it transpired, the DS was brought out for only two functions during the final days of the de Gaulle presidency, which came to an end in April 1969. Indeed, the car represents an apparent disconnect: despite his notions of the grandeur of France, and of his office, de Gaulle was a man of modest tastes. The same could be said of his wife Yvonne, who motored around in an Ami 6. The DS might have corresponded to the demands of State, but one wonders whether de Gaulle’s personal disposition – especially after the events of May 1968 – made him feel uneasy about flaunting such an extravagance in front of taxpayers.
As for the new president, Georges Pompidou, he made only limited use of the DS and eventually turned to a brace of special four-door Chapron SM convertibles. Perhaps in cars as in politics, Pompidou – an enthusiast who had previously owned a Bristol and at least one Porsche – was determined to show he was independent of de Gaulle, whose Prime Minister he had been.
So, after barely being used, the most extraordinary of all Citroëns passed to a private collector – reputedly for a sum of around £20,000. Today it has fewer than 4000 miles on the clock. Rare have been its sorties, but French photographer Daniel Denis managed to secure permission for the photo-shoot within the Elysée that you see on these pages. You have to admit that the stately DS – and stately is surely the right word – looks more at home there than François Hollande’s black Citroën C6, however politically correct such presidential transport might be. All this prompts a parting thought. Maybe, had he stayed in office a little longer, de Gaulle would eventually have come around to the idea of using his new limousine more often.
‘One wonders whether de Gaulle felt uneasy flaunting such an extravagance in front of taxpayers’
Left Disproportionately long tail was a legacy of an earlier plan to fit a two-part folding roof, which would stow away inside the boot space.
Above Truly epic lounging space back here – because front seat occupants were crushed up against the dashboard.
Left, below and bottom Early styling proposal by Flaminio Bertoni was superseded by Robert Opron’s; unique dash and wheel in exquisite interior.
‘Legend has it that de Gaulle stipulated only that the car had to be longer than the US President’s’
Top and right De Gaulle, driven in a DS – this special version was intended to replace his 15-Six Traction Avants.
TECHNICAL DATA FILE 1968 Citroën DS Presidential Limousine
Engine 2175cc four-cylinder, OHV, single Weber twin-choke carburettor
Power 115bhp @ 5750rpm
Torque 122lb ft @ 3500rpm (approx)
Transmission Four-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Steering Rack and pinion, powered
Front: twin leading arms, self-levelling hydropneumatic units, anti-roll bar.
Rear: trailing arms, self-levelling hydropneumatic units, anti-roll bar
Brakes Inboard discs front, outboard drums rear
Performance Not disclosed