Seven steps to buying a Citroën DS/ID saloon
With age throwing up new problems on the Citroën DS and ID it’s essential to look at any perspective purchase with a fresh pair of eyes. Quite a challenge because it’s easy to be dazzled by the Goddess’s futuristic looks and fluid-armchair ride. DS ownership brings a whole new perspective on motoring, and entry to a very special club. So we spoke to Olivier Houiller of French Classics (01474 703125; frenchclassics. co.uk) Jonathan Aucott of Avantgarde Cars (01827 288177; avantgardecars.co.uk) and Jamie Piggott of DS Workshop (020 3417 0243; dsworkshop.co.uk) who says, ‘It’s about the size of a Jag Mk2 and just as structurally complex – with the added expense of the hydraulics. If you buy the wrong one it will sting you.’
Which one to choose?
DS/ID The DS was conceived as a semi-auto with fully powered brakes, but Citroën came up with the cheaper manual-shift ID, without power steering, in 1957. You’ll have to decide whether you want the early ‘frogeye’ style front end or the later faired-in lights that arrived in 1968. On most of these, the inner lights swivel with the steering. Engines were 1911cc from 1955-1965 (DS19/ID19) and 1985cc after that (DS20/ ID20), with a 2175cc option (DS21), and 2347cc from 1973 (DS23). Production ended in 1975.
D The D Spécial and D Super replaced the ID in 1970, with options of a five-speed gearbox and 2175cc, which together became the D Super5.
Originality and authenticity
With so many permutations, it’s not always clear what you’re looking at. The ID has a conventional-looking pedal as a brake, not a mushroom button, though it operates the same kit, with different leverage for a more conventional feel. Slough-built cars are right-hand-drive and all have mushrooms. The Chevrons on the bootlid are silver on an ID and gold on a DS, and the hydraulic height corrector lever is black on a DS Pallas and white on an ID – and for real anoraks the bonnet release catches are different too. Since the more luxurious Pallas (made from 1965) is considered the most desirable, many lesser models have been ‘gentrified’, or Pallas-ised. An ID that has been Pallasised, for example, will probably be missing the chrome strip on the dashboard – this can only be fitted if the dash is removed and dismantled.
All of the outer panels bolt on, and the roof is glassfibre, though it’s bonded on after 1972. It’s the structural steel underneath that you need to worry about. Sills and boot floors are the first places to check, basically the bottom 2in of the car. The sills should be nice and at between the spot welds. If the metal has started to swell, it’s ‘blown’ and rusting.
Early cars were built better – the later the car, the fewer spot welds, because the distance between them increases. Boot floors start to rust at their edges, and this area supports the rear trailing arm mounts, so it’s a potential MoT failure. It’s not unusual to find repairs here, but make sure they’ve been done well.
There’s a little test that gives a good indication of the state of the rest of the car. Pull back the top windscreen seal and run your thumb along behind it. A little gunge and surface rust is normal, but if it’s rough, jagged or flaking it’s got into the roof rails, which is a windscreen out and roof off job to fix and probably not viable to buy. Push the top of the screen – if it moves it’s more than the outer skin that’s gone, and at least £1000 to fix. If the seller will let you, take of the rear wings – one bolt per side, by the rear reflectors – and check the tops of the inner wings, under the parcel shelf. One other quick tip is to see if the rubbers at the bottoms of the B and C pillars are still in place – if they are it’s probably quite a good car.
There’s also one phenomenon that has only appeared in recent years as the cars have become older, and that’s cracking around the front suspension mountings, where the wishbone carriers bolt on, which you hear as a creak or click when cornering, like a twig snapping. Look out for that on the test-drive. Repairs cost anything from £150 for rebrazing if it’s just started, or £2000 for a full (engine-out) repair.
All of the brightwork apart from the door handles is stainless steel. It doesn’t rust but it does get damaged if taken off clumsily. Only the Pallas has chromed boot hinges, plus bright sill covers.
Before 1967 the cars used LHS red fluid, which is hygroscopic, in that it absorbs moisture and creates corrosion from within, and also acts as a paint stripper – so if there’s been a leak you can find massive, random corrosion. And red fluid costs about £45 a litre.
We’ll be mostly concerned with LHM green-fluid cars. They all leak, a little; but is it sweating, a leak or dampness? Splitting suspension gaiters look very dramatic, but it’s just a release of accumulated fluid. A leaky pump will spray LHM everywhere.
A DS sinks to the down position when turned off. When you start the engine, the suspension should rise within 10-20 seconds, rear first quickly followed by the front. There’s a simple test to make sure it’s all working correctly. Open the boot and bonnet and, with the engine running and the car at normal ride height, put your weight in the boot shut (don’t jump on the bumper in case the mountings have been weakened by rust). Tohe car should dip under your weight and then within five seconds return to its normal ride height. Jump of and it should rise, then sink back to its normal level within five seconds. Clicks from the rear as the car rises and falls signal worn pushrods between the spheres and the trailing arms.
Do the same at the front with your knee on the slam panel – don’t push down on the wings because they’ll dent. If it’s solid and doesn’t move it means one of the spheres is blown and is full of fluid, which doesn’t compress like the nitrogen, the springing element. Spheres cost £60-£124 exchange a pair. If you feel stiction when you compress the suspension, the front wishbone bushes are worn – complete replacement front wishbone modules cost £300 plus the best part of 2 days’ labour to fit; more if welding is required.
Never go under a raised DS that is unsupported. ‘If anything in the suspension goes pop – I’ve witnessed it twice – they drop instantly,’ says Jamie.
Engine and transmission
Under that futuristic skin it’s a bit of a disappointment to find the engine is an old-fashioned pushrod fourcylinder – at first a 1911cc Traction Avant-derived unit, then a shorter-stroke 1985cc unit from 1965, along with a 2175cc option. Cylinder heads are good for 150k miles, bottom ends for 200k. Fuel injection arrived as an option in 1970, and the drawback with this is that you have to remove the intake trunking to get at the tappets. The 2347cc version came in 1973, in both carburettor-fed and injected forms.
‘The smaller the engine the less likely it is to have trouble – the 23 is oversquare, and the most likely to have big-end problems, so listen for a clattering on acceleration,’ says Jamie.
All cars use the same basic gearbox hardware. A well set-up semi-auto is beautifully smooth; if not, it’s worn or badly set up. Harshness or whine on any needs investigating. If there’s a whine from bearings or differential, usually caused by running with low oil (five-speeds are more prone), rebuilds are about £3k.
Inboard discs at the front – the main pads are quick and simple to change, so don’t worry about them, but discs and handbrake pads require removal of the driveshafts and calipers, plus radiator. Book time on an EFi is nine hours, and that’s a bill of about £700 just for labour. Rear brakes are utterly conventional drums.
DSs by their nature mask tyre problems, but it’s a 100mph, 1320kg car and needs decent rubber. The correct tyres are 180-section Michelins – XASs, or Xs before 1965, and they’re £180 a corner. Retro-branded Nankangs are £84 each; beware of van tyres.
What to pay
1 Values are as much about spec as condition, and start at £5000 for a lhd D Spécial nearing the end of its life.
2 For an ID expect to pay £12k for a nice useable example and up to £20k for an excellent example.
3 For the DS, it depends on the year and the engine but a DS21 Pallas would be from £23k for a nice useable and up to £35k for excellent.
4 Top of the range is the £25k-£40k DS23 EFI Pallas. Chapron specials and original factory Usine convertibles (beware conversions) can fetch up to £200k.
‘Age is throwing up new problems we haven’t previously encountered, so look with a fresh pair of eyes’
With so many iterations over so many years, values range from £5k for rough D Spécials to £200k for the coachbuilt Chapron rarities. 1967-1969 cars attract a premium due to the combinations of ‘green fluid’ suspension (1967 on), the new flush headlights but still with the two-tone dash (1968), and the last year of the ‘swoopy’ dash (1969).
‘Establish early on whether the car has the red- or green- fluid suspension system’
All RHD cars and lhd DSs have a mushroom brake pedal; lefthook IDs have a conventional pedal. Note foot-operated handbrake and lever for suspension height on far left.
It’s a robust engine but the usual rules apply – check for smoke and rattles. Electronic ignition to replace the points is a fit-and-forget solution, giving easier starting, smoother running and likely better economy.
Hydropneumatic suspension is the heart of a DS, but it needn’t strike fear – it’s a lot simpler in operation than its reputation suggests. Some pre-1967 cars will have been converted from red to green fluid; these should have green (not black) reservoirs.
Owning a Citroën DS
Jamie Piggott, London
Jamie has run The DS Workshop for 17 years, after finding that he could look after his own DS better than the existing specialists. ‘I always say run it for six months to see if you fall in love with it, and then decide what you want to do with it. Lots of customers in London have sheddy-looking cars that are mechanically perfect.
‘Years ago, you could buy a D Spécial for a grand, rob it of its panels and stick them on a rotten DS Pallas, and you had a £10k car. Some of these are still coming out of the woodwork, but most of the real dross has disappeared o” the market. ‘They get more expensive to maintain as they get more complex. The average book time for engine removal and replacement is 16-23 hours, for example, but it’s 28 for an auto. If you’re going to buy a rough car, make sure it’s carb-fed, because you can drive around any problems. A poor injected car will break your soul. If you don’t know the cars, get someone who does to go along with you.’
David Johnson, London
David bought his left-hand-drive 1974 DS20 Pallas semi-auto from Olivier Houiller at French Classics in 2016, having spent six months looking for one.
‘I like cars from the Sixties and Seventies of any marque but I was drawn to owning a DS as my first classic because I had two uncles who owned them – I rode in them then and loved them. I looked at cheaper cars, but I don’t have the skills or the space to work on it myself so I just wanted a reliable car. ‘The DS is a completely different species, and one thing I hadn’t anticipated was just how many people are interested in it – even if they don’t know what it is. It seems to make a strong impression on very young children. The first time a Lancia enthusiast friend of mine sat in it, he said, “I’ll have to get out and get back in again because it’s such an experience.”
‘It’s street-parked and used every weekend, and for some school runs too. For the first couple of months I had to think about driving it quite carefully but now, even if I’ve not been in it for a week, I find it quite intuitive – though I never want to get into it in a hurry because I like to let it warm up. And that whole ignoring speed bumps thing is still a bit of a novelty.’
Jonathan Aucott, Staffordshire
Aucott owned his first ‘Goddess’, a left-hand-drive D Super from France, in his early twenties before he started dealing in classics full-time as Avantgarde Cars almost two decades ago. He’s owned four more since, including the DS23 EFi Pallas pictured here.
‘It was my first interesting car and may even have led to me becoming seriously involved with classics,’ he says. ‘What excited me is that they’re completely different from anything else, and you get a real sense of occasion every time you drive one. It’s not just a car you can jump into; they take a while to acclimatise to. You’ve got to go with the flow with them, not rush the gearchange, not hurl it into corners – though I reckon the steering is better than an SM, which is almost too “pointy”.
‘You need to find a good Citroën specialist, so do your research – there’s no point in taking them to a mainstream garage. But when they’re right, they’re very reliable. It doesn’t do them any good to stand for long periods – if you leave them unused they will spring hydraulic leaks.
‘The ones to have are the DS21 or 23 electronic injection Pallas, but choose on condition rather than exact model and forget trying to find a rust-free right-hand-drive car – they don’t exist. Go for a left-hander; it’s all part of the occasion.’
1970 Citroën DS20 – £23,950
LHD DS20 Confort with semi-automatic gearbox and 2.0-litre carburettor engine. Low mileage (79k) with original service booklet, owner’s manual, service history and original spare keys. Solid blue paintwork with superb original blue cloth interior (incl. front/rear matching armrests) and large front headrests. Chrome steering wheel and push button-type doors, rear Gradulux-style blinds and new tyres.