A Citroën DS that works!

Today I had a treat. I seem to have had a few lately but anyway, this was a nice one. I met a guy, Paul from the Netherlands, on the Citroën forum who has a 1965 Citroën DS19 Pallas, exactly the same model as mine, only his one works. He lives north of Eindhoven so we arranged to meet halfway on the “grens van België en Nederland” (the border between Belgium and the Netherlands) here. I drove up from Antwerp in my BMW and arrived at the prescribed time. A few minutes later the “snoek” as they are known in Holland also arrived, gleaming and shiny in our uncharacteristically hot summer weather. Snoek means Pike (as in the fish) and refers to the shape of the DS.

This is a truly magnificent example of a DS, actually in better than showroom condition. It has had a full body-off-frame restoration from top to bottom and it shows. The body, painted in its original Gris Palladium is perfect. It has the original “Sombrero” wheel covers which were only ever sold on the ’65 Pallas model and the interior has been beautifully restored with tan leather and new carpet. I was told that the leather is actually the leather used on 1970s Mercedes but is very very close to the original Citroën leather that is no longer attainable.

We sat initially for a chat and a beer before we set off for a drive in the Déesse further into Holland. Paul drove and I could immediately tell that this car is in perfect working order. The engine started easily, it idled smoothly, the hydraulic suspension lifted up smartly, and everything just worked. We drove a few kilometres before arriving in the town of Baarle Nassau/Baarle Hertog.

It’s worth taking a second to tell you about this very unusual town. As I said, we were now in the Netherlands and Baarle Nassau is indeed a Dutch town. But Baarle Hertog (which is part of the same town) is actually Belgian so it’s a little bit like the old West Berlin when Germany was still divided. However, unlike West Berlin which was a fairly uniform shape, the two Baarles are a complicated jigsaw puzzle of different pieces including bits of the Netherlands completely surrounded by bits of Belgium which are again completely surrounded by the Netherlands. If you don’t believe me check out Google Maps.

The border between Belgium and the Netherlands at Baarle-Hertog

When I first saw this a few years ago I thought someone had made a mistake but it’s real and is a result of complex medieval treaties, agreements, land-swaps and sales between the Lords of Breda and the Dukes of Brabant. Wikipedia elaborates. My favourite bit is the fact that in some restaurants which straddled the border the customers would have to switch tables from the Dutch side to the Belgian side because the Netherlands had an earlier compulsory closing time back then!

Anyway, I digress. Paul pulled over in Baarle Nassau (or it might have been Baarle Hertog – I lost track) and graciously allowed me to take the wheel of his precious DS. At least I’ve had some experience driving these so it was no problem for me and I smoothly pulled away and piloted it out of town. It was wonderful. This was the experience I had hoped for when I bought my own DS but unfortunately, thus far, it has not been the case. Anyway, I now have renewed faith that it is in fact possible for these cars to run smoothly and reliably and give pleasure rather than heartache. Whether mine can be brought to this state is yet to be determined…

While out driving we passed a number of classic American cars as apparently there was a gathering on nearby. We even saw a ’61 Cadillac Coupe de Ville, one of my personal favourites. Given the glorious weather it seemed that everyone was out enjoying their classic cars, convertibles, and motorbikes and everyone was waving to one another. The DS certainly attracts a lot of attention as they are particularly popular in the Netherlands.

Driving a DS is an extremely calming experience. Because it is French it will not be rushed. This is not to say it is slow, they are capable of well exceeding the speed limit, but it does not like to be rushed. The semi-automatic gearbox works best if you smoothly lift off, flick the lever, pause for half a second, and then smoothly press down on the accelerator. Any attempt at haste will result in jerky gear changes and indignant Gallic muttering from the car. Likewise the suspension, its most famous feature, requires that you pause and give it a minute to get ready before you set off. I’m sure the DS has been used for the occasional bank robbery but you would want to leave the car running while you did the job. Otherwise you would have to sit and wait for the suspension to raise the car before you could leave.

I steered the DS back to the border with Belgium where, after taking a few photos and having a bit more of a chat, we said our goodbyes. Getting back into my BMW with it’s M-sport suspension and firm sports seats made the differences between the French and German philosophies of car design even more apparent. They very much reflect their countries of origin as well. The French car emphasises comfort, relaxation, a slower pace of life and is quirky if not deliberately different, whilst the German car is serious, single-minded and built with lots of words such as effective, efficient, and purposeful in mind. They are at opposite ends of the motoring spectrum and both are brilliant in their intended functions which is about the highest praise one can give in industrial design. I love them both.

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