What follows is perhaps a little self-indulgent – but if I can’t write like this on my own blog, then where can I?
I was six years old when I first saw a Citroën DS. It was on TV, at the time when Top Gear featured real cars and pieces about the history of motoring. One week had a segment on France’s automotive past that wound up by looking at the abandoned cars of Paris, showing a series of decadent motors left to rot in the city’s parking lots. I was too young to understand all the words, but one image in particular remains burned into my brain to this day. A pale metallic green DS Safari forgotten in the corner of a multi-story at night, its tyres flat and left-hand suspension collapsed. The oppressive sodium lighting and deep shadows made the footage grainy, but this only served to make the shot even eerier. The giant headlamps of the Safari gazing out from behind a metal grate, every other space on the floor empty. As a strange little boy who saw car fronts as faces, this spooked me to the extent I had to sleep with the light on for two nights.
I do not remember the point at which I discovered this bewitching vehicle was a DS, but I do remember the next time a DS grabbed my attention. It was in my mid-teens, and I had temporarily gone ‘off’ cars and ‘on’ to rock music. My favourite band at the time was Feeder, a Welsh outfit whose music I had ironically come across as the backing track to the first Gran Turismo. I had a black Stratocaster like the guitarist, and developed the band’s habit of wearing cream long-sleeved t-shirts under green short-sleeved t-shirts. The cover of the band’s second album Yesterday Went Too Soon showed a farm track running through open fields under a grey autumnal sky. In the photo, a dense band of exhaust fumes hangs above the potholed track, left by an old black car exiting stage right. The rest of the inlay tells a photo story in which Feeder’s frontman is abducted by the car’s driver, a wild-haired transvestite witch, whilst the bassist and drummer give pursuit in another old car. Both cars feature heavily in the photo story. The chasing car is a W123 Mercedes. The witch’s car, as you have probably guessed, is a latter-day DS with swiveling yellow headlights. Feeder’s music didn’t hold my interest for long, but my interest for the Déesse was rekindled.
Old Citroëns were hard to come by in the Highlands, which meant the chances of me seeing DSs in the metal, let alone coming close to owning one, were limited to classic car shows and the occasional sortie abroad. Times were, however, changing. I was off to university in Edinburgh, and the age of internet auctions was dawning. This heady brew of ready access to alcohol, high-speed broadband and eBay culminated in my mother having to take delivery of a five-foot, thirty kilogram rear bumper whilst I was down in the city for term. When I came home for Christmas, it was waiting on my bed alongside the early model wheel trim and replacement door mirror that had also been acquired during late night sessions with the credit card. Perhaps inspired by the Johnny Cash song One Piece At A Time, in which the protagonist smuggles parts for his dream car out of the factory over a twenty-year period, I somehow got the idea into my head that if I couldn’t buy a DS outright at the age of twenty-two, I could at least start to collect the spare parts I’d inevitably need when I did one day get my real car. That day has yet to come, and the parts are still in Mum and Dad’s shed.
The period of uncontrollable internet activity did also result in some meaningful purchases, including a small fleet of DS models in various colours and scales and a number of books about the car containing all the technical detail I never needed to know. The fact Haynes never produced a manual for the DS should be taken as a fairly good indication that these are not easy vehicles to repair. I fear I may even struggle to fit the rear bumper I so diligently acquired.
My relationship with the DS reached new heights during my time as a postgraduate, when I fell victim to a thoroughly pleasant wind-up. Two of my good friends from Edinburgh University Motor Sport Club persuaded me to come home from uni at lunchtime one day, on the pretence that urgent maintenance had to be done to the club website to which only I had the necessary passwords. Sure enough, at half past one the flat buzzer went, and I was commanded to come downstairs to help carry a computer up to the flat. On opening the door, I was confronted not with a Dell monitor and tower in a plastic crate, but with my other friend behind the wheel of a silver DS19. “Grab your stuff, we’re off for a drive”, came the command from within the deep red interior. Over the course of the sun-soaked afternoon that followed, we meandered our way along to North Berwick and back, crunching the steering wheel-mounted gears and veering the left-hand drive Citroën towards ditches as we went. The DS had been sourced from a classic car club of which my older comrade was a member, and so nervous of damaging it was it that when my turn came to drive, my backside was like a Polo Mint. On a five-mile stretch of B-road, the speedo did not once inch above 30mph and I changed gear no more than three times for fear of damaging the Déesse. With hindsight, I should have relaxed a little more – after all, it wasn’t like I didn’t have a stash of spare parts to fix it should anything go wrong.
My enthusiasm for DSs spread first of all to other old Citroëns, and then to other aspects of French culture – language learning, wine, films. Even when my attention was transferred to Japanese culture as a result of changes elsewhere in my life, I still pricked up every time my eye caught the unmistakable low-lying silhouette of an old Javel-built saloon or estate. And as I discovered when a group of my students cottoned on to my habit during a field trip to Amsterdam, the DS is one of only a handful of vehicles that can hold the attention of even the most staunch car non-enthusiast. Whether it’s the car from Day of the Jackal, a sixties B-movie spaceship or something your eccentric uncle used to have, the big saloon is something that provokes a reaction from nearly everyone.
Such a famed model is of course well represented in the Citroën Conservatoire. Given my long-standing interest in a car so outstanding it once moved Roland Barthes to write an essay on it, one might have expected me to spend my time in the DS section at the Conservatoire with my head under the bonnets, spotting every engineering curiosity and mechanical anachronism in the early prototypes. In fact, I just enjoyed myself. I crashed out across the sofa-like rear seats. I pumped the giant rubber brake pedal. I watched the hydraulic suspension rise and fall. And I took sixty-three photos. That alone should tell you how much I enjoyed my time among the herd of DSs, and I shall leave the photographs below to speak for themselves.
At the close of my interview for the Guild of Motoring Writers’ Sir William Lyons Award many years ago, I was asked what my favourite car was and why. I did not even have to think about the ‘what’, but the ‘why’ was far less clear. After a slight pause, I recounted the tale of the Top Gear feature, finishing by admitting that it was the only time I have ever actually been scared just looking at a car. For a car to trigger that kind of reaction by its appearance alone, it must be something special.