The long-term test is a time-honoured staple of the motor journalism trade. A publication takes a car for six months, one year or even longer, and rattles the life out of it. Every squeak, rattle and bump is reported back to the eager readership, the bold reporters telling the world whether the manufacturers’ claims still stand up to scrutiny after tens of thousands of miles of wear and tear. Whilst modern vehicles aren’t as likely to collapse into a pile of rust in the way their forebearers will, the ‘long-termer’ still plays a pivotal role in building consumers’ understanding of the practicalities of living with a car on a day-to-day basis.
It was because of one such test that 94 rue du Faubourg-Poissonnière in Paris found itself the centre of a covert operation in the mid-1950s. Leading French automobile publication l’Auto-Journal took stewardship of one of Citroën’s fledgling DS 19 models for a 25,000 kilometre test, running the car in a combination of town, country and motorway driving. The aim was to replicate as closely as possible the conditions under which the owners of which France’s newest motoring sensation would be using their vehicles, and to identify the problems they might face over the course of their ownership.
I digested the results of this trial in a special DS-focused issue of l’Auto-Journal I picked up at Brussels Airport. The key point seemed to be that after a quarter-century thousand of miles in an early version of the car, French motorists could expect a number of minor maladies to affect their motoring. Deformed pistons, crunching gears and worn-down running gear had all apparently affected l’Auto-Journal’s test car – nothing out of the ordinary for the period, but clearly not findings Citroën wanted the country to read, and ones they were keen to debunk.
Javel’s response to the report was detailed in a box-out at the end of the review article. Entitled ‘Opération Contre-Vérité’ (Operation Counter-Truth), the sub-feature showed a hastily-snapped picture of a black DS being ushered into a nighttime garage on a Parisian side street. What Citroën did, according to l’Auto-Journal, was conduct their own 25,000 kilometre test to counter the magazine’s findings. A car was prepared specially, presented to the Automobile Club of France to confirm it was of standard specification, and driven a thousand kilometres a day for twenty-five days. The hope was that at the end of the test, Citroën would have a problem-free DS with 25,000km on the clock that they could use to discredit the initial report.
However, l’Auto-Journal claimed that rather than being raked around the city, the Citroën control car did its daily mileage on the smooth main road from Paris to Bordeaux and back, its speed never once exceeding 100 kilometres per hour. And at the end of each day’s driving, the car returned to a nondescript garage for shelter. The location of this garage, which served as Citroën’s base for the month-long operation, was 94 rue du Faubourg-Poissionnière.
L’Auto-Journal caught wind of the private test, and dispatched a photographer to the tiny garage – named ‘Paris-Nice’ – to await the return of the control car. Sure enough, just after 8pm the black saloon rolled up rue du Faubourg-Poissonnière, and was papped as it drove through the garage door. The story was run in a subsequent issue of the magazine, and Citroën’s game was up.
The covert nature of the alleged counter-truth operation tickled my fancy, and I resolved to drop by the site of the garage during my time in Paris. Just a few blocks from the bustling Gare du Nord station, there is nothing particularly remarkable about the top end of rue du Faubourg-Poissonnière in its 2013 incarnation. Students pour in and out of a fast food café, devouring their purchases on the adjacent low wall. There is a stern grey concrete financial office, its varnished brown door locked shut. Delivery trucks and bin lorries weave between parked cars, taking blasts of the horn from vehicles behind whenever they stop to pick up or offload cargo.
I don’t know what exactly I was hoping to find by going to the site of the counter-truth mission, but seeing as it was only a two-minute walk from the train station I figured it was worth a look. Sadly, the original garage as it appeared in the magazine photo is no longer there, the building seemingly having been torn down and replaced with a newer residential structure – which is a bit of a shame as it seemed a pleasant little garage. There weren’t even any suspiciously reliable French saloons driving past that could have been the ghosts of Citroën’s ’56 test car.
I am not sure how much of the story l’Auto-Journal tells about Citroën’s counter-truth operation is true, but it is a cracking story nonetheless – one that evokes the smell of cigar smoke, cognac and newsprint and the image of Javel’s executives plotting their revenge in the factory office late at night. It’s a fantastic Mad Men-esque insight into the world of 1950s car marketing, and a story more than befitting of the car that lies at its centre.