Citroën DS Buying Guide
It looks as futuristic as it ever did, but the DS’s complexity puts off a lot of potential buyers. Here’s why it shouldn’t
• Project £2000-4000 (DS Décapotable: £25,000-£30,000)
• Good £12,000-22,000 (DS Décapotable: £75,000-90,000)
• Concours £19,000-30,000 (DS Décapotable: £120,000-150,000)
Running costs ★★★
DIY Friendly ★★★
In 1955, the best that Austin had to offer was the A90 Westminster, which Ford could counter with the Zodiac Mk1. Then Citroën unveiled its DS and overnight those conventionally engineered big saloons were rendered obsolete. This was a car that was as forward thinking as they come, in its design, its construction and its engineering. As well as self-levelling suspension and power assistance for the steering and brakes, there were disc front brakes and rack-and-pinion steering plus a super-sleek design. Nothing could compete.
Even now, all these decades on, the DS grabs attention with its sleek design and eye-catching details. But this isn’t a car that’s all show; it still drives like nothing else and it still cossets like few other cars can. Once you’ve driven a DS you’ll wonder why more cars aren’t the same.
The answer of course if that most cars are built down to a price and the Citroën’s complexity means it was necessarily costly to manufacture. That’s why Citroën introduced a simplified model to sell alongside, the ID, which did away with some of the technology to make it more affordable.
The DS’s complicated construction has also put off countless potential buyers over the years, worried that the car is inherently unreliable as a result of all that technology. While there are some aspects of the DS that can give problems, a well maintained car isn’t likely to let you down any more than its more conventional rivals, which is why you should give the incredible Citroën a chance. As long as you buy a good example, you’re unlikely to regret it.
Your AutoClassics Citroën DS inspection checklist
All DS and ID models have a four-cylinder engine; there was never a six-cylinder option. The powerplants are tough but not especially refined. There were 1911cc, 1985cc, 2175cc and 2347cc options, the first of which got three bearings while all of the others have five. All will give 150,000 miles between rebuilds; with proper maintenance double this is perfectly possible.
The bottom ends are very strong, which is why most repairs are usually restricted to just the top end, which can be done without having to remove the engine first.
The alloy cylinder head can crack between the valve seat and spark plug, caused by failing to maintain anti-freeze levels. A seized engine is probably because the oil filter hasn’t been fitted correctly; the triangle symbol on the filter casing needs to be aligned with the matching symbol on the sump, or the oil flow will be cut.
Poor access often leads to cross-threaded spark plugs; things are made easier by using the correct Citroën two-piece plug spanner. A noisy timing chain will probably necessitate removing the engine to fit a new chain and tensioner. With the engine out it’s the perfect opportunity to also replace a raft of other inaccessible parts including the handbrake pads, engine mountings, clutch and camshaft oil seal.
Famous for being front-wheel drive, the DS and ID came with either four- or five-speed gearboxes. Some cars came with a conventional transmission which should last the lifetime of the car, while others came with a hydraulically actuated gear change. These semi-automatic transmissions are complicated so predictably there’s plenty of scope for grief.
They’re not unreliable as such, but there’s a lot to go wrong including a hydraulic gear 'brain' and gear selection cylinders, centrifugal regulator, clutch operating cylinder and a clutch re-engagement control. If the system isn’t set up properly it will fail and leave you stranded, but it’s wonderful to use when it’s working properly. Predictably, the key is to find an expert who can properly maintain it, and you’ll be able to just keep motoring with no reliability issues.
Suspension and brakes
The hydropneumatic suspension and braking systems are reliable if maintained. Look for corroded pipework; the fluid is held at 2400psi so any weaknesses in the system will be obvious. Put the suspension on its highest setting and look for leaks under the nearside rear wheelarch. There can also be leaks on the low pressure (return side) of the system, but fixing this is cheap and easy.
The springing and damping is provided by spheres, which might need to be recharged. If they won’t hold pressure their inner diaphragms have failed so they need to be replaced, which is a very simple task.
The system on pre-1966 cars is filled with a red fluid called LHS or LHS2, (Liquide Hydraulique Synthetique). This is corrosive and holds moisture and if it’s not changed frequently and the filter cleaned, it can corrode the pipes from inside, with the fluid crystallising. Citroen switched to a mineral hydraulic green fluid called LHM (Liquide Hydraulique Minerale) in 1965/66, but converting to LHM means replacing every unit and huge numbers of seals as the two fluids don’t mix.
The accumulator keeps the suspension fluid pressurised. Clicking from the engine bay suggests the accumulator needs replacing, which puts pressure on the hydraulic pump so that wears out too.
Poor access to the brakes means they’re often neglected. Replacing discs – or even just the pads – is time consuming so don’t be surprised if these have seen better days.
The monocoque gives the DS and ID its strength; the outer panels are bolted on and are cosmetic. Focus on the sill box sections from underneath; any bubbling points to rust breaking out, which could mean big bills.
Check for corrosion in the boot floor, the rear wing gutters (from inside the boot), and where the rear shelf meets the inner wing. Remove the rear wings (held in place by a single bolt) to check the bumper mounts, the rear section of the inner wings and the suspension cylinder brackets.
The bottom rear corners of the front wings corrode while cars with faired-in headlights rust just below the lamps. Expect corrosion in the leading edges of the rear wings, the door bottoms and boot lid. The aluminium bonnet can crack in the centre but the saloon’s roof is glassfibre or aluminium so it doesn’t rust.
Some cars got cloth trim while others got leather. The materials used last well but the back of the rear seat can perish after years of exposure to the sun while splits and tears are possible too. High-quality repro parts are available to retrim any DS or ID interior, so any car can be revived.
- 1955: The DS19 is introduced with a three-bearing 1911cc four-cylinder engine.
- 1956: Slough DS19 production starts.
- 1957: The ID19 is a DS19 without the hydraulic steering, brakes or gearbox. It has a detuned engine, simplified braking and a less luxurious interior.
- 1958: The DS Prestige has a partition behind the front seats. The ID Break (estate) debuts.
- 1959: The Seven-seater Safari arrives.
- 1961: Chapron-bodied ID19 and DS19 Cabriolet go on sale and the DS19 gets a revised dashboard.
- 1962: There’s a front-end restyle, the ID19 Cabriolet gets the DS19 engine and the ID gets optional PAS.
- 1963: The DS gets a manual gearbox option.
- 1964: The luxurious DS19 Pallas is introduced.
- 1965: There are now 1985cc and 2175cc five-bearing engine options, for the DS19a and ID19 Break, plus the DS21 and ID21 Break respectively. The ID19 continues for one further year with the 1911cc engine.
- 1966: The range-topping DS21 has a 2175cc engine; production at Slough factory ends.
- 1967: A major front-end restyle brings twin headlamps.
- 1968: The DS20 supersedes the DS19, and the ID20 appears. The DS21 and ID21 Break get 115bhp.
- 1969: The fuel-injected DS21 EFi arrives (DS21 IE outside the UK). The DSpecial is an updated ID19 while the DSuper is based on the ID20. All cars get a revised fascia.
- 1970: A five-speed gearbox is now optional on DS21, DS21IE and DSuper.
- 1971: All PAS-equipped cars get a swivelling headlamp option, DS21 air-con and auto options.
- 1972: The DS23 supersedes the DS21, with a 2347cc engine and optional injection. The DSuper5 is a five-speed DSuper with the 2175cc engine.
- 1975: The last cars are built.
Don’t be put off by the complexity of these cars; all routine maintenance can be done on a DIY basis and even a lot of more significant repairs can be done at home too. The key is to buy a car that’s been used regularly because if there’s one thing that’s guaranteed to cause problems it’s leaving a DS sitting for months on end.
If in doubt go for an ID as the relative simplicity of these cars makes them less of a gamble – but you also won’t be enjoying the full Citroën experience, which would be a shame. If you’re dipping a toe in the water go for one of the later cars, especially one with faired-in headlights or a last-of-the-line car before the DS was canned. These cars are more plentiful and so are parts, so the ownership experience is even easier.