These rare and glamorous trinkets have for years been the ultimate prize in the world of DS fancying.
Chapron, the last of the great French coachbuilders, had forged his reputation building bodies for Delage and Delahaye in a Paris workshop that, at its peak, had employed 350 artisans producing 500 cars annually.
But when the French government’s post-war fiscal assault on large-engined luxury vehicles killed off the indigenous grande routière trade almost overnight, it looked as if Chapron, starved of body-on-frame raw material for his creations in an industry moving to unitary construction, might follow them into oblivion.
It’s strange to reflect, then, that it was the introduction of the ultra-modern DS in 1955 that in effect saved – and reinvented – this very traditional, near-40-year-old business for its already near-70-year-old founder.
The déesse (goddess) didn’t have a chassis in the conventional sense, but central to the concept of this front-driven, hydro-pneumatically suspended wonder-car was its base unit construction, by which none of the outer panels played any part in the rigidity of the body.
Chapron saw the potential immediately. At first, he restricted himself to two-door coupés and convertibles based on DS and ID saloons he bought privately.
Tweaked rooflines and tail treatments, chrome embellishments, fancier wheel covers and leather interior trim lifted his creations – named variously Le Croisette, Palm Beach, Le Dandy, Le Caddy, Le Paris, Le Leman and Le Concorde (see below) – above the Modernist austerity of the berline for fewer than 30 buyers a year, each of whom prized individuality above all else.
They certainly weren’t looking for value, paying double the cost of a standard DS, and neither were they concerned with extra speed: all the Chapron creations were mechanically unchanged.
Chapron, having jointly created the Usine (factory) DS cabriolet with Citroën’s Flaminio Bertoni, had a certain licence to service this restricted connoisseurs’ market.
He worked officially with Citroën from 1961 and would build 1365 of the Décapotable DSs on a factory-supplied rolling platform – less doors, roof, rear wings and interior – to 1971. But it was not until 1964 that he felt able to offer a distinctive alternative to the four-door DS saloon.
Already a sacred cow and national treasure, the big Citroën was widely perceived as an object visually so distinctive, yet so instinctively correct, that any attempt to modify or improve upon it would be doomed.
Yet within its own terms of reference, the DS Majesty – first shown at that year’s Paris Salon – succeeded in giving the shape an added dimension of formal dignity in keeping with a car that was likely to be chauffeur- rather than owner-driven.
Between 1965 and 1969, just 25 (or possibly 27 – reports vary) Majestys were constructed to order, but only the last three (or possibly six) had the quad directional headlights introduced in 1967 for the 1968 model year.
All were based on the DS21, which meant the carburetted, short-stroke 2175cc four-cylinder engine giving 100bhp in a body that must have been heavier – and likely less slippery – than the standard DS21 Prestige. At the time Chapron was kept busy doing the luxury trim for this mainstream flagship DS as well.
The Majesty was longer, thanks to an extended rear overhang that incorporated a wraparound bumper and finned rear wings in a style shared with Chapron’s later Palm Beach, Le Leman and Le Concorde two-door variants.
The headroom-boosting square rear roofline, often finished in a lighter, contrasting colour to the rest of the body, incorporated a much deeper back window – again, like the two-door Le Concorde.
The steel roof was welded to the frame rather than bolted on like the glassfibre panel on the factory saloons.
The bonnet, front wing and door pressings were standard DS but fitted with Chapron’s usual chrome mouldings, contrasting stainless rocker panels and bespoke badges.
It seems unlikely that any two cars were identical. At least one Majesty was built in 1965 with a more vertical rear-window line and longer ‘suicide’-style rear doors with fixed quarterlights.
Some had divisions (severely compromising front-seat legroom unless you employed a truly stunted chauffeur), and you could choose wooden writing desks or pouches for reading material in the backs of the seats.
Rear radio controls, a microphone to converse with the driver and extra reading lights are other reported refinements, but full Connolly leather appears to have been a constant.
Chassis 4637101, sold new in 1969, must have been one of the last Majestys built before the model was fully usurped by the de-finned DS21 Lorraine in the Chapron catalogue.
Finished in Midnight Blue with Havana Beige leather and handsome polished-aluminium wheel covers, it is an immaculate older restoration recently recommissioned by Danny Donovan of DD Classics, having spent many years in a collection in Belgium.
I have driven plenty of DS cabriolets, but I’m not sure I have ever before witnessed one of the 289 fully fledged Chapron cars.
In the metal it has a presidential air – only flag-holders for the front wings are missing – and I was willing to believe the suggestion that the Majesty has a longer wheelbase than a standard DS. It does not, but the boot is much deeper and squarer.
The visual magic is somewhat lost when you glimpse the skinny rear end – no wonder de Gaulle felt compelled to commission the longer, wider DS Presidential to maintain French dignity – or open the bonnet where the rugged but undistinguished in-line ‘four’ fights for attention with the suspension plumbing and an air-conditioning compressor almost half the size of the engine block.
Everything here is immaculately finished, right down to the ‘Henri Chapron’ chassis plate on the bulkhead: as Citroën engine rooms go, it doesn’t get much better than this.
Like in other DS variants the door glasses are frameless, and I’m up to speed with the rarity of the Jaeger dashboard – with its six circular instruments and Fruit Pastille-style warning lights – that gets marque nerds so excited.
Not every DS21 Majesty was thus equipped, or came with the massive air-conditioning outlet unit that squats between the front seats.
Said seats, with their horseshoe detailing, are of a different order of opulence to the standard items, as are the amazing diamond-quilted headliner and the leather-covered door cards, although you feel the lack of power windows in a car of this rank.
I could take or leave the faux-wood embellishments on the dashboard; they are painted on, Facel Vega-style, with a feather.
It doesn’t really matter what the DS Majesty is like to drive: it is sort of enough that it simply exists. But it is worth remarking on the familiar clicks and wheezes from the suspension, a still-magical ability to soak up anything the worst of west London’s roads have to offer, and the ministerial supply of rear legroom.
Having worked out that you operate the starter by pushing the gearlever to the left, you can then pull away clutchlessly in first or second and make soft, gentle progress, acclimatising to the sensitivity of the servo-assisted controls.
You neither jab at nor heave on them but caress, particularly the expensive to repair (and tricky to set up) semi-automatic transmission that requires a light touch and accurate timing for the first 10 minutes.
It certainly won’t be rushed; even so, you are soon manipulating the little lever around its gate above the steering column instinctively – almost without removing your hand from the powered, single-spoke steering wheel – and applying little more than the weight of your foot on the mushroom-shaped brake button.
The sound and feel of the engine are as plebian as the gearchange is esoteric, but it is also a reassuringly flexible, under-stressed unit that easily allows the DS to keep station with modern traffic.
Out here, the big Citroën gets respect from onlookers in as much as most people – even those with only a passing interest in old cars – have half a notion of what a DS is, so high its profile remains even now.
Very few, I suspect, would recognise the significance of this Chapron car, but why should they? As the definition of a boutique fashion item in the automotive world, these semi-coachbuilt Citroëns were not widely promoted even in France and are rarely seen outside mainland Europe today.
They are passionately collected in all their forms and rarely parted with, although I suspect that DD Classics will have parted with this one by the time you read these words.
Images: Luc Lacey
Thanks to: DD Classics
The other Chapron DSs
Le Croisette 1958-’62
Inspired the ‘factory’ ID and DS Décapotable drophead.
Originally had a glassfibre infill panel behind the lengthened doors, but a one-piece rear wing came from 1960.
Le Paris 1958-’59
Shortest-lived and rarest of the Chapron cars, the Le Paris Coupé was a fixed-head version of the early Le Croisette featuring a wraparound rear windscreen.
Le Concorde 1960-’67
With a squared-off roofline and a large glass area, this two-door, four-seater Le Paris replacement came complete with one-piece welded-up rear wings.
Le Caddy 1960-’68
A 2+2 drophead to supplement the four-seater Le Croisette, the Le Caddy Cabriolet had a long, distinctive squared tail from 1963. An optional hardtop was available.
Le Dandy 1960-’68
The fixed-roof version of the Le Caddy had an aluminium roof, Plexiglas rear window and cramped ‘+2’ rear seats. Also got revised rear wings from 1963.
Palm Beach 1963-’70
This full four-seater Le Croisette replacement got a longer hood and wind-up quarter-windows at the rear. Sloping tail was replaced by vestigial fins from 1965.
Le Leman 1965-’72
The last of the four-seater fixed-head coupés, replacing the Le Concorde. Distinguished by a more rakish rear window; most with faired-in headlights.
Lorraine Berline 1969-’74
This Majesty replacement had a taller roofline, wider C-pillar and higher, squarer tail. Door glasses could be framed on request.
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