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How can it be? How is it that Emanuele Filippini’s Citroën DS19 is the third-earliest known? How can a car built on 3 February 1956, months after the model’s debut, have a chassis number as low as 359?
These facts are eloquent; to guide you towards the explanation, I’ll throw in a couple of figures.
In 1956, the first full year of DS production after its media-frenzy launch at the October 1955 Paris motor show, just 10,859 examples left the Quai de Javel assembly halls
Output of the Traction Avant that year amounted to 25,182 units. Derided for its antiquity, the Traction was manufactured at roughly two and half times the rate of the most sensational and advanced car in the world. As with its emblematic ancestor, the DS had a troubled start to life.
That is an understatement. The early years of the DS were an industrial catastrophe that shades all other similarly difficult automotive births.
For instance, sorting out the Mini’s multitudinous teething problems was a walk in the park in comparison.
That’s why Citroën only managed to make 69 DS19s in 1955. That’s why it took until 1959 for the combined output of the Déesse (Goddess) and its lower-priced ID sister to exceed that of the Traction Avant at its 1953 peak.
And that’s why, when I was looking for a very early DS to photograph, at Citroën’s 2019 centenary bash, I was struggling to find one… until I came across the Filippini car.
The story merits telling. Despite a gestation period of at least five years, the development process was woefully incomplete when the DS was announced.
Only in September 1955 were the first production-specification bodies ready, enabling a batch of 30 cars to be hand-assembled.
Citroën engineers were conversant with their own specialist areas of the car, but thanks to the firm’s obsession with secrecy few had an understanding of the vehicle as a whole.
The dealership network knew nothing about the car, and had not been trained to service or repair it: come its public availability dealers would often refuse to touch a defective car, which was as a result either dispatched back to Citroën or had to await a visit from Super Contrôle, the company’s ‘flying squad’ of troubleshooters.
The hydraulics, predictably, were a major source of problems, with the cars leaking fluid everywhere – even into the radiator.
The link between the gearlever and the hydraulic selector fractured. The clutch juddered. Engines mangled their valvegear.
The Italian-made carburettors were incompatible with French petrol. The low-pressure pump generated so much heat that it caused the engine coolant to boil.
Steering balljoints cracked. Fuel tanks collapsed because of an internal-external pressure differential.
Some of the problems were trivial, but vexing nonetheless: at first there was no key lock on the passenger door, and if the car was parked driver’s side to a high kerb with all doors locked, when the suspension sank to the point where the doors were below kerb level the driver was shut out of the car. Even the wind-up clock failed to work properly.
When things were at their worst, the team at Super Contrôle was fielding up to 200 calls a day and members were forever hopping on trains or planes with a briefcase of hydraulic rubbers and even a hydraulic line or two draped around their necks.
Recalcitrant cars were, if possible, towed away after dark, in a bid to conceal the fact that they had broken down.
All internal red tape was bypassed to get customers back on the road. The service department in Paris was so overworked that a special rectification shop was set up.
Abroad it was even more traumatic. In the US the special Citroën hydraulic fluid was banned, so ordinary Lockheed fluid was used.
This had inferior lubricating properties, and in addition caused some seals in the gearbox-actuation circuit to swell, locking the car in gear.
The solution was to add castor oil to the fluid, but then in winter the oil crystalised into clots that blocked all the hydraulic orifices.
Meanwhile the humid climate in the French overseas territories meant that damp entered the hydraulic system and emulsified the fluid, turning the reservoir into a family-sized jar of mayonnaise.
By spring 1957 the bulk of the problems had been solved and in April that year the special rectification shop was closed.
All the same, there were still about a dozen DS maladies to be sorted, and the big Citroën’s lack of reliability was sufficiently well-known for people to be cancelling orders as late as 1959.
Secondhand examples were practically unsaleable, pushing early cars faster down the automotive food-chain towards their ultimate disappearance.
It was not really until the dawn of 1960 that the DS was truly out of the woods.
In particular it was only with the opening that year of a special air-conditioned, high-precision assembly shop for the hydraulics that these became totally reliable.
“I never again want to go through a period like that of the DS’s launch,” Citroën MD Pierre Bercot was heard to exclaim.
Effectively relaunched, with a series of sales promotions, and boosted by the arrival of the estate, DS and ID output leapt by nearly a quarter to 83,205 units in 1960, rising to a peak of 103,633 cars in 1970, for a total production – including foreign assembly – of close to 1.6m examples.
But you can understand why there are so few survivors from the first tumultuous years of manufacture – and why visions of the DS have been falsified in many heads.
Perhaps the worm is turning, but for much of the past few decades the version of choice has been a late Pallas, preferably with the injected engine and almost by definition in a muted metallic paint finish.
Somehow the world came to forget that when the Citroën was launched it was an exuberantly colourful car, melding pastel paints with dramatic fabrics and a symphony of the plastics so beloved of French car designers at the time.
In Vert Printemps (Spring Green) with Champagne roof, Emanuele Filippini’s DS19 is a put-on-your-sunglasses wake-up call.
And doubly rare it is, also, because this colour was only available for the 1956 model year.
How different, too, in its detail. Models made before August 1959 have shorter rear wings, a legacy of the original stubby-tailed, six-light body that was abandoned in a panic 1954 restyle. To make the wings look less abbreviated, spear-like aluminium reflector housings were fitted.
Then there are the ‘chip-cone’ roof-top indicators, which are the full-length chromed variety flowing into the guttering.
Nicknamed trompettes de Jéricho, they were only fitted until early 1958 and in theory solely to cars with a roof in black or aubergine. Research by Filippini has however discovered that this rule was not absolute.
Still at the rear, there is an oval-section exhaust pipe that emerges in a fishtail finisher, another feature abandoned in early 1958.
Move round to the front, meanwhile, and there is an embossed aluminium apron, a fussy and costly embellishment that only lasted until May 1957.
Inside, the story continues. The seating, in plain jersey cloth, is less flamboyant than the patterned nylon fabric introduced as an alternative in October 1957.
The clock sits oddly on the front of the ashtray, where it would remain until 1959. The single-spoke wheel has labour-intensive nylon-cord binding, replaced in 1958 by PVC tape.
The dashboard is the first type, at the time supposedly the largest nylon moulding in the world, featuring a glovebox lid and lower section in a plastic with the wonderful name of Kralastic.
The more sober style that arrived for 1962 was a fairly substantial item in steel, easier to make and to fit.
All these distinctive features add to the first of-the-line appeal of an early DS, and Filippini undertook a 10-year quest to find a suitable car – specifically a 1956 model.
In the end a fellow DS enthusiast agreed to sell him the car, in 2002, so he himself could buy DS number 191 – after car 32 the second-oldest survivor.
“I replied ‘yes’ immediately. It wasn’t cheap, but I recognised it was the chance of a lifetime,” says Filippini, the second generation of his family to run a Citroën concession in the Italian city of Verona.
“It had been passed from person to person, without ever being used, after its second owner had sold it in about 1969. It was just about complete and not very rusty. Above all, it was original – it hadn’t been modified.”
“The second owner, who bought the Citroën in 1960, ran a bodyshop and had the car fully undersealed beneath,” he continues. “Every year he went around the car and re-applied it.
“I spent an age chipping off all the layers of underseal, but it had saved the car. All I had to do was replace one front longeron, and repair the front floor and the rear wheelarches. The windscreen surround, for example, was perfect.”
The restoration took 17 years, with body repairs and paintwork being contracted out. Much of this time was spent sourcing parts.
“Items specific to the early models are difficult to find,” says Filippini. “There are lots of differences, lots of little details. I spent ages studying the workshop manuals and the parts lists.”
“Henri Fradet, who owns the Citroën museum at Castellane in France, has car number 32 and a highly original 1957 model,” he explains.
“That was very helpful. Also I acquired two scrap cars, a 1958 ID and a 1959 DS, and these provided a lot of the fiddly little items.
“Before fitting something you really have to do your homework, to make sure it’s right. When I started there was no internet. It was through a network of friends, and doing the autojumbles and the big rallies, that I found the bits.
“I was lucky the car was complete – and everything that was savable was saved. It still has its original door trims, and its factory seats, for which I rebuilt the frames before fitting new foams.
“The plastics were fine. The most fragile item is the dash, but they were stronger on ’56 and ’57 models. Then they changed the plastic and a lot of the later dashboards warped.”
With little in the way of remanufacturing for early cars, Filippini had to winkle out new old-stock parts or else repair the component in question – a particular challenge being to rebuild the low-pressure pump, a weak point of the first models.
The only notable refabrication was the oval aluminium exhaust pipe, which was impossible to find as a genuine Citroën part; in the end, Filippini was forced to use one that someone had made up some years previously.
So what were the high and low points of the rebuild?
“All the time spent scraping, sanding, and up to my eyes in dust – that counts as a low point. In contrast, it was a major boost when the base unit had been blasted, the rusty parts repaired and everything painted. Then I could see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Filippini drives the DS at least once a month: “I’ve done no big trips, but I’ve covered 2500km. Everyone said I’d always be breaking down, but it’s been very reliable.”
No DS is a ball of fire, and the 75bhp of the first cars is a long way from the 130bhp of a DS23 injection: this Citroën is not a car for aggressive motoring.
“It’s gentle, supple. Very supple,” summarises Filippini. “You have to adapt to the tempo of the car. It takes you back in time. In a word, it’s calm.”
Somehow, that’s how it should be. The rarity of this car, its authenticity, its historical significance as a very early DS: all this demands as much quiet respect as the painstaking restoration commands a merited admiration. No wonder that ‘359’ was the belle of the ball at the Citroën centenary.
Images: Olgun Kordal