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Citroen Part 2: The Goddess

January 25, 2019

Since the dawn of wheeled transportation, engineers have struggled with ride comfort. The Sumerians may have traveled from the Caucasus to found civilization in southern Mesopotamia, but they did so in bone-jarring discomfort. The Greeks gave us philosophers such as Plato and Socrates, but they too were plagued by noise vibration and harshness. Only the most elevated of rulers could travel in litters suspended from the arms of burly slaves and this only at very low speed. 

 

It was the Romans who developed the first suspensions for their wagons with load or passenger compartments suspended from axle assemblies via leather straps or chains for heavy loads. It was with this primitive setup that Roman chariots became the ancestors of the modern Indy car. 

 

In the Dark Ages suspension technology stalled and during the Renaissance we humans were busy making art and charting stars and so up until the 18th century, the Roman strap system remained state of the art. Even after the steel leaf spring had been almost universally adopted in England, the Abbott - Downing Company of Concord New Hampshire went back to using the old Roman strap system for America’s rough rural roads.[1]

 

Like other innovations in comfort and efficiency such as the bidet, it was the French who a year into the 20th century forever reduced the bounciness of traditional leaf suspension with the invention of the first pneumatic shock absorber. The invention led the Société d’Automobiles Mors to auto-racing dominance with Henri Fournier winning the 1902 Paris - Berlin race. Emil Mors’s company incorporated other ground-breaking technology such as the V4 engine configuration, that Lancia still used in the early ’70s as well as dry sump lubrification, and magneto ignition.[2]

 

By 1908 however all this innovation had driven the company close to bankruptcy, and it was André Citroën who came to the rescue becoming chairman of Mors. He had made his name inventing the double-chevron gear for industrial machinery and later had produced armaments for the First World War.  In 1925 he bought the Mors company outright. They had been using his double-chevron gears since 1914, but Citroën was mainly interested in their production capacity which he used to build more Citroën’s. While Mors as a commercial entity ceased to exist, its spirit of innovation lived on and thrived within Citroën. 

 

It was in the midst of WW2 between sabotaging dipsticks for lorries bound for the Wehrmacht and burying prototypes underground to hide them from the evil Boche that Citroën’s new President Pierre - Jules Boulanger assigned a young technical draughtsman to the company’s development department to resolve problems related to braking and suspension systems. Paul Magés was immediately thrown into the clandestine frenzy to develop the TPV or 2CV as it would finally be called without the Germans finding out. He helped design the interconnected torsion bar system which gave the TPV it’s incredibly supple ride which kept eggs unbroken even when traveling across a freshly plowed field but provided less than secure handling at higher speed. 

 

Entirely self-taught and without an engineering degree Magés remained unsatisfied with the doctrine of the day stating that supple suspension was incompatible with good handling. You could have one or the other but not both. Most cling to this conventional wisdom to this day, but Magés was convinced there was a better way. 

After many Gauloises cigarettes, quite a few glasses of Pastis and hours, days and months of in-depth study, Magés was inspired to invent a suspension system combining gas and hydraulic oil in a sphere separated by a diaphragm. This combined the compressibility of gas with the force multiplication properties of hydraulic oil. The gas would absorb the road shock, and the hydraulic oil would dampen the rebound. The hydraulic oil pressure would be kept constant by an engine driven pump and so maintain ride height irrespective of the number of passengers and load. 

 

The new “hydropneumatic” system was first installed on the rear axle of the 15 CV six-cylinder version of the Traction - Avant. A lever in the trunk adjusted the rear ride height in addition to an override control switch to block it in the normal position when the vehicle was parked for loading and unloading. The lock would release automatically when the clutch was again operated to drive off. The hydraulic pressure in the system was maintained by a belt driven high-pressure pump drawing fluid from a reservoir under the hood. Even when limited to the rear axle of a twenty-year-old car, the system was incredibly advanced, but Mages was just getting started.[3]

 

At the Paris Motor Show on October 5th, 1955 almost five years to the day after Pierre Jules Boulanger had given the young Magés his chance at glory, the DS stood center stage on the Citroën stage. The space-age styling and engineering came from the dream team of Flaminio Bertoni and Andre Lefèbvre, and in the first fifteen minutes of the show, 743 orders were taken. By the end of the first day that number had reached 12,000, and by the end of the show, 80,000 deposits had been handed over for a chance to own the future. Not until the Tesla Model 3 would the world again go quite so gaga over a car.[4]

 

Since the early trials on the 15 CV Traction-Avant, Magés had taken his hydropneumatic system to the next level, using it to drive the power steering, the disk brakes (inboard at the front, something Mercedes Benz was doing at the time - in Formula One) as well as the semi-automatic transmission. Bertoni and Lefebvre left their marks of genius on the car. Bertoni fashioned a fiberglass roof that lowered the center of gravity thereby improving handling by reducing weight transfer. Lefebvre specified a wider track width in the front compared to the rear to reduce the predisposition in front-drive and front-engined cars to understeer and plow ahead in corners.[5]

 

A star from the beginning, indeed a goddess as inferred by its name “DS” (pronounced like the French word for goddess: “Déesse”) Magés’ masterpiece would only be truly beatified in August 1962 when OAS terrorists made an attempt on the life of the President of France as his motorcade passed through the Paris suburb of Petit Clamart. The event was immortalized in Alfred Zinnemann’s movie “The Day of the Jackal” based on a novel by Frederick Forsyth. Charles de Gaulle attributed his survival on the incredible handling characteristics of his DS which the driver was able to keep on the road after two front blowouts and 14 direct hits from the assailants’ bullets. The General would refuse to ride in anything else again.[6]

 

From 1955 to 1975 1,455,746 [7] exemplars of this revolutionary automobile were produced in France and around the world. Very little changed throughout the decades except for the addition of the cutting-edge directional headlights in 1967 of which Lexus are still so very proud of in many of their cars today. (I must concede; Tucker did it first, but on the Torpedo only one headlight was involved and like with the Cyclops in Homer’s Odyssey it didn’t work out too well.) 

 

The French novelist, playwright, and first filmmaker to be admitted to the Académie Française, Marcel Pagnol said of Paul Magés’ remarkable invention of oil and gas: 

 

“Everyone thought it was impossible, except an idiot who did not know and who created it.”[8]

 

Paul Magés kept a copy of the quote on his desk for the rest of his life. 

 

 

 

 

 

[1]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suspension_(vehicle)

 

[2]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mors_(automobile)

 

[3]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Citroën_Traction_Avant#Hydraulic_self-levelling_suspension_in_1954

 

[4]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Citroën_DS

 

[5]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Citroën_DS

 

[6]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean_Bastien-Thiry#Assassination_attempt

 

[7]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Citroën_DS#In_popular_culture

 

[8]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Magès

 

 

 

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