Why was the DS steering wheel designed that way?

 by Ken Nelson…..

The French seldom do anything without having a very good reason. Imagine what happens in a head-on collision when your body slams into that steering wheel. Remember the DS was introduced in 1955, when no cars I can think of had belts, let alone shoulder belts.

Granted, there’s no guarantee that single spoke will be at the planned 7:30 position – i.e. – straight ahead orientation – but it’s only one spoke – not two or three. 

So, your chest slams into that wheel, if you’re centered on the wheel or not, the RIM bends over, your chest doesn’t get a straight tube punched through your breastbone and most likely kills you, as that tubular – not solid STEEL RING inside all other wheels ever built – bends over and SLIDES your body away from that single spoke which is a hollow tube with a smooth surface on it, and SPREADS the impact over a much larger area of your body than a CENTRAL SPEAR, as used on every other car in the world. 

ANY lateral deflection is better than hitting a straight center column.  Further, the center tube, having one very smooth bend with nothing to CATCH and HOLD the impact on your guts, bends ALSO, away from center, to further lessen the force imposed on your guts.  

Further still, if you look at the steering setup, the steering column ENDS at the rack, which is BEHIND the radiator, halfway back from the car’s nose, and the entire powertrain, as the transmission is AHEAD of the engine, would have to be pushed thru or under the firewall, to shove that steering column back thru the dash and anywhere closer to the driver. It won’t happen.  

And how many cars much newer than the DS have steering shafts that reach from right below the front end, all the way back to the driver’s chest? When did other brands first get collapsing “safety” columns? What – the ’70’s?  

Now, I’m not finished:  If you’ve ever looked under the hood of a DS, you might have noticed that, as the spare is mounted directly behind the front bumper and ahead of the radiator, you essentially have the VERY FIRST PROTECTIVE AIRBAG put into production. If someone doesn’t think of that as BRILLIANT, they’re just not thinking period.  And that’s not even noting the 3-foot crush distance from bumper to radiator to absorb the energy of a head-on.  

OK, I know – you’re saying ENOUGH ALREADY.  WRONG!  I’ve expressed this not humble opinion often before:  The DS has to be the most INNOVATIVE car ever designed – bar none.  No one has ever challenged this opinion by naming another example. I’m still waiting – but there’s too little space here for my whole soapbox litany.

The DS has stood the test of time. It STILL looks like it came from another planet, and that may be right.  And it still has outstanding features that aren’t equalled in any other car.  Is it perfect?  No, but a better combo than I’ve seen elsewhere.

I’ll never forget the look on the face of a 10 yr old kid on the grubby streets of downtown Wilmington Delaware as I came off I-95 back around 1972 in my ’67 DS.  He was on the sidewalk with a buddy and yelled; “Look at that SPACESHIP!”  Still is, and always will be – and not only for the shape.  He wasn’t old enough to have been brainwashed by advertising – he was responding with his brain.  If I’d only had an I-phone camera back then…

9 comments

  1. Thank you for your explanation of a great safety design for a great car. Back in the day I just wish I had the “guts” to buy one. Looking back I’m very sorry that I didn’t as I had a friend who owned several over the years and swore by all of them as being the greatest cars ever.

  2. Too bad it didn’t offer a full automatic and self canceling turn signals of that era. Probably now they do offer all this as they are part of a merger of other companies and probably have more conventional styling inside and out (and in a way a plus the dash controls are probably a lot better).

    1. In 1955, very few cars except in the US had full automatics, like my ’51 Bulletnose Studebaker Commander Landcriuiser. That autobox was pretty good for the day, but as gas prices outside the US have always been about double per gal. in the US, European mfrs tried various ways to create an automatic in a way that would keep them on a par with a manual transmission re mpg.
      And most of their approaches were only halfway to a full automatic – still requiring shifting with a vacuum-actuated clutch as on the VW “Autostick” that was in my NSU 1200 and NSU Ro80 and others over there. Rootes thru Smiths even created the “Easidrive” elecric automatic, clutchless, with a sort of PRNDL shifter and no clutch. However, they employed TWO electromagnetic POWDER clutches, controlled by a complex speeedometer driven shifter governor and a 8 electromagnet relay “brainbox” with lots of complicated wiring harnesses under the bonnet – I have a ’61 convertible with that transmission – it’s a nightmare, but it was designed to be fully automatic controlling a manual 3 speed trans. – for better mpg.

      Citroen’s Citromatic is the best by far of those early systems, and is an ingenious semi-automatic, NO clutch pedal, and is just a hydraulically powered shifting lid on a normal manual gearbox. So it delivers the same mpg as a stickshift. And get this: I consider the DS Citromatic “wand’ used for shifting to be the first true Paddleshifter – again 1955. If anyone out there can challenge this claim, I’d be glad to hear from them. In fact, if you read Red Dellinger’s explanation and tuning writeup on the Citromatic, he claims it can be shifted faster than anything else ever developed, except for these dual clutch modern computer controlled boxes – which are far more complicated. And the DS wand can be flicked with one finger on the wheel – no reaching for a floorshift or column with a manual clutch. as the wand controls the clutch simultaneiously.

  3. It was very comfortable. When I lived in SoCal I would attend the LA car show and after walking around cars for extended periods, I’d always find a DS and sit in the back seat. It was relaxing and the sales people were pleased.👍

  4. It is funny you mentioned that 10 year old boy; because that might as well could’ve been me, in another country. This is my story:

    I first saw a Citroen DS when I was 7; that car is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen to this day. The car I saw was well maintained, but it had no emblems for me to research later. I remember my mom saying its a Volkswagen. Being a kid I searched on all magazines I could get about VWs. I knew about most old VW models, but not much else. In the process, I became aware of Porsches. When I was 11 my parents bought me NFS 5 Porsche unleashed. 911s came to be my new crush, beautiful, great sounding and sexy timeless body. I always chose Porsche in other NFS games.

    By the time I was aware of the name Citroen DS, I was 15 years old. I live in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Cars here are either Toyota economy cars, Toyota trucks, or barely functioning old cars. Good thing is classic cars are relatively cheap, the bad thing is they are cheap because they are in a state of disrepair and unavailability of parts. Citroen DSs are generally harder to maintain than a normal car, with the pneumatic system and all. So the ones you would manage to find are essentially dead. It took me to 6 years to see another functional Citroen DS. The owner is an old retired man who worked at the Citroen dealership as a mechanic when he was young. He is the only person I have found to be as crazy for those cars as me. We talked for hours, just about the Citroen DS.

    I am 22 now, still searching for one. I still haven’t bought one, but I will if I find a functional one.

  5. 1968 for collapsible steering columns in Australia, a little earlier in the USA. And while beauty is in the eye of the beholder, I find the DS ugly. Advanced, yes, fantastic ride, ditto, but the looks……….

    1. Interesting you should have that opinion Chris. What do you think about the Porsche 911? In 1967 when I was a grad student at NWestern University in Evanston, Ill, I came across a study on Aerodynamics where a group of cars then in production were each put in a large wind tunnel and measurements of their air drag made and compared professionally.

      Having gotten my undergrad deg. in Physics, it impressed me no end that the 4 door Citroen DS21, which started production in Oct. 1955, and no one had ever seen before the Paris show that yr, and was a 4 door sedan capable of carrying 5 people extremely comfortably, and provide high speed on minimal fuel, was more aerodynamic – better streamlined – than a Porsche 911 “sportscar” with considerably more power.

      What proved it to me was experience with the car – my cheapo model 1959 Citroen ID19 (without the standard power steering and power brakes vs the DS19), which I drove from Salt Lake City Utah, to Claremont college E. of LA, for 3 yrs from ’63-66, a oneway trip of 750 miles, and all of 70 hp, cruised easily at 90 all day long, and gave 27 mpg. That 12-13 hr trip thru Vegas, several times each yr for 3 yrs, was always a fun trip as that car handled so beautifully and the ride was the best in the world. The seats were superb, and I was never uncomfortable regardless of how poor the roads were. I went anywhere in that car, onroad/offroad – who needs 4WD when you’ve got FWD and a car with built-in variable ground clearance for wading rivers, dirt roads, driving thru 2 FEET of new snow without lifting a shovel, in Chicago winter ’67. Try THAT in any other car.

      Funny how that car mimics every bird that flies, fish that swim, things that move very efficiently thru FLUID of any kind. We live in a fluid called air, and the density of that fluid is what keeps ALL planes in the air, and the Citroen DS uses the rules of physics better than nearly every other car. As some wag said: Physics – not just another good idea, it’s the LAW(s) of the universe. Think about that –

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