A whispered hiss and then a sigh.
The sound and sensation of a Citroën DS as its hydropneumatic suspension system de-pressurises. Both the car and I exhale as the driver’s door latches shut. Each time, I hear it say: in-sssssou-cciant.
Insouciant. Not just a sound, but a way of being I associate with a Citroën DS. The Macquarie Concise Dictionary defines it as “free from concern; without anxiety, carefree.” In French, however, it is sometimes translated as “reckless”.
The carefree aspect of DS insouciance is best experienced in a road trip. A Citroën DS evokes a sense of journey and adventure – not an adrenalin-soaked one, but one with a sense of wonder and well-being. The destination is a casual objective. An aplomb and ease that mimics its long-travel hydropneumatic suspension over heaving road surfaces, causing the car to waft – a sensation so addictive that I continually scan the surface of the road to aim for the best undulations. The DS is often described as having a “magic carpet” ride and, as might a less magical but more domestic Persian carpet, the DS is replete with lounge-like seating – a fine place from which to survey the scenery through the slender-framed panoramic windscreen.
Carefreeness is also infused through a delicateness of touch. There is the finger-tip tactility of the large, thin-rimmed and tape-wrapped steering wheel – its single spoke nestled in the web between my right thumb and index finger, my right elbow supported on the perfectly positioned door arm rest. Driving barefoot is a must for me in a DS: sensing through the ball of my right foot when the second throat of the Weber carburettor opens helps to anticipate hills and avoid unnecessary downshifts. I bring the car to a stop with my right big toe, as if dipping it into a pool. This combination of sensitivity, without neuroticism, is made possible by the high-pressure hydraulic system that powers the brakes, steering and suspension (as well as the gear change on some models). The centre-point steering geometry and the front mid-engine layout make for satisfying sweeping curves.
But a road trip in a car that is approaching its 50th birthday, and one as complex as the Citroën DS, is also an expression of faith. For me, the core of faith is the implicit acceptance of outcome. And the outcome is accepted not because I may want it but because I have the means to deal with it. However, I am not reckless – as in the alternative, French, definition of insouciant. I travel with a stack of tools, some spare parts, 15 litres of hydraulic mineral oil, 18 years’ experience of owning DSs and knowing that, at any time, I can ask for help. It is a philosophy on life that the DS has ushered me to embrace – it’s not the avoidance of obstacles but rather having the tools and the willingness to deal with life on life’s terms whilst, at the same time, not judging the experience.
And on my journey to Cowra, 180 miles west of Sydney, my 1972 Citroën DS 21 Safari (station wagon) tested that faith. But not a mile from my house the engine started to splutter. My investigations revealed no cause. I pressed on. On the motorway out of Sydney, the bonnet corners at the base of the windscreen danced before my eyes. My vision of the bonnet instantly wrapping back over the windscreen and the roof, exposing the engine bay like a tin of sardines, eventually subsided. At Bathurst, in teaming rain and a gale blowing so hard I had to shoulder barge the driver’s door to get out, the wipers came to a halt. A quick glance to my left and, as luck would have it, the entrance to an auto parts store at the very intersection where I was stopped. Due to a total blackout, the cashier led me by torchlight through the store to the fuses. Gratefully, I extracted and unfurled a scrunched-up $50 note buried in my wallet from pre-Covid times and replaced the rusty fuses in the carpark. On the road from Blayney to Cowra, snow fell – the wipers nonchalantly made snow angels on the windscreen as the frameless windows acquired their icy new outlines. I arrived in Cowra ready for a hot shower, a hearty pub dinner and a beer.
Of the three Citroën DS I own, the Safari is by far the ugliest but, for me, the most loveable. “Is it a work in progress?”, a passing man once catechised me, fingering the metallurgical stigmata of surface rust as it bled lanolin oil in the summer heat. “No, I like it just as it is.” Dr Alan Downs, author of Velvet Rage, describes three phases of life for gay men – a phase of denial and avoidance; a second phase based on the need for validation as a way of compensating for shame; and a third phase where passion and quiet contentment based on authenticity overtake the need for validation. The Safari both meets me at, and mirrors, that third phase in my life.
Insouciance is further embodied: perfectly imperfect, I have come to love the Safari’s faults, to savour the experience of journeying in it, indifferent to, yet amused by, people’s opinion of it, and at ease with what further imperfections it may acquire.
The Safari has an elegant dilapidation that draws people. I’m waved out of the way in a supermarket carpark in Sydney as someone tries to grab a photo of it. As I park just beyond the Royal Hotel in the main street of Canowindra, I overhear a family discussion: “Don’t see many of them!”, “What is that?”, “Is that a sit-trun?”. In the carpark of the Cowra Prisoner of War Campsite I hear, “Saw you driving down the main street yesterday”. A burly and tattooed man strides towards me. “Couldn’t miss you! Glad I got to talk to you”, he added. For the next fifteen minutes, this man bared his soul of the memories of riding in his grandfather’s DS sedan as a kid, re-savouring the comfort of the Safari’s seats and its familiar smells, confiding in me the love for his pop and the influence on his life.
But such dilapidation, however elegant, didn’t move the Safari’s second custodian in the same way. A stopover en route to Cowra reunited him with the car for the first time in 35-odd years. “I know it’s my old car but I just don’t feel anything. I don’t recognise it”. He recounted acquiring the Safari in the early 1980s from its first owner, a doctor on Sydney’s north shore, who imported it as part of a European delivery program. He spoke affectionately of its then striking pale blue paintwork and dark blue jersey interior. On holiday trips to the north coast of New South Wales with his five children, two would sit in the strapotin fold-out seats in the rear cargo area and complain of light-headedness – the fumes being sucked in from the centrally placed exhaust fitted to Australian-specification DSs. He handed me a 12mm spanner – the only tool missing from my toolkit – after he spotted a weep from a pipe fitting to the hydraulic regulator. With his hand on the roof, he took in the Safari’s unfamiliar colours, reconciling its past with its present.
The Safari’s fourth and immediately preceding custodian of 29 years was still studying architecture when he bought it in 1990. The Safari’s very survival would be at stake. A week after acquiring it, a drive to Broken Hill, 700 miles west of Sydney, revealed a near catastrophic rate of oil consumption. Nursing the Safari back to Sydney, he rebuilt the engine under the tutelage of Sydney’s then leading Citroën mechanic. Cracked piston rings were ultimately identified as the cause. In the mid-1990s, he had the car repainted in model year-correct vert charmille. The folder of receipts and the handwritten journal of maintenance and mileage inversely mirror its bodily dilapidation – the Safari hadn’t just survived but went on to live. Now, as the green paint cracks and peels, the Safari’s original pale blue, bleu camargue, is almost bursting through, wanting to be seen again.
Amidst the ruins of the Cowra Prisoner of War Campsite, my mind turned to the then-held societal expectations of the Japanese prisoners of war once interred there, their sense of shame at being captured and their breakout which led to the death of 234 Japanese and four Australian servicemen. In the distance, I could hear the Bonshō bell peel from the Japanese Gardens and Cultural Centre as if attempting to resolve auditorily these contrasting yet sacred spaces.
Resolution was also evident in the areas surrounding Cowra. After a long period without rain, the Safari threaded between fields resplendent in canola and in equally stunning, but much shunned, Paterson’s Curse – the golden crop and the purple weed in communion as the Safari deftly glided on country roads’ warp and weft. The overcast day made for cool driving weather and dramatic cloudscapes.
The Safari’s clutch, however, was slipping in fifth gear. The clutch was last replaced in 1990 and no doubt an ageing camshaft seal was allowing a fine mist of oil on the pressure plate. Although I had planned to drive a further 1000 miles to visit family, I decided to save what was left of the clutch and return to Sydney.
On the morning I departed Cowra, I googled towing companies in the Bathurst and Blue Mountains areas. My aim was to get as far as I could before the steep ascent to Mount Victoria and, if the clutch ultimately did give up, to be towed over the Mountains and then make the downhill run home. If I could get to Bathurst, 70 miles away, I’d be happy. Anything beyond that was a bonus.
The moody clouds had cleared and the sun had only just risen by the time I set off. I approached every hill with the same question: “would this be the hill that kills the clutch?”. Avoiding labouring the engine in fifth gear, downshifting to fourth and holding the engine between 3000-4000rpm seemed to be the winning strategy. Soon, I got into the rhythm and the Safari began to flow with the landscape. I became more optimistic that maybe I might reach Bathurst.
And reach Bathurst I did. Then came the question – do I attempt the climb up to Mount Victoria? That morning so far, I’d managed to avoid slipping the clutch. I decided to have a crack at it.
The Great Western Highway from Bathurst gently builds in its ascent to the foot of the mountains. It’s a decent two-lane road, with overtaking lanes, at points spreading out to four lanes but whose curves gradually tighten and heighten. And then comes the point of no return. A sharp left-hand upright hairpin that leads to an unrelenting right-hand bend. A truck in front of me and behind me, I drop down to third and keep the engine steady at around 3500rpm. I couldn’t afford to lose momentum or engine speed. Just as the shark nose of the Safari was nipping at the back of the truck, the slow vehicle lane opened up and the most glacial of overtaking manoeuvres began. Up and around the steep climb, traffic behind me kept a respectful distance. It felt like the longest two miles I had ever driven.
And then the road began to flatten out. I laughed out loud. The worst of it was over. The rest was, in all senses, a downhill run. From that point I could enjoy the broad sweeping mountain bends that carried me up, down, around and through the Blue Mountains. The Safari came down Lapstone Hill onto the motorway into Sydney as if on a Hot Wheels track – poised to overtake all in its path.
“Back early!”, my neighbour called out as he walked across the lawn towards me. He shot a glance in direction of the Safari and looked at me as if to say, “Car trouble, eh?”.
“Ah, nothing I couldn’t deal with”, I silently replied. There was no shame in coming home.