Wafting around the sunny suburbs of Paris in the back of a Citroen DS, it was hard not to give a presidential wave to the pedestrians who stopped to stare and point.
There is something about the original automotive “goddess” that makes you feel slightly superior just by being associated with it.
Maybe it’s the styling – which still looks futuristic today – the luxury of its sumptuous leather and metal-adorned interior or the fact that it is associated with one of France’s most celebrated leaders.
Whatever it is, it feels absolutely wonderful and my only disappointment was that I didn’t get to take the wheel myself – the owner was not letting any old hack loose in his pride and joy.
Not every owner at a special centenary event for Citroen was so precious, which is how I found myself puttering around the outskirts of the French capital at the wheel of a 1956 Traction Avant.
The Traction Avant is the sort of car you see in period TV shows to let you know it’s set a really long time ago. And there are some elements of it that feel distinctly old-fashioned. The almost complete lack of brakes, for a start, the tiny metal handle on the dash that you pull to start it, and a steering wheel so big and heavy it should be on a ship. Even the gear change – three speeds, dash-mounted and with a bizarre shift pattern illustrated in beautiful metalwork – is a world away from today’s flappy-paddle DSGs. But like everything else, it was surprisingly easy to get to grips with.
Likewise, the legendary gearshift in the 2CV that requires to be twisted and pulled in a variety of directions sounds daunting but is actually pretty straightforward once it’s been explained in garbled Franglish.
The 2CV’s biggest problem, in fact, besides the wafer-thin bodywork and non-existent legroom, is a brake pedal so small and pressed against the steering column that it’s hard to find.
This wonderful pair of machines were the oldest among a line-up of cars that stretched from 1955 to the present day.
They were there to celebrate Citroen’s 100th birthday and, according to the PR team, to allow us to experience the firm’s dedication to innovation and comfort over the last century.
A cynical ex-C2 owner might briefly question that dedication but a few hours at the wheel of these classics and some more modern machines proved that it’s more than just a publicity ploy.
The hydro-pneumatic suspension, which premiered on the glorious DS, is perhaps its most famous contribution to comfort but even before then Citroen was innovating.
Its first model – the Type A – featured unusual quarter-elliptic springs to offer better ride comfort than other early cars. The Traction Avant introduced the world’s first rubber engine mounts to reduce vibrations and featured the early use of independent front suspension. And the 2CV’s suspension was famously engineered to allow it to be driven over a ploughed field without damaging its cargo.
There were no fields on our test route but the way the narrow-nosed “snail” glided over the Parisian speed bumps genuinely put most modern SUVs to shame. It was almost on its door handles going round roundabouts but that’s the price you paid for a smooth ride in the 60s.
It was still the price you paid in late 70s if my brief run in a CX GTI was anything to go by. Despite a nippy 2.4-litre engine, the baggy, squishy CX is perhaps the least sporty GTI I’ve ever experienced but like the 2CV and Traction Avant, it dispatched lumps and bumps with a barely perceptible Gallic shrug.
The worst body roll excesses had been well tamed by the time the more modern fare such as the XM and C6 arrived and while they lacked a little of the character and quirkiness they maintained that cloud-like gliding of the early cars.
The 25-year-old XM in particular felt remarkably modern. With a few age-related quirks – a keypad-operated immobiliser and LCD displays – it trod a fine line between the wild single-spoke steering wheel and dash-mounted controls of the CX and the more conventional 21st-century button-fest of the C6.
Citroen, in general hasn’t been afraid to experiment with its interiors. That’s how we ended up with the ingenious three-leaf-clover seating arrangement in the C3Type, the 2CV’s removable hammock seats and the DS’s Dunlopillo cushions tuned to match the suspension characteristics. It’s also how we got the CX’s indicator switch mounted on the dashboard and amazing illuminated drum dials, both of which sound ridiculous but work surprisingly well.
It’s not always been successful. Putting the gear level behind the steering wheel in a DS seems deliberately awkward and the less said about the first-generation Cactus the better. But Citroen has always innovated.
In the latest cars that involves the Advance Comfort seats, which blend various foam densities to be squishy yet supportive, and progressive hydraulic cushion suspension.
This replacement for the hydro-pneumatic suspension features specially developed three-stage dampers to recreate the “magic carpet” ride of old in new models such as the C4 Cactus and C5 Aircross. The active setup means that, like their aged predecessors, they glide over rough surfaces that would set your teeth rattling in “sporty” rivals.
Modern design philosophies and safety regulations mean that the sleek minimalist lines and chrome and glass highlights of older models are gone for good, replaced with swollen bodywork and plastic protuberances of the current crop.
Yet, under the bubbly bodywork, the new models continue to come up with creative ways of offering effortless comfort to passengers, just as those earliest models did.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, as they might say in Paris.