The Old Normal

Over sixty years ago, Citroën discovered that you can only go so far in stripping a vehicle of its amenities.

Citroen ID Normale. (c) Marco Lagarde

During most of its existence the car has presented itself in countless shapes, sizes, capabilities, not to mention levels of price, performance and equipment. Todays subject however belongs to that rare class of decontented cars, true strippers not to be confused with the usual sparsely equipped entry level models aimed at fleet buyers, taxi companies and buyers for whom price and economy are absolutely predominant selection criteria.

The 1955 DS19 was an unprecedented showstopper, and although it suffered a range of quality and especially reliability issues in its early years, it did Citroën a world of good image-wise. As far as sales were concerned however, after the initially high amount of orders by the affluent and Avant Garde started to level off the French firm was confronted with a problem.

In 1956, if you could not afford a DS19, or did not want one, your only choice – should you want to stay within the Citroën family – were the dated (in looks and execution, but not in concept) Traction or the 2cv. Neither were viable alternatives to the DS19 so it was inevitable that some customers started to look elsewhere.

To counter this the ID19, a simplified and less well furnished DS19, was introduced in late 1956. Apart from the lower equipment levels, less powerful engine and simpler interior (and exterior) trim, one very important difference compared to the DS19 was that the hydraulics of the ID19 were limited to suspension only. Thus it had no power steering, no power brakes and a conventional manual gearbox.

The ID19 would prove to be a success: it transpired that many drivers, especially old Traction hands, preferred this to the DS19 with its highly unorthodox button brake pedal and at times slow to react and temperamental hydraulically controlled gearbox. Less complexity also meant increased reliability.

There still remained a problem however: the ID19 may have been less expensive than the DS19, but it was still considerably more costly than the Traction 11 Normale which was to be discontinued in mid-1957.

Citroën therefore decided to take the unusual step of taking the already light on amenities ID19 and radically strip it down to the bare bones with the goal of lowering its price. Something similar had been done before by Ford of France with its Vedette Abeille and – in the USA- by Studebaker with the Champion Scotsman. But those cars already roamed the low price market segment to begin with; neither the DS19 or ID19 were considered cheap cars. So, likely unique in automotive history, the ID19 Normale was presented at the Paris motor show in October of 1957.

Image: author’s collection

The ID19 Normale still mostly looked like an ID19, or a DS19 for that matter. Its heart however was now pure Traction: in order to kill two birds with one stone Citroën replaced the engine in the ID19 with the old 11D powerplant.

Sales of the Traction had dropped for the last few years of its existence and there remained a stock of several hundred brand new 11D engines at the Quai de Javel upon the Traction’s discontinuation in July 1957. The engines in the DS19 and ID19 were also based on the Traction unit but they at least had modernised cylinder heads.

In addition there were over twenty other decontenting actions, the most important of which were: a front bench instead of two separate seats, a steel bonnet (devoid of any insulation material) instead of an aluminium item, no heater, no clock, only one sunvisor, no headliner, a smaller fuel reservoir (50 instead of 60 liters) and no floor covering apart from grey rubber mats. To top it off there was also no choice of colour: black with a medium blue cloth interior was the only combination offered.


The ID19 Normale would not prove very adroit at luring Traction owners or penny-pinching executive car buyers to the showrooms. At the end of 1958 – the first full year of availability – just 304 were sold; the next year was even worse with just 75 cars made.

Citroën production records of the era are sometimes contradictory or unclear – there is no consensus when exactly the ID19 Normale was discontinued. Most sources say at the end of 1959 but a few quote 1961. Be that as it may, it is unlikely that much more than 450 ID19 Normales ever left the Quai de Javel facilities – leading to the inevitable conclusion that the ID19 Normale really took austerity a step too far. At least it reduced the stock of leftover 11D engines….

One more thought is that the ID19 Normale likely made the regular ID19 look more attractive – and not just akin to a cheapened DS19 anymore – and in that sense indirectly helped improve the latter’s sales. As so few ID Normales were sold there are very few survivors known today, making this bare-bones ID considerably rarer than the DS Décapotable but not nearly as valuable – at least not in the monetary sense of the word.

Author: brrrruno

Car brochure collector, Thai food lover, not a morning person before my first cup of coffee

29 thoughts on “The Old Normal”

  1. There’s a youtube film starring an ID Normale. Just have a look at the door cards…

    1. The car in this film (ID – not the Normale) is lovely – really like the colour scheme and it looks in great, original condition. Thanks for sharing, even if it was by accident.

  2. Brrrruno, a very nice article as usual; however I doubt that the ID Normale had brakes separated from the main hydraulic system, on the following grounds:
    disc brakes need a high pressure source to be operated, so a new source like a brake servo should be mounted, and moreover the DS brake system is interlinked with the suspension, the front brakes with front suspension and rear with rear, in such a complicated way that, again, it appears to me a costlier option to mount a new separate brake circuit with a new separate servo than letting it as it is.
    No power steering on the contrary is ok, it can be separated from the main circuit without problems, as the semi gearbox.
    I think the misunderstanding may come from the substitution of the mushroom pedal with a normal pedal: the way it operated is however the same, no pedal travel, and brake force only depending on the pressure exerted on the mushroom/pedal.
    So, basically, it was an aesthetic measure for punters made uncomfortable by the mushroom, and maybe, a way to detune visually the car in the economy direction: see, dear punter, the economy version has a normal pedal, not that special DS-only mushroom….

    1. Hello Anastasio,
      Thank you for your kind words. Upon reading your doubts about the ID not having power brakes I checked in my brochure collection and a few DS books to make sure: The ID has brakes that work hydraulically, but they really are NOT assisted/powered. I am not technically learned enough to understand exactly how and why this works, but both factory literature and books about the DS/ID confirm this.

    2. Brrrruno, you are fully right, luckily I am at the moment in the vicinity of my DS Books so I made myself search a bit around, I found a relevant article on L’Auto-Journal 181/1957; it appears in fact that in the ID and ID Normale they took away the servo, i.e. the connection to the hydraulic system, the brake according to the article is mechanical….

      “La commande est mécanique et n’est pas assistée par un servo-frein hydraulique comme dans la DS. Ceci a pour consequénce directe de rendre l’action du pedal dure”.

      “Le freinage a perdu beaucoup en efficacité immediate, et les arrêts brutaux ne sont possibles qu’au prix d’un effort considérable sur le pédale.”

      It’s incredible, they really spared the two interconnecting front and rear brake-suspension pieces, to obtain a pitiful braking, but I wonder whether they really spared money in doing this.
      Now I would really like to understand what did they mean with “mechanical command”, did they use steel cables or rods like in the Thirties? Or just a separate hydraulic system? I could not find details about it…

      I had the occasion of driving an ID 20, but it was a car of the beginning of the Seventies, this is why the sensation on the pedal was the same of the mushroom of the DS , in those years the differences where cosmetic, no more mechanical.

    3. The DS had one of the most complicated brake control mechanisms ever designed as the picture shows:

      You get two high pressure master cylinders and a balance mechanism controlled by a wheel operated by the pressure in the rear suspension.
      All parts were manufactured in Citroen’s clean room factory for hydropneumatic parts where everything was individually reamed to measure and manually matched because there are no seals/gaskets in the whole system, it only relies on extremely tight (and astronomically expensive at the time) tolerances to keep it oil (LHM) tight.
      IDs used conventional (cheap) brakes, albeit filled with hydraulic rather than brake fluid and were a lot cheaper to buy in.
      Late ID models like DSuper5 used high pressure brakes with a conventional pedal and a master cylinder (like CX or BX) of a completely different design to the DS, which always had the mushroom type brake button and the balance mechanism.

    4. It’s an interesting thing about the seal-less hydropneumatic valves that Dave described. Much of the money Citroen spent went into r&d to develop those things. There weren’t any in production with the tight tolerances they needed, so Citroen had to invent an entire infrastructure and production process on its own just to solve a single part of a problem. If anyone wonders where the money went or why they couldn’t afford better engines or a production quality matching for example Mercedes Benz, that’s where the money went. It’s such an idiosyncraticly French way of problem solving nobody else but the French would’ve taken it upon them. The went world leading in making those valves with tolerances that small and they still are to this day, it haven’t been bettered since.

    5. According to LJK Setright, who was usually a reliable source of information, the DS’s oleopneumatic system relied upon tolerances which were, in his parlance, to aviation standards. Apparently any (very slight) leakage would be recovered and feed back into the system. It was a staggeringly rigorous methodology and something only Citroen would have contemplated at the time, as many have stated. However, this level of intense engineering depth was not entirely unique to Quai de Javel’s bureau d’etudes. I believe that the tolerances of Rover’s semi-De Dion rear suspension design for the P6 model were such that Rover engineers were forced to develop ultrasonic cleaning to make it work.

    6. I just find it funny if anyone wonders why Rolls-Royce bought the Citroen system wholesale its because they wouldn’t have the time of day to make it on their own without infringing on those patents. I don’t know how Mercedes solved that problem with their hydropneumatic system but I would guess they went a completely different way only because they didn’t want to please the French, at an astronomical cost of their own I would guess.

    7. With the greatest respect to contemporary Rolls Royce engineers, there simply was neither the resources, nor even more to the point, the expertise to create anything even approaching the sophistication of Citroen’s system. Given that the Peugeot 404 probably rode better than anything RR were concurrently producing ought to speak volumes, surely? Certainly, when it came to ride refinement, they were thoroughly eclipsed by their allegedly déclasse antagonists from Allesley, Coventry, to say nothing of Sochaux – never mind Paris…

    8. Citroen’s hydraulic elements deliberately weren‘t hundred percent oil tight. A very small amount of hydraulic fluid was allowed to escape, lubricating the mechanical parts. This free fluid was collected and returned to the reservoir. The enormous longevity of Citroen’s hydraulic parts shows that this worked. Before Citroen went to McP suspension their hydraulics were a match for their engines when it came to durability. Only now are DSs showing signs of terminal wear in their brake control or steering hydraulics which is a large problems because the parts can’t be overhauled and it’s impossible to remanufacture them because of the large number of tolerance pairings which make nearly every combination of parts unique.
      Mercedes went a completely different route with their hydraulic systems. The comfort hydraulic system used in the W100 (Mercedes 600) had hydraulic pistons with a diameter of four millimetres and multiple piston rings which are just as big a nightmare to work on as Citroen’s designs. Their hydropneumatic system for the W116 or 126 was made by Fichtel & Sachs and was completely different from Citroen’s approach. They used ball valves where the French system had pistons and the system could be hydraulically locked in any position and it had the ‘anti sink’ valves Citroen introduced with late Xantias and XMs.

  3. Good morning Bruno and thanks for bringing us another interesting story. (Could any story involving the DS be otherwise?) While the thinking behind the ID Normale was perfectly understandable, the combination of the wonderful, futuristic DS shape with a stripped-out ‘poverty’ specification is a fine example of cognitive dissonance for me.

    Here’s what I visualise when I imagine the DS:

    1. Hello Daniel,
      Yes, so do I. Still lovely after all those years, isn’t it?

  4. Ah, the Studebaker Scotsman. From a gentler time when a car’s USP could be identified through a pejorative national stereotype.

    At least it wasn’t drunkenness, bad diet, aggression or incomprehensibilty.

  5. Ah, the DS… The current DS range must have it spinning in its grave.
    Had I been in the market for a mid-sized hatchback the low spec of the Cactus would have put me off. No wind down rear windows or split folding rear seats made it less than practical for a family car. Fifty years on and the same drawbacks reappeared.

  6. There’s also the curious government special that was custom ordered to be stripped down to austerity for political reasons. I’m not talking about the Presidentiale but about the 200 or so courtesy cars that was used by different branches of the French government during the sixties. I don’t know if that version even had a name or could be ordered by private individuals, but it can be recognized by its lack of chrome trim and the body coloured (black) C-pillar. Apparently having the regular fluted aluminium trim visible was an extravagance the De Gaulle government could not afford.

    1. Hello Ingvar,
      I believe the car you are referring to was called “Voiture de Mâitre”; the best way to describe it would be an austere version of the DS Prestige, as it was equipped at more or less ID levels but most had the same separation window between driver and rear seat that the Prestige had.

    2. Hello Ingvar,

      Yes – the ‘Administration‘ and ‘Prefecture’ models, I think.

      And here’s a close-up look at a Normale. Despite being basic, it still retains a lot of charm – the design is so sound I think it’s hard to spoil it.

      Several sources say the brakes were of a more basic specification; however, as anastasio says, you wonder if it was worth the effort. Similar examples of ‘complex cost-cutting’ continue among manufacturers to this day.

      Finally, thank you, brrrruno – another fascinating article.

  7. Thank you, people. Yes it was the Administration/Prefecture model that was on my mind. I would guess those were for the lower ranks of the higher ranks of government office and the Voiture de Maitre being intended for ministerial use and captains of industry. I just find it curious they are so easily spotted when they could have blendef in almost invisibly in the Paris cityscape had they used a regular DS.

  8. It may not be true, but supposedly the de Gaulles used go around the Elysse Palace turning off the lights at night. In that context there’s a logic in making official vehicles as austere as possible…

    1. That generation had seen two world wars and an economic depression in between, it was a matter of honour being fiscally responsible to the masses.

  9. Thanks brrrruno, always enjoy reading articles on the DS.
    I’ve been fortunate enough to have owned and run four of these wonderful cars back in the eighties and beginning of the new milineum. They were mostly misunderstood by the average buyer as being overly complicated and trouble prone however my experience was the opposite.
    The last car was an unrestored thirty year old still functioning perfectly but suffering from rusting door
    bottoms a result of being mounted outside the main structure while exposed to whatever the front tyres threw up under them.
    There are so many features never mentioned such as being able to remove any of the doors in about 30 sec with one spanner and a screw driver! A novice could remove and replace the rear window or windscreen, try that on a modern car ! The crank handle together with long extension rod that allows one to manually rotate the engine but will also provide massive leverage for removing wheel lug nuts by inserting this same extension rod through the crank handle extending it’s length.
    After removing lug nuts this same long rod can be inserted through a hole in the center of the wheel and into a recess in the hub the wheel can then be slid down the rod to the floor without one having to bear the considerable weight, ideal for the fairer sex or aged. This tool is even better for remounting the wheel.
    Nitrogen spheres are a doddle to change with a strap wrench but only after shutting down and bleeding the system pressure off by pumping brakes, lowering suspension and rocking steering wheel, all LHM automatically returns to the reservoir.

  10. I embrace a Spartan lifestyle and aesthetic in general, but this car is a bit of mixed bag for me. The black colour, the blue interior and white accents are to die for. The trims around the rear indicators isn’t to my liking, though and it probably would have looked better with hub caps and chrome trim around the head lights, but that’s about it. Still, I prefer this to a Pallas trim in terms of looks. Today’s cars come with a whole array of things I don’t want or need, but here the lack of goodies is a bit too extreme even for my liking.

    Sadly I’ve never driven a DS, so I can’t comment on the lack of power steering and brakes, but the steering and brakes seem to be over-assisted on the DS. The big elephant in the room for me is the engine. Why would you put a less powerful unit in an already underpowered car?

    1. Brakes and steering on proper hydropneumatic bit Citroens are an acquired taste or need some getting used to, depending on your point of view. Once you’ve got used to the brake button it’s very practical because it’s not operated by movement but by pressure. The DS’ steering is free from the rubbery feeling normal power assisted systems have but you get slurping and burgling noises from it – the CX’ DIRAVI is even more fascinating there.

      In the early Millenium there was somebody in the Bordeaux area who restored DSs to perfection. You got a galvanised sub structure and proper corrosion protection elsewhere plus replacements for every part that could be replaced with proper spares which was pretty much everything mechanical except the front wheel bearings (as they last forever that’s not a problem). All this was done for 55,000 EUR plus the DS you delivered to them.
      A friend bought a non-Pallas carburettor DS23 from them and on the first drive with his wife the only comment coming from her was whether this was all he was making such a fuss about for years and if all of them sounded like an old tram.

      On my first DS drive I hit the brake button like I would have used the brake pedal in a conventional car with the result that my belt-less passenger hit his head on the dashboard. This DS was a carburettor non-Pallas 21 with the late flip up door handles which I won on a round of poker because it wasn’t worth much with terminal corrosion in its sills and a snapped drive shaft. The car was a bit over five years old and there wasn’t much left from its sills which are the most important load bearing part of the DS’ sub structure. The drive shaft was replaced by a part from the scrap yard and I used it for half a year and then scrapped it.

  11. There seems to be some French fascination with ultra low specced cars.

    The Renault 3 was also a decontented version of the Renault 4

    It only lasted one year, until 1962.

    It was also a basic Dyane 6 with no third light and even more spartan than the normal Dyane 6.

    In the 1980s Renault also offered a barebones Supercinc C (Commercial), wich lacked even headrests (!!)

    1. There also was a versoin of the Citroen BX with no additional lettering (no 14, 14 RE, 16 RS or TRS…) and very basic equipment levels. It had a 1,100cc version of the ‘suitcase’ engine.

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