We consider two complicated entities – the Citroën DS and Pierre Bercot.
For loyal enthusiasts, the sound of a hissy, lethargic A Series engine is essential to the holistic experience of the Morris Minor – none of the readily achieved Ford, Fiat, Rover, Toyota or other engine swaps could ever appeal. Likewise in the case of another car that did not receive the engine it was promised. For many Citroënistes, the wet-liner straight four, tracing its conceptual roots back to the early 1930s, is now part and parcel of the Citroën DS’s character, however much its uncultured sound rails against the rest of the car’s smoothness. But for others it is the one great disappointment, and mention is often made of the six-cylinder engine it should have had. But we ask the question, is the DS great, not despite its engine, but because of it?
Pierre Bercot was a complex man. An intellectual in the French tradition, after a doctorate in Law, he completed his education at the National School of Oriental Languages in Paris. With an impressive knowledge of Ancient Greek and an accomplished pianist, he wasn’t the average car industry boss. Joining Citroën under Pierre Jules Boulanger shortly before the War, he worked on lowering production costs of the nascent 2CV. Following Boulanger’s untimely death, in 1950 he took over the Voiture de Grande Diffusion project, encouraging engineer André Lefèbvre not to hold back on his ambitions for the car that became the DS. In 1958 he became Chairman and Managing Director of Citroën.
Strongly libertarian in outlook, before that word took on the polarising image it has today, late in his career, he wrote a trilogy of enigmatically titled books of essays, encapsulating his views against the power of the state. The first was Vieillesse du Prince (Old Age of The Prince), the second Jeune Cité sans Démocratie – L’Anarchie dans l’Ordre (Young City Without Democracy – Anarchy in Order), the last book, Le Petit Livre Bleu, Tribune Libre (The Little Blue Book, Open Forum). These aren’t the sort of works you’d imagine Donald Stokes knocking out, and you can assume that Bercot was someone who relished having a visionary engineer planning his cars and a sculptor styling them. But can you have too much vision?
Although he allowed us the pleasures of the classic Citroëns of the 50s, 60s and 70s, he presided over a company that lost its way for rather too long, and by the time it found it again it was maybe too late to save. But the publishing of the books, late in his career at Citroën, might be seen as the literary equivalent of insisting that My Way is played at your funeral and, even as Citroën was beginning its descent into the uncaring arms of Peugeot, it doesn’t suggest that M. Bercot felt that he had failed at his job.
Possibly it seems obvious now, when many manufacturers find it necessary to produce a proliferation of forgettable models, sometimes too numerous for anyone but a loyal marque enthusiast to remember, but even then it was clear to many at Citroën that the DS and 2CV alone could not sustain the company. Not that they didn’t try, but meeting in the middle by de-contenting the DS to make the ID and building a small saloon on the 2CV platform in the case of the Ami wasn’t enough.
Naturally the Ami wasn’t the only attempt – there were lots of ideas, and quite a few prototypes. Maybe viewed in the age of bubble cars they seemed to make sense, but the Coccinelle variants were always going to be a dead end. The C60 seems far more plausible, quirky but a car that you’d like to drive. However this was abandoned for the disaster of Projet F, a car that should have been able to be turned into a credible product – the Michel Harmand proposals looking pretty promising – but wallowed, reportedly physically as well as conceptually, then ended up being abandoned after apparently unfavourable comparison with the Renault 16.
At that point Citroën finally seemed to get back on track, but although they were now set to launch the GS, SM and CX in relatively short succession, Pierre Bercot was indulging himself with ownership of Maserati, a manufacturer he seemed to hold in some awe. There was also the fatal Comotor venture with NSU to produce Wankel engines, though this must be viewed in period, when many felt convinced that the Wankel was the future of the internal combustion engine. But whichever way, resources were very stretched and it may be that by that time Citroën were already doomed – the output of the early 70s being just a False Spring.
Bercot’s final book, the more prosaically titled Mes Années aux Usines Citroën, published privately in 1977 long after his departure, tries to analyse his ultimate failure, yet ends up presenting the sort of conspiracy theory sadly familiar among bosses of failed car companies, blaming the state-owned Renault for much, from the unfair distribution of materials after the War to outright plagiarism.
Yet how can one not view Bercot with high regard? He didn’t just allow the classic Citroëns, he encouraged them. The legendary Bureau d’Études building was far from the futuristic laboratory its name suggests, but working there must have been fascinating, and he probably indulged its inhabitants like no other car boss. But looking at its output, it becomes so clear how hit-and-miss it all was.
If we revert to the DS, the conventional wisdom for this unconventional car is that it would have been perfect, had it received the flat-six engine that had been intended. Some sources claim that Citroën ran out of money, others that they ran out of time. Timelines put the abandoning of the engine very late in the DS’s gestation, maybe less than a year before launch. Possibly that is the date when Walter Becchia finally stopped work on the engine, but surely the decision not to fit it into the DS would have been made a fair bit earlier?
Becchia’s flat twin was a brilliant thing, Citroën’s only great, in-house engine. Sophisticatedly simple, reliable and tolerant of a great deal of abuse, it was just the right engine for the 2CV of the late 1940s. Yet, although the sound of a Renault 4L driving past your window could never conjure the rural France of Les Trente Glorieuses in the way a Citroën twin can, by the early Sixties people expected a bit more refinement, and the Renault’s water-cooled four could offer enough reliability, performance and economy to make the air-cooled twin seem rather too eager sounding in its efforts to achieve the same end. It remained of course intrinsic to the 2CV, but it was also offered, in modified form and less satisfactorily, in the LN(A) and the Visa until 1987.
And yet, having seemingly not been chastened by the DS experience, Citroën persisted with an air-cooled flat 4 for the GS introduced 15 years later. This was a car of many qualities, yet an effortless and quiet engine was not really one of them.
Certainly, others had chosen the air-cooled, flat engine route, primarily VW. In term of flat sixes, Chevrolet produced the Corvair for 10 years, even toying early in its life with spinning off modular engines and prototyping an Impala powered by an air-cooled flat ten. That sounds like a behemoth, until you consider that Ferdinand Piech, never to be outdone, developed a 6.6 litre flat 16 for a not-to-be-realised 917 Can-Am car. Because, of course, Porsche were the real torchbearers for the air-cooled flat 6, persevering up to 1998. Both the 911 and the Corvair of course had controversial handling in their early lives, a result of all that weight well behind the rear wheels, combined with ill-resolved suspension.
For the DS, Citroën initially thought they were covering their bases by developing both air and water-cooled flat 6 engine prototypes. We are told that they were deemed too heavy, lacking in power yet by no means frugal, a sadly unimpressive hat-trick but, though we might assume that the water-cooled engine was quieter, there is scant information as to exactly how they behaved, just some black and white photos. Nevertheless there is reason to suspect that, however much money and time had been invested in the engine, its placement ahead of the front axle would never have given the car really good road manners.
With the flat 6 being canned, the story goes that the four-cylinder unit from the Traction, with its gearbox ahead of the engine, was resourcefully reworked by Georges Sainturat in 1954 to extract more power, then slipped into the front of the car by the simple trick of pushing the central part of the bulkhead back into the passenger compartment, thus making the DS what we today clumsily term a front-mid-engine-front-wheel-drive vehicle, a layout rare in motoring history, especially if you exclude Citroën and Renault.
However, comparing the proportions of the four and the six powertrains, this seems too simple. It is hard to imagine that the front axle line wasn’t brought forward a fair bit at the same time. In addition, both water and air-cooled versions of the six are shown with fans and/or radiators mounted well to the rear, above the gearbox. This would make sense, allowing the nose of the car to be low, but it seems very unlikely that the graceful curve of the production DS bonnet could have been achieved around the six – it would have to be a bit more beak-shaped to clear the cooling apparatus.
So at the front, the notional DS6 ends up with an axle line nearer to the passenger footwells, more front overhang, and a lumpier bonnet.
When viewed beside its contemporaries at the 1955 Paris Salon, it’s easy to understand Roland Barthes’ assertion that the DS seemed to have fallen from the sky. At first glance it is an alien materialising on the High Street. But just as so many cinematic aliens conveniently have two arms, two legs, a head and a surprisingly good command of our language, it is only so different. Like all human endeavour, art and design build on themselves – somewhere you will always find influences. In the case of the DS we might consider cars such as the Tatra T87 and the flowing lines of some of the pre-war French coachbuilders.
We can look at Jean-Albert Grégoire’s 1948 Grégoire R, the work of another literature-loving polymath, put into production as the Hotchkiss Grégoire in 1950, five years before the DS. Little mentioned today, that indeed has many similarities in concept to the nascent Citroën – a flat configuration engine (in this case a two-litre water-cooled four), front-wheel-drive, streamlined styling, all independent suspension – and in some respects, such as aluminium construction, it was more ambitious. At more than four times the cost of a Traction Avant, even had it stayed in production for more than the three years it managed, it would never have been a direct competitor with the DS, but even so if it is interesting to compare the two, particularly the more inelegant overhang that the front mounted engine necessitated – and this was only a four cylinder.
Then we can cross the Atlantic and maybe look at the Tucker Torpedo, certainly Loewy’s Studebaker Commander designed by Bob Bourke and also the first Hudson Hornet, whose perimeter frame gave it the low profile of a full monocoque. The Hudson’s influence is best seen on some of the profile sketches that lead up to the final DS, and various other sketches testify to Robert Opron’s comment that designer Flaminio Bertoni’s tastes often tended towards the baroque. Bertoni would possibly have been happy to proceed with one of these options but, just months before launch (only a couple if you believe some accounts), Pierre Bercot arranged a viewing and decided that the rear styling was too conventional. Following this, Bertoni produced the curved screen recessed into the rear roof that we now recognise but, not until the very last, did he decide on the high-set indicator nacelles as a way of reconciling discordant curves.
These are the sort of late changes that would likely be vetoed by today’s industry accountants and production engineers, yet it is undeniable that they worked. Without the dead-ends and pragmatic last-minute alterations, and without Bercot’s constant meddling, the unique Déesse that we know would not have existed – it arrived by the skin of its teeth. There are so many other ways it could have gone, but this illustration suggests one.
With its less elegant front and rounded rear, this DS6 would have been a more typical product of the Fifties, its influences considerably more obvious. By no means an undesirable or cynical car, it would still have had Paul Magès wonderful hydraulic system, but possibly that would have been diminished by handling that was rather too nose-heavy. How would we remember it today?
And so it goes. We now know that, despite his high ideals, Pierre Bercot was not spearheading the motor cars of tomorrow. Many admired the products of the company he ran, which coincidentally has the same name as a member of today’s Stellantis Group, but none chose to take inspiration from them, except the supposedly villainous Renault with its 4L and the more respectful Rover with its 2000. Because the rest of the motor industry is as inexplicably wilful and capricious in its behaviour as Citroën was, just not as rewarding.
Information on Pierre Bercot’s literary output is hard to find, so I’d recommend the following nice French-language Citroen oriented site : le-grenier-estipallas.blogspot.com