It’s Such a Fine Line …

We consider two complicated entities – the Citroën DS and Pierre Bercot.

image : lignesauto.fr

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?

Image : le-grenier-estipallas.blogspot.com

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.

Images : challenges.fr

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.

Tatra T87 – image : motorbiscuitcom

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.

Hotchkiss Grégoire – Image : brightwells.com

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.

Studebaker CommanderImage : RKMotors.com

 

Hudson Hornet – Image : Wallpaperup.com

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.

Image : Author

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

25 thoughts on “It’s Such a Fine Line …”

  1. Rather severe to criticise Bercot for the Citroen model range particularly when the company was carefully prevented from accessing sufficient capital and key resource improve it properly, as well as being subtly sabotaged by machinations of state. Bercot was right in identifying what he’d witnessed. He was too polite (at the time), or perhaps too well mannered, to expose it and protest it loudly. Perhaps he was right in that as well. The Americans have a saying, “You can’t beat City Hall.” You definitely can’t beat the Fed either (as the ECB is learning). Citroen was marked for assimilation one way or another. To many of the really big dogs gunning for it.

    Here is a question. Quoting, “Strongly libertarian in outlook, before that word took on the polarising image it has today….” What is the polarising image of being a libertarian?

    1. In answer to J T – libertarian tends, now, to infer a lack of moral responsibility, whereas Bercot’s libertarianism was a much wider concept of questioning the status quo, perceived wisdom, the ‘normal, the established (and Establishment) way of doing things……

      And forgive my pedantry, but I believe the American saying is, historically, “You can’t beat Tammany Hall” – an organisation with an “interesting” past…..

    2. Perhaps some terms are being mixed up. Civil libertarian is one interested in civil liberties but is not making unusual demands about the role of the state in society. A liberal in the British sense is one committed to the rule of law, democracy, due process and civic freedoms of association and speech. A libertarian is one likely to be a follower of writer Ayn Rand and deeply committed to a minimal state and a contractual basis of human relations. Further discussion on libertarianism is best pursued at another website. Bercot was probably a free-thinker and a Modernists by this account rather than a person in the modern very-small-state/free-marketarian sense.

  2. Wow, great article – articulate, informed and thought provoking. Thank you.

  3. Hello JTC

    Quoting, “….libertarian tends, now, to infer a lack of moral responsibility…” How so?

    Yes indeed. True enough, especially if you’re a New Yorker. My understanding is that they used to say, “You can’t fight Tammany Hall” which is different to how it is used today. Elsewhere in North America it’s City Hall and the verb is “beat”, not “fight”. I heard it as quoted in Colorado Springs and from several people in Denver. A good friend from Thousand Oaks in CA says it a lot (parking tickets, speeding tickets and lately failing to keep his property tidy or some such nonsense). So does a colleague in Dallas. Anyway, the original source of the saying is British. It went to North America. There it spread and mutated. The latest variant seems to be, “you can’t beat a University education”, stated with intended irony.

    Cheers.

    1. Hello again J T. ‘Libertarian’ is one of those words for which the meaning has changed in recent times, sometimes subtly, sometimes not, and rarely for the better. But I also have to acknowledge that my first language is UK English and that English is a living language and therefore continues to evolve, regardless of my approval. Or disapproval.

      That being said, it is a great pity when a word with great scope becomes emasculated or, worse still, given a meaning at odds with the original. To call somebody a libertarian nowadays is to suggest that they believe in doing or saying exactly what they like regardless of the consequences. It infers that such a person will feel justified in behaving badly, without thought for others, and who believes that rules or regulations are an infringement of their liberty and right to do as they please.

      You really don’t want to get me started…… and I bet today’s author didn’t expect us to set off on this particular tangent! But that’s typical DTW for you. It’s a superb piece, by the way, and beautifully written. More please.

  4. May I extend a warm DTW welcome to the author of this fine piece, elegantly told.

  5. Indeed an interesting approach and subject (and I did not know Bercot ever wrote any books); welcome Bristowfuller.

  6. A well written article. The engine of the DS is hardly the best part of the car, but the front-mid-engine layout did indeed work out well. Sadly I have never driven a DS, but I always like cars that have a more or less even weight distribution.

    Like Bruno I never realized Pierre Bercot wrote books. I was always more focused on André Lefèbvre.

    1. A truly worthwhile article, so many thanks for that. Indeed opening up many new perspectives on man and machine, and a wonderful discussion on top.
      As to the weight distribution of the DS: balanced it is not. I believe in excess of 70% weighs on the front wheels and you can sense it’s there. That said it offers quite a tight feel in steering and road contact, very much unlike its contemporaries. If possible I’d like to invite you to give it a try, Freerk…

    2. Thank you so much, Joost. I was thinking of something closer to somewhere in the low 60% was on the front wheels. I am a little scared to drive a DS, I must admit. I’ve been in BX’s, CX’s XM’s and the only car with hydropneumatic suspension I recall driving was a Xantia. Last week Thursday I was in Rotterdam and I saw a DS in quite bad shape, well the body work anyway, drive off. Especially the passenger wasn’t kind to it. She slammed the door shut with a little too much effort, it was almost as if I could feel the car hurting a bit. It did start up on first try, so the engine was good.

    3. Sure Freerk, just let me know. Slamming the door is a common mistake, I’m afraid, it happens all too often with passengers unfamiliar to this type of car. If well calibrated the door just falls into lock driven by it’s own weight and a slight push suggesting it should close. Actually another proof that Citroen engineers went at great length to create a vehicle that is very easy to handle.

    4. Joost, I’d be delighted and honored. Not sure how to contact each other, I never leave my contact information out in the open. There doesn’t seem to be a private message possibility here, but if you are on linkedin, you can send me a message there.

  7. I too was unaware of Bercot’s books until I came across a volume by chance some years ago. At first I wondered if the author wasn’t a different Pierre Bercot, but that isn’t the case.

    Like it or not, the concept of libertarianism does polarise views today. Partly because people misunderstand its complex roots, but frankly more because, as JTC says, it’s hijacked by people who take it as meaning ‘I should be able do what the hell I want’. That wouldn’t have been Bercot’s attitude, and I wasn’t criticising him for his own libertarianism. Certainly the French state interfered far too much with the industry, from the Pons Plan onwards, but let’s not overplay the helplessness of a private company under the yoke of the state. As the boss of the company that oversaw the period of indecision that saw not one, but two potential mid-range models dumped, as well as the indulgent purchase of Maserati and the prioritising of the SM (which does not suggest a crippling lack of resources) I feel it acceptable to criticise him as a company leader, as much as I’d praise him for enabling some great cars.

    My own ‘Bercot for a Day’ fantasy motor industry manager plan following the launch of the DS19, would have been to continue development of water-cooled modular versions of the flat engines, with a view to producing a four-cylinder 1.8 litre and a six-cylinder 2.7 litre. These would have been destined for a rebodied and partially re-engineered DS18/DS27 using some of Opron’s more comprehensive ideas for updating the DS, to be introduced in the mid 60s, joining a production version of the C60. Though I still suspect the six would have been a bit of a handful.

    As for my own fantasy talented automotive engineer plan of re-creating a restomod DS6, there’s not a lot of power units to choose from. The Corvair’s six is too large. Subaru’s is both too large and too modern. The most likely starting point would be an early Porsche 911T engine with the Sportomatic box or, as an outsider, a Honda Gold Wing 1800. The complete remodelling of the car from the bulkhead forwards, and the redesign of most of the base engine’s ancillaries would entail an awful amount of work which, I fear, might not be justified by the end result. Yet I still wish someone would do it.

    1. Enjoying this a lot!

      Moving on a few years from the flat engines, we could have had something like this in the DS:

    2. Now there’s a fantasy with which I can empathise – and I can think of another of my fellow Jowett owners to whom it would also appeal. He just happens to own a Tatra T87, too. All we need is a very rich backer and I’m sure it could be achieved…..

  8. I’d like to add my thanks for an informative and thought-provoking article. A lot of work clearly went in to it, which I’m sure is one of the reasons it was so good. I may have said it before, but I think the standard of writing at DTW is equal to or better than the articles in Car magazine’s heyday, and it’s a real pleasure to have access to such material, once again. More, please.

    It’s fascinating that M. Bercot wrote those books – I wondered if he was protesting against Renault, by other means, in the earlier ones.

    The article prompted me to find out more about the merits of various configurations of 6-cylinder engines, which I must say I found very interesting, too.

  9. It is my understanding that a V8 based on the DS engine was considered at Citroen prior to the takeover of Maserati, which brings to mind what impact if any would it have had on the DS had the pre-war Traction Avant 22cv V8 reached production?

  10. Good Morning JTC!

    The word for that is “libertine”.

    It’s a pity so many people readily accept the ruin of language by alteration of the meaning/definition of words. It’s worse that some people deliberately engage in it for their own purposes. The result is a blunting of thought through a vulgar imprecision leading to misunderstanding, misdirection and manipulation (which is probably the intention)*. It’s a vandalism which leads nowhere good.

    I’m pleased to note that in the circle of people I associate with the terms libertine and libertarian have not been conflated. I knew many people don’t like libertarianism but I’d not realised this was due to them thinking it was libertine. Thank you for explaining.

    Certainly, Pierre Bercot was not libertine.

    *George Orwell writes about this.

  11. Great article, what a debut and looking forward to more.

    Some novel and interesting perspectives on the car and the man – as has been said already DTW maintains a very high level and I am most grateful to the writers and editor not to mention the erudite and informed readership.

  12. How certain are we that the flat-six powerplant was to have been installed engine-forward? I can’t claim to be any sort of Citroën expert, but I’d always understood that the 6 would have been installed just like the eventual 4-cyl installation, albeit without the bulge in the firewall (since a flat six is roughly 25% shorter than an inline 4). The radiator fan shroud shown above also suggests this, as such careful shrouding of a ‘pusher’ fan was rare in those days.

  13. Joe. When I first learned of the aborted six, I too assumed it would be mounted behind the wheels. But as soon as you become an (armchair in my case) restomod engineer, you realise how unlikely this would be. It would have required a completely different structure from the bulkhead forwards and, even then, accessing it for routine servicing would have been near impossible.

    The fact that the engine was intended to be mounted forward of the wheels is well-recorded, such as in Julian Marsh’s excellent site
    http://www.citroenet.org.uk/passenger-cars/michelin/ds/01.html

    This is backed up by details in the engine photos. The exhaust manifold on the water-cooled engine points back towards the gearbox, and the heating ducting on the air-cooled does the same. Citroenet also shows two speculative renderings of the flat 6 installation from contemporary magazines. The first shows the engine behind the wheels, but the one from L’Auto Journal would appear to be well-informed from someone who had seen a prototype.

    On the subject of prototypes, Bercot ensured secrecy to the point that we are left with the most sketchy details – blurry photos of unconvincing runners. Most interesting is the scale model, claiming to be a circa 1952 prototype. Note the wheels closer to the bulkhead, and the ducts from the engine into the cabin.

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