Having delighted the motoring world in 1934 with the introduction of the now famous ‘Traction Avant’, 21 years later Citroën did it all over again with the stunning and futuristic looking DS.
Following the French concern’s penchant for innovation, under its aerodynamic body the DS was just as mechanically advanced as the Traction Avant cars had been back in the 1930s – the new car boasting all-independent, self-levelling, hydropneumatic suspension as well as power-operated brakes, clutch, and steering. The car’s unique suspension system delivered a ride quality not to be found on any other car, and even today there’s little else able to match the driving experience offered by these iconic Citroëns.
If there is a downside to the DS, it would be the car’s out-dated engine. Although solid and reliable, the long-stroke 1911cc four-cylinder motor fitted to the early cars really didn’t provide performance to match the car’s striking, shark-like looks. Later models received improved engines – the short-stroke 1985cc engine arrived in 1966, with later cars being treated to 2175cc (DS21) or 2347cc engines (DS23).
Fuel injection was introduced as an option for the DS23 in 1973 allowing for smoother operation while the original hydraulically operated four-speed semi-automatic gearbox was replaced with a more modern five-speed gearbox in 1971 on both DS21 and DS23 models. Alongside the original DS saloon, Citroën also offered a cheaper alternative, the ID, and the amazing Safari (as featured on the cover of NZ Classic Driver (January/February 2020). However, the DS model we’re most interested in is the two-door convertible DS – the Décapotable. But before we examine the car, let’s take a look at the career of the man behind this elegant cabriolet – Henri Chapron.
Although probably best known for his association with Citroën and especially for the convertible – Décapotable – versions of the iconic DS, the French automaker actually rejected Chapron’s initial concept for an open-top DS; its eventual appearance only happened as a direct result of the designer’s perseverance. However, we’re getting ahead of ourselves as Henri Chapron’s career within the motoring industry began many years before the Citroën DS broke cover.
From humble beginnings as an upholsterer’s apprentice based in Paris, Chapron set out on his own in 1919 from premises in Neuilly-sur-Seine, a western suburb of Paris. He quickly made a name for himself rebodying the many Model T Fords left behind by American troops following the end of WW1. This venture proved to be very successful and with his reputation as a coachbuilder firmly established, in 1923 the company moved to larger premises in Levallois-Perret.
During the years that followed, Chapron would become one of the most influential French designers of the era, producing coach-built bodies on Ballot, Chenard- Walcker, Delage and Panhard-Levassor chassis, along with the occasional foray into the upper end of the market with bespoke bodies for Bugatti and Hispano-Suiza. However, Chapron’s company really gave notice of its talents with iconic coachwork designed on Delahaye chassis, especially the 135 models.
As you would expect, traditional coachbuilding work ground to a halt during WW2, with repair work keeping the company alive during the war years. With the cessation of hostilities, and with war-ravaged France gradually returning to normal, Chapron’s coachbuilding business boomed once again, with the company designing and producing bodies for Delahaye, Talbot-Lago, Salmson amongst many others.
However, the days of the coach-built body were nearing an end, unitary bodies were becoming more and more popular, while new French tax legislation unduly penalised luxury cars. As a result, many traditional coachbuilders disappeared from the scene, but Henri Chapron saw a way forward – and that new direction would be provided by the 1955 launch of the Citroën DS.
Recognising the significance of the new DS, Chapron approached Citroën to supply chassis for which he could design a cabriolet version, but this initial request was denied as the factory had plans to produce their own convertible. Undeterred, Chapron simply went out and purchased a new DS saloon from a local dealer. The first Chapron-designed cabriolet was displayed at the 1958 Paris Salon and was an instant hit, with 300 more examples being subsequently built. With the Chapron convertible proving to be successful, Citroën re-thought their initial refusal to supply chassis and by 1961 decided to fully cooperate with Chapron, providing DS19 chassis for the coachbuilder to produce a new model – the ‘Décapotable usine’ (factory convertible).
Using the longer chassis of the Safari, Chapron left the standard mechanicals, front wings, windshield and wheels in place, but reinforced the floor and lengthened the standard car’s doors by 18cm. The rear quarters were a new design by Chapron, allowing for a lower and sleeker look than that of the standard DS saloon. Over the following years, Chapron would build over 1800 DS-based vehicles. Along with the well-known convertibles, the company also produced saloons and coupés such as the Palm Beach, Le Dandy, Croisette and Lorraine.
And while Citroën would eventually produce their own factory convertible, it is the 1365 DS19/ DS21 Décapotable models built by Chapron between 1960 and 1971 that are most prized by collectors and, today, command the highest of prices. Henri Chapron died in 1978. The running of his company was taken over by his widow and they continued to build bespoke vehicles until finally closing down in 1985.
Laurie Newhook reckons that his passion for Citroën dates back to the time when he first met Judy, his future wife. At that time both were teenagers and Judy’s father owned a Citroën Light 15. For Laurie there was, however, an earlier connection to the French marque – when his maternal grandfather signed up with Shorters of Shortland Street to purchase a new Light 15. Alas, he died before he could take delivery of the Citroën. Either way, Laurie’s path was clear and he acquired a 1939 Light 12 as his student car, purchased for the princely sum of $200, a car that he would later sell for $250.
This was the beginning of a love affair with Citroën that continues to this very day. Along the way, Laurie and Judy have owned not far short of 20 different Citroëns, one of their favourites being a CX Turbo 2 – “a very fast car” said Laurie.
Everyday cars aside, in more recent years Laurie has been rather more focused on classic Citroëns, eventually leading to the purchase of a 1972 SM finished in Rouge de Rio. The SM coupé was built during Citroën’s short-lived association with Maserati and is powered by the V6 engine as also used in the Maserati Merak. SMs are a little thin on the ground in New Zealand so Laurie was forced to look further afield, finally locating an example that had been fully restored by Peter McLeod, a retired Australian racing driver probably best known as co-winner of the 1987 James Hardie 1000 alongside Peter Brock and David Parsons.
Since acquiring the SM, Laurie has spent time and money keeping the car in top condition, with Bishop’s Garage in Newton, Auckland expertly handling mechanical and general maintenance chores. A member of the Citroën Car Club of NZ, Laurie’s SM won the award for best example at the club’s centenary rally held in 2020 – there are believed to be some 20 or so SMs resident in New Zealand. As well as the SM, Laurie had always wanted to own a DS and, rather more ambitiously, set his sights on one of the rarer versions designed and built by Henri Chapron.
With that goal set, Laurie knew two things; firstly that he’d have to look overseas to find a suitable car and, secondly, as examples of the Chapron-designed DS are now in high demand by collectors, only a big bag of dollars would secure one of these rare cars. Laurie’s ambition eventually saw him going online for Bonham’s ‘Les Grandes Marques à Monaco’ auction held at the Fairmont Hotel in Monte Carlo on April 23, 2021 – and more specifically for Lot 110, a 1967 Citroën DS21 Décapotable, chassis #4600088.
The car that Laurie had spotted within Bonham’s online auction catalogue was built by Citroën in November 1967 and subsequently sent out by Chapron the following month. Destined for Canada, the DS was equipped with a few special features designed to make the car more amenable to that country’s colder climate. These extras included cold-weather heating and a more powerful alternator to handle any additional electrical drain.
Fitted with the 2.1-litre engine coupled to Citroën’s hydraulically operated, columnshift, four-speed, semi-automatic gearbox, as a 1967 model the DS21 was also fitted with directional headlights. Having switched from the original, red, vegetable-based hydraulic fluid in 1967, the hydro-pneumatic system in this car runs on green LHM fluid. Having spent the majority of its driving life in Canada, the DS was eventually returned to Europe in 2009 where it would be subjected to a complete bodywork restoration, the work being handled by Netherlands Citroën specialist DS-Keyzer of Amsterdam.
Originally painted in Vert Forêt, the fully restored body was refinished in another original Chapron colour, Bleu Antarctique. The interior was completely re-upholstered in leather and a new black hood was also installed. As offered for sale at Bonham’s ‘Les Grandes Marques à Monaco’ auction, the owner of the DS21 was noted as having purchased the Citroën in 2014 from VSOC, the Dutch classic car dealership owned by Alex von Mózer.
The car was then sent to another Citroën specialist, Michel Boutias of L’Atelier 524 in Grenoble, France. Renowned for their work on Citroën DS and SM models as well as Maseratis, L’Atelier 524 took on a major mechanical restoration of the car, including a nut-and-bolt engine rebuild and a complete overhaul of the Citroën’s gearbox, hydraulic system, brakes, steering and electrics.
The final bill for all this work came to a substantial €45,000 (NZ$71,820). Following that work and prior to being offered for sale at auction, the car was resident in the South of France where it had only limited use during the summer months. The DS was offered for sale with attestations of authenticity from Noëlle-Eléonore Chapron and from Citroën Heritage.
With his goal firmly in sight, at midnight New Zealand time on the day of the auction, Laurie was glued to the screen of his laptop as he, along with several other potential buyers, entered into a bidding war for the Citroën. After a few breathless minutes, Laurie finally emerged with the winning bid – €195,500 (NZ$315,967) including buyer’s premium and his dream of owning a Chapron DS had been realised.
When the car finally arrived on our shores, it had not been driven for some time and was surprisingly grubby following its six-week sea voyage to New Zealand. However, it appeared to be mechanically sound and in overall excellent condition. During the subsequent compliance check, the Citroën was, according to Laurie, “pulled to bits” but the only ‘problem’ turned out to be two blown brake light bulbs.
With the compliance checks complete, Laurie sent the car to the Citroën experts at Bishop’s Garage for final fettling – and they did a great job getting this very special car ready for cruising comfortably on our roads. When it comes to DS Citroëns, comfortable is almost an understatement and Laurie’s gorgeous Chapron creation is absolutely no exception.
From the moment you sink into the car’s beautifully upholstered seats you know that you’re in a far different class of motor vehicle than virtually anything else on the road. Although mastering the car’s semiautomatic gearbox takes a bit of getting used to, especially in stop-start city traffic, like the Citroën’s hydraulically powered steering and braking, it is an element of the car that you soon get used to and, of course, that is all part and parcel of the thrill of owning such an iconic automobile.
While the DS21 convertible may never match the performance of Laurie’s Maserati V6-engined Citroën SM, such an observation really misses the point of this Décapotable. For long distance, city-to-city touring it would be hard to find another car so relaxing and so comfortable – and talk about cruising in style; this Chapron Décapotable is hands down one of the most stylish cars of all time. As Laurie puts it – “ I feel privileged to own the car, it’s not concours and the body has a few nicks but there’s more to owning a classic car than simply admiring it, it has to be driven”.
As such, he has no plans to elevate the DS to concours standards at present– although it probably wouldn’t take too much to get the car up to tip-top show condition. Laurie believes that his car is the only ‘facelift’ Chapron version in New Zealand, but he is aware of two earlier versions currently under restoration and being readied for shipment to Australia, while a third example has not yet been identified. That aside, for Laurie and Judy their DS is a definite keeper – and a perfect companion to their lovely Citroën SM.
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[Thanks to the Reverend Dr Tony Surman for giving us permission to photograph this Citroën in the grounds of St Mark’s Church, Remuera. Thanks also to L’Atelier Du Fromage for allowing us to use their bistro as a photographic backdrop – and for also providing a lovely lunch.]