VIVE LA DIFFERENCE!

( 1991 Quentin Bristow)

When I arrived in Canada from England in the late fifties, I worked with a fellow who had an old Studebaker. It did quite a lot of coughing and spluttering so I suggested that cleaning the plugs might be in order. He thought about that for a minute and said "Oh well, if we are going to go that far we might as well change the piston rings while we are at it." When I asked the obvious question he said "Oh didn't you know, you either have to lift out the engine or dismantle the transmission to clean the plugs on this model anyway". Bearing that in mind I held off buying a Detroit car for more than twenty years.

The first car I did buy was a two year old British car, a 1960 one-point-five litre Riley. I did a lot of fine tuning and even designed and built a capacitor-discharge transistorised ignition system for it. The results were amazing, I remember when I put my foot to the floor on the first test, we hurtled down the highway as if jet propelled, passing astonished V-8 owners at some horrifyingly illegal speed. I got a little too clever by adding a refinement for cold weather starting which allowed extra sparks to occur at each plug while the starter was engaged. The result was that something got out of sync and almost demolished the engine - amazing what a few little transistors can do with malice aforethought.

By 1966 the car had developed acute rustosis and was showing the first signs of the dreaded arthro-steerosis which affects the steering linkages. The symptoms are a stiffening of the steering-rod ball joints, which manifests itself in a reluctance to change direction in response to guidance from the driver. The condition can be dangerous (even fatal) to the health of not only the car, but also of those travelling in it. If it is detected early enough it can be arrested and in some cases cured, by timely injections of steeroid grease, (the use of this substance is of course strictly forbidden if the car is entered in official competitive events). Since we were not competing with anything except the ravages of time, we managed to hang on long enough to find another car.

At about that time I had an opportunity to drive one of the very avant-garde French Citroens (a DS-19 model) over the winding roads and hilly terrain of northern Ontario. It clung to the road with cat-like tenacity, thanks to front wheel drive and the revolutionary hydraulic-pneumatic suspension, and had a whole arsenal of standard features like front disc brakes and radial tyres which were unknown in North America until many years later.

My wife and I were sufficiently impressed after trying some others, that we bought a 1962 DS-19. The designation "DS" was rumoured by some uncharitable Anglophones to be an attempt by the perfidious Gauls to convey the impression that the car was endowed with supernatural powers, since the phonetic pronunciation of those two letters in French comes out as "Goddess" en Anglais. At that time there were very few Citroens being imported into North America and the sleek aerodynamic design was so different from the square boxy cars of the 1960's that it got curious looks wherever it went. A favourite reaction was "...Hey, your front tyres are flat..." The slightly bulgy walls on radial tyres are now familiar enough, but they certainly caused a stir then.

Seeing another Citroen was cause for jubilation and almost tears of relief. (see Honey - we're not the only ones riding round in something that looks like an aeroplane without wings). The two owners would stop, get out, fall on each others necks and swear oaths of fealty to each other and to everybody else who owned Citroens - whoever and wherever they may be.

Pretty soon Citroen car clubs mushroomed everywhere, I even subscribed to a club newspaper in Berkeley California. There were picnics and get-togethers organised and the common element was always the euphoria and psychological uplift for the assembled company in feasting their eyes on perhaps as many as twenty Citroens parked bumper to bumper. "...See Honey, they really did make more than just ours.." or "...There is more than one colour!..." or"...Thank God - that means there must be a real factory somewhere..."

The horrid doubts about the existence of a bona-fide company and production facilities which tended to grip some owners at two o'clock in the morning, were in part due to an unfortunate interpretation of the French abbreviation equivalent to "Inc" or "Ltd" which is "SA" and stands for "Societe Anonyme". It is a standard suffix for all large French companies, but to sceptical Citroen owners on this side of the Atlantic there was a growing belief that the anonymity was part of a sinister Gallic plot, aided and abetted by the nefarious Napoleonic code, that allowed the company to fold up its tents and steal away into oblivion if things got rough, leaving the clientele high and dry.

Citroen ownership was a classic case of a love-hate relationship, which meant that owners met not only at club activities in the region, but also in the waiting rooms of local shrinks. One of the truly remarkable design features was the suspension. Conventional springs were replaced with four metal spheres, each one about the size of a bowling ball and filled with compressed nitrogen. They were attached to a hydraulic system which transmitted the "spring" provided by the compressed nitrogen "cushions" to the wheels. The arrangement allowed some other clever tricks to be included, like raising or lowering the riding height of the car at the touch of a lever controlled by the driver; automatic controls to maintain the height set, no matter what extra load was added or where in the car it was placed; and hydraulic actuation of the four speed gear box, avoiding complicated mechanical linkages from the lever on the steering wheel through to the gear box. Clever little one-way hydraulic valves in the spheres provided the necessary equivalent of shock absorbers. The end result was a truly remarkable ride which ironed out bumps the height of kerbstones.

Since (a) spares and (b) service outside the local area were incredibly expensive and practically non-existent respectively, it behoved the Citroen owner to try and acquire some understanding of the inner workings. When rumour had it that a Citroen had bitten the dust, the race was on to find in which wreckers yard the corpse had been laid to rust. I remember prowling round one rather unsavoury yard patrolled by two wicked looking Alsatians whom the owner said wouldn't go for anyone that they had seen talking with him. This was an assurance which I had absolutely no intention of putting to the test. I had come in search of metal spheres for the suspension system and soon found the car which the current rumour had foretold. With the dogs growling a few feet away, I felt like an eighteenth century medical student on a clandestine grave-robbing mission for anatomical organs as I went to work with a chain wrench and other tools, palms sweating and pulse racing, to carry out a multiple spherectomy. (...Pliers please nurse - slap - thank you...). I tried not to look furtive or do anything with the chain wrench which might be perceived as threatening by my canine observers, and eventually came away with enough spheres to start a bowling alley.

The fatal flaw in the sophisticated hydraulic control was the tricky and temperamental sealing arrangement for keeping the oil contained where it belonged. The various seals were unique in design and incredibly expensive to replace, but the coup-de-grace was the special hydraulic fluid that was required. It was about as easy to come by as heavy-water for a nuclear reactor, and about the same price. It was manufactured by British Petroleum and rumour had it that sales of this liquid gold to French Citroen dealers accounted for such a significant portion of Britain's balance of payments that the French tried to use it as a bargaining chip in GATT negotiations.

Citroens were designed for temperate to very hot climates and there were plenty of glossy brochures showing them winning the Monte Carlo rally or leading caravans of camels across an African desert. They were not at that time however well suited for the Ottawa winter, where they spent much of their working lives sloshing through road salt soup. As a result, the high-pressure hydraulic tubes would rust to the point where pinholes developed and then there would be a leak. Mere mention of the word (and the grimly onomatopoeic French equivalent "fuite") would strike terror into the heart of any Citroen owner. The results varied from minor inconvenience to major catastrophe, depending on how bad the leak was, and more importantly, where you were when it happened.

In our case, the preferred locations for these bouts of hydraulic incontinence were invariably as far as it is possible to get from a source of supply of liquid gold, or, from a qualified Citroenologist with white coated Citroenicians in attendance to sooth the savage beast. A typical leak would happen when on holiday in one of the US eastern seaboard states like Maine or New Hampshire. You would return from the beach to find your car collapsed onto the ground in a pool of liquid gold, looking much like a cat, which having mis-behaved on a prize chinese carpet, crouches down in fear and trepidation to await the wrath of the returning humans. Prudent owners would carry a spare quart or two of liquid gold, but refilling the reservoir and starting the engine to pump the car back up to its proper level was a gamble, because if the leak was catastrophic the mis-behaviour continued until the car park was awash in liquid gold.

In such circumstances there was a first aid procedure (known only to owners with an encyclopedic knowledge of technical French, because it was detailed in a dark recess of the owners manual), which was to fill the system as often as necessary with peanut oil to allow the patient to be driven to a clinic where Citroenologists would take over. There were dire warnings on the side effects of this procedure, underlined in block capitals, to the general effect that the seals would swell temporarily without the elixir contained in the BP liquid gold, and directing that the plebian peanut oil be thoroughly flushed out with the metric equivalent of at least a bathtub-full of liquid gold at the earliest opportunity.

I remember that we had to resort to this on one occasion near a city called Manchester New Hampshire, when a dreaded leak occurred. We were towing a sailing dinghy filled with camping gear and most of our worldly goods when I noticed that not only tractor-trailers but even quite small cars seemed to tower over us at traffic lights and the road seemed a lot closer. Panic stations, I leapt out of the car at the next light, sure enough, practically out of liquid gold, which was now marking out our route down the highway as we travelled.

One of the unfortunate flaws in the otherwise impeccable Gallic logic which had gone into the design of the all-purpose hydraulic system was that if it failed, you were liable to lose all the functions which it controlled and this included gear shifting. I made an executive decision to use whatever hydraulic power remained to get it into third gear and keep it there until a source of peanut oil could be found. It was quite surprising how little peanut oil there was in Manchester New Hampshire in those days - especially on a sunday afternoon. (When else would something like this happen ? Murphy may have been Irish, but his laws always had a French connection: "Les Murphologistes Miserables"). To our immense relief we eventually found some in a corner store (peanut oil - not miserable Murphologists). The proprietor must have thought we were absolutely ga-ga ("...Two people came in asking please God did we have any peanut oil, when I told them yes, they clutched each other and wept openly and then took half a gallon of the stuff and asked how much it was, when I told them it would be $6.95 they laughed hysterically, said it was grossly under-priced and gave me twenty dollars...").

We flew back to Ottawa with the wheels only touching the ground occasionally, but even so the predicted rigor-mortis of the seals was becoming apparent. Somehow we made it with the patient still functioning and brought it to my Citroenologist, the only authorised dealer in the area at that time. The proprietor rejoiced in the name of Zonda and when seasoned Citroen owners saw a newcomer to their ranks, they would sigh and say: "Ah, another Prisoner of Zonda".

Despite the contretemps we endured, which were many and horrifying, we showed an almost lunatic brand-loyalty by having three more Citroens in a row, the most successful being a 1968 DS-21 "Pallas" which we bought new (see photos above). By this time the hydraulics were a lot more reliable and I knew enough about most Citroen idiosyncrasies that I could deal with minor emergencies. This model had the headlights (halogen sealed-beam units, two on each side) recessed into the body under glass cowlings which conformed to the aerodynamic contour of the body. One of each pair of lamps was linked to the steering wheel so that as you turned the wheel to take a corner the beams of the two steerable spotlights swept round the bend ahead of you, very avant-garde for 1968. The focusing adjustments were a little tricky and if certain parts failed or became unhitched, one or both spotlights could scan randomly and independently through a hundred and eighty degrees according to the camber of the road. Terrified pedestrians, caught momentarily in the harsh glare of a wandering beam, and convinced that they were about to be run over, would stand transfixed like rabbits before leaping into the ditch. Oncoming motorists would swerve onto the soft shoulder rather than risk an encounter with a cross-eyed monster apparently bent on self destruction.

Eventually time and road salt took its toll. Pieces that fell off were routinely put in the boot at the time of the event, until one day the boot was discovered to be full, necessitating some heavy decision making as to which parts could be salvaged and which could not. Even the dashboard controls were not immune to the ravages of time. At one point the knob on the manual choke control came off at some inopportune moment and was lost, leaving a user hostile rod protruding from a recess in the dashboard. I knew from bitter experience that a new knob would probably be $59.95 and on a six-month back order from France. The metric dimensions of shaft-diameter and recess precluded the substitution of any of the thousands of knobs which were available to fit ordinary cars. After much experimentation I found that the only solution was to use a modified champagne cork, not just any old champagne cork mind you, the only one that fitted really well was the Mumms Cordon Rouge variety. This came as absolutely no surprise to me and merely reinforced my suspicion that the car had been designed by brilliant but eccentric members of the French aristocracy who dabbled in engineering for a hobby. A pity that they hadn't specified Mumms Cordon Rouge for the hydraulic fluid I reflected bitterly. At least you could get that in most places in N. America.

Imagine the scene; a leaking, sagging Citroen immobilised in rush-hour traffic, surrounded by a swarm of angry commuters also now immobilised. Owner rummages in boot and produces bottle of fine French champagne and nonchalantly (Pop, glug-glug-glug) pours it down ( or rather into) the tubes while his fellow commuters, temporarily bereft of anger and speech, goggle in horrified fascination. In response to the unspoken questions struggling to escape the lips of the tongue-tied mob the owner says airily "This stuff gives my car a real lift".

The end finally came when the twin conditions of terminal rustosis and chassis-porosis were diagnosed by my Citroenologist. The first condition is of course easily recognised even by lay-persons as a lace-like quality in the bodywork which is aggravated by the removal of any reinforcing material - like paint or mud. Car-washing should therefore be strictly avoided since it will hasten the final steps of rustosis which is total rust-outis. Chassis-porosis was however was unknown to me at that time and nearly misled me into thinking that I had made a major scientific breakthrough. The symptom was a sort of elasticity which caused the rear seat passengers to be further away from those in front when the car was accelerating and closer to them when it was braking. For a while I was convinced that I had discovered an amazing new corollary to Einstein's relativity theory; "front wheel drive cars get longer when accelerating at less than the speed of light". The last bit made it seem more authentic I thought, and anyway I was pretty sure that we never exceeded the speed of light because I don't ever remember being enveloped by a wall of darkness, even when the speedometer needle hit the red line.

The awful truth dawned on me when I inspected the chassis, or rather what was left of it, and realised what was happening. Of course it had absolutely nothing to do with old Einstein and his fancy theory, the simple fact was that if you watched the car start from rest, you could see that the front wheels did about a quarter of a turn before the back ones started to catch up and when you braked, the back ones were still going after the front ones had stopped. It was all too clear that this caterpillar method of locomotion could have but one outcome, well - two actually, because the front and rear ends would separate permanently. It would probably happen while boarding a ferry; ("...That's alright Sir - we'll get the back half on the next crossing"), or while going through an automatic car-wash; ("...Well it was in one piece when it went in..."), either way the results were too horrible to contemplate.

Thus ended our "Citroen period" which had lasted for fourteen years. By then the first of the new breed of front-wheel-drive passenger cars had been introduced by Detroit and we bought one sight-unseen. It was actually very good, but on one occasion after an encounter with an unexpectedly deep puddle following heavy rain, I thought that the resulting 'flu-like symptoms might be cured by cleaning the plugs. The engine was a V-6, mounted sideways-on, and as I searched for the three plugs on the side nearest the windscreen, I soon realised that prehensile arms and double-jointed extremities were going to be a prerequisite, then I remembered that old Studebaker and thought "well now, isn't this where I came in?".

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