It’s been a while since I’ve provided you with some of the important and soul–enhancing taillight content that I know you crave, so let’s take care of that right away. Today I’d like to focus on some taillights that, while quite novel themselves, tend to be overshadowed by the overall novelty and originality of the whole car: the Citroën DS. The DS’s nickname in France is déesse, which means goddess, and that gives a pretty good explanation of the tone and feeling of this car. It’s something ethereal and different, playing by different rules than everything else, a strange and lovely magical mechanical teardrop chariot sent from whatever franchise of heaven they have in France. So let’s look at the interesting way the taillights were handled on this legendary car, and the unexpected reason they’re like that.
First, for as daring as Citroën always was with design in the ’50s to the ’80s, it’s interesting that a lot of its taillights of the era seemed a bit like afterthoughts. Take the Ami, for example. That’s this car:
A bold and unusual design with a reverse-raked rear window and all kinds of idiosyncratic decisions, but when it came to taillights, Citroën just opened the big parts catalog and seemingly just pointed at the first cheap lamps they saw:
In context, they worked fine, but they’re just common round bullet-shaped lenses that could be found on everything from mopeds to dump trucks. A pair of those per side and a tacked-on reflector, and then the taillight team knocked off early for wine and baguette fencing or whatever they did in their off hours.
Citroën used this approach on some versions of the DS, too, like the station wagon/estate/break/familiare versions, and the Slough, UK-built DS sedans, both of which just clustered three round bullet-type lenses together in a housing:
Again, these have their charms, but these aren’t what I want to talk about. That said, there are some hints going on in even this demi-cul (David is making me tell you that’s “half-ass” in French) approach of what makes the DS’s taillight solution so interesting, specifically the willingness to treat the taillight functions as very separate and independent units. This is going to be key to what makes the DS sedan’s taillights so incredible.
Interestingly, the reason why the DS ended up with the unusual taillight setup it has is pretty unexpected. It had to do with, of all things, a change in the car’s length. To understand what’s going on here, we need to look at the early DS sketches by the amazing designer Flaminio Bertoni:
Already at this very early stage we can see the core of what the DS design would be… a flowing teardrop of a car, very streamlined – at least based on how that was understood in the era. You can also see some vestigial remnants of the old Traction Avant design in there, like that little bustle on the trunk. Also notable for our purposes is that there’s really no taillights shown at all, at this stage. The taillights don’t appear to have been particularly important to Bertoni at this point. But they would be.
Here’s the main reason why: as Bertoni continued to design and refine the DS, that flowing shape ended up becoming very elegant, and very long. Almost 18 feet long, in fact, which wasn’t really compatible with the scale of French towns and residences. So, a change had to be made. Here’s how Auto & Design Magazine describes what happened (emphasis mine):
The resulting car, however, was very long: almost six metres, too long for the standard French garages of the time, and this forced the style centre to revise the construction drawings a few months after the presentation. With the speed that distinguished him, Flaminio Bertoni shortened the “VGD” by about one metre, reducing the rear overhang (thus approaching Lefebvre’s idea of having the wheels as close as possible to the four corners of the bodywork) and masking the cut with the famous plastic cones that in the DS saloon also housed the rear turn signals.
Here, let’s look at a design sketch evolution to get a better idea of what’s happening here, and, again, I’ve emphasized the important bit I want you to see:
See that lower left DS sketch? Very sleek, but just too damn long. So, instead of re-doing every line and curve and proportion, Bertoni clipped the roofline at the C-pillar, allowing for a break in that arc and a smaller and tighter rear end. I think the result actually makes something far more dramatic looking , breaking that arc and letting the roof cantilever over, a bit, and, yes, the ends of that roofline arch needed something there to make it all look deliberate, which is how the DS ended up with its famous “trumpets”:
See how that works? The arc does stop, but thanks to the addition of that odd little trumpet for the turn indicator, it feels like this was the plan from the start. So, this is a great example of transforming a bug into a feature. And, from a taillight perspective, what a fantastic feature!
The break also allowed the roofline to be raised a bit for better rear seat headroom, and the trumpets (also called coronets de frites, for the cones used by pomme frites vendors) also helped hide the panel needed between the extended roofline and the rear glass. David LaChance over at Hemmings, who also has written about these marvelous details, notes that the designer who seems to have had the idea for these was an M. Bossé, so I want to be sure to give them credit.
Earlier DSs really leaned into the novelty of the design and used trumpets that were either transparent red plastic (which may have illuminated at least a bit with the indicator lamp?) or cheaper black plastic ones, but later switched to polished stainless trumpets that flowed more freely into the look of the brightwork on the rain gutters, giving a sleeker, more integrated look.
The end result was a taillight feature that had never really been seen before, with rear indicators placed high and highly visible, both as a bold styling feature and with a pretty significant safety advantage as well. The rest of the DS’ taillights were set quite low in the body, where they could be hard to see in close traffic situations. But there’s no way to miss those turn signals, and that’s important.
The other aspects of the DS’s taillight setup are good as well, though the rear turn indicators are the standout. Still, the lower units for stop/position/turn/and the retroreflector have a nice, creased design that works well with the car’s overall look. Reverse lamps seem to have not been incorporated into the main units, and when they do appear, they usually are under-bumper units.
There’s actually a lot of variants of these lights, some with black plastic housings, some with chrome, and, most interestingly, some that have amber brake lamps and some with the now-mandated red. I’m looking into what European countries permitted amber brake lamps and why, so we’ll try to cover that in its own taillight post in the future.
The retroreflectors are also interesting, as they’re separate units, which I sometimes find to be indicative of either an afterthought or a suggestion that not enough care had been taken in the design of the rear lights, but in the case of the DS, I think they’re actually deliberate and perform a useful safety function, one telegraphed by their position.
Note that the reflectors are placed outboard of the taillight units, as close to the edge of the bodywork as possible. I suspect this was done so that the reflectors would better show the extremities of the car when parked on a dark roadside, and as such avoid any nasty scrapings or dentings that could happen if the reflectors were inboard with the taillights, giving the illusion of a deceptively narrow size. Plus, they just look kinda cool.
Notably, some sketches for future (but unrealized) DS updates included updates to the taillight setup, but kept the high indicators that made it unique:
Like all taillights, the Citroën DS taillights have powerful lessons to teach us, as human beings. It uses an unusual approach to lighting, one that wasn’t inspired, necessarily, by the expected sources, but rather one that adapted to a very particular circumstance, solving a problem – hiding a break in bodywork – and by developing a solution to an entirely other problem – how to make turn indicators as visible as possible.
I think we can all look upon these taillights and be inspired. Thanks, goddess.
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