Home » The Amazing And Mysterious Citroën DS Taillights Were As Daring As The Whole Car: Today’s Taillight

The Amazing And Mysterious Citroën DS Taillights Were As Daring As The Whole Car: Today’s Taillight

Ds Todaytail Top

It’s been a while since I’ve provided you with some of the important and soulenhancing 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:

Ami6

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:

Amilights

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:

Breakslough

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:

Bertone1Already 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:

Bertone2 Progression

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”:

Turntrumpet Arc

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. Bosséso I want to be sure to give them credit.

Early Late Trumpets

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.

3views

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.

Taillights1

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.

Reflectors

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:

Futureds

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.

 

Relatedbar

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Today’s Taillights: Those Wonderful Ribbed Mercedes-Benz Taillights

Today’s Taillights: The Forgotten Trend Of Hiding Gas Fillers Behind Taillights

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32 Responses

  1. High-level turn signals need to make a comeback. I hate the recent trend (mostly Kia/Hyundai, but the Chevy Bolt suffers from this, too) of placing turn signals in the bumper, where they’re easy to miss.

    1. Urgh those Hyundai/Kia turn signals are frankly dangerous.

      I can understand what Audi does with the supplemental units in the bumper, which are used when the trunk lid is open or a unit has failed, but Hyundai have no excuse for using them exclusively.

    2. 100% agree. I can justify reverse lights in the bumper, I think it likely helps with illumination for the rearview camera in low-light conditions (Pontiac wasn’t wrong with the ’99-05 Grand Am). But bumper mount turn signals are too low and out of sight when there are sizable main light clusters.

      More recent Infiniti QX80s have them in the bumper as well, as does (oddly) the Toyota Venza. The Venza’s are at least amber LEDs so they light up brighter and more quickly, while Hyundai/Kia ones seem to be all incandescent and sometimes red not amber.

      1. Sadly, the lights in the bumpers was the cheap/ lazy way to ensure there are rear facing lights when the hatch is open (poisoning the occupants with CO while driving w/ the hatch open). I wish the USA would get w/ the program and mandate amber turn indicators and LED headlights. I’m tired of expensive cars having poverty spec halogen headlights that emulate 3 fireflies in a jug (looking at you Ford and BMW).

  2. I’ve always thought the DS has one of the most emotive vehicle faces.
    Straight on it has an almost lascivious stare.
    It gives off strong Pepé Le Pew vibes.

    As for it’s cones..
    er.. trumpets.. I like how they continue the trumpet theme with the Crome trim around the lower tail lights. Nice touch.

  3. Had to stop a few paragraphs in to check spelling. Seems the French use break and the Brits use brake. Whatever, I’m sticking with brake. But! What I want to bring up is the unconscionable action of Wikipedia in citing the old site >twice< without including Jason’s article on the very definition of shooting brake. This is a travesty! This cannot be allowed to stand. Do we have any wp editors on here?

    1. The Brits mostly use Estate. Brake is used only in the context of Shooting Brake, and not as a single word for Station Wagon.

      1. You can realize your own dreams by adapting to your own needs.

        Be the DS mechanic you always wanted.

        I suspect that to understand them is the only way to truly love them. It certainly was that way with the Triumphs I’ve owned.

  4. Yet another beautiful and informative look into the history of tail light design from Torch.
    A well researched and well written article with plenty of pictures to support it that I assume Torch keeps on one of many 1TB hard drives chocked with nerdy car diagrams and sketches.

    But it’s not this alone that makes The Autopian the beautiful thing it is, no, it’s the juxtaposition of this and the following post from JT that I can essentially sum up with “hehe, cum.”

    Brilliant.

  5. Thanks Jason, never really thought about that thing with the break in the design lines, having owned a ’67 DS21 for 24 years now.

    I see all lines on it going to the same fictional vanishing point behind the car, which makes it a very eye pleasing and calm yet satisfying design, and hard to imagine being any other way.

    That is also why every variant of the DS berline design, the cabriolet and the station wagon, in my eyes are some of the most hideous cars ever made

    1. You know, I kind of agree when it comes to the coupe and the cabrio, but the Safari is so bonkers, I can’t not love it. I get that it messes up the original design a lot, but the break gets a pass from me 🙂

  6. I for one would like to see further investigations into the world of high mounded C and D pillar (for wagons) lights. How did the humble 1988 Corolla All-trac wagon become the first care to mount all its lights up level with the rear window before Volvo and the honda CRV?

  7. I was intrigued by those amber brake lights, and decided to check portuguese ID/DSes. I found all types of taillights in portuguese examples except for the amber ones. Now I’m curious too. Where are those from?

  8. Regarding the indicator trumpets, difference not only in early plastic versus later stainless steel, but also differences between the DS and the ID, the cheaper variant. The ID had plastic trumpets for a far longer time, but not every model. My ’69 french built id20 / DSuper has the RVS trompets.

  9. Mum and Dad bought a new car every 15 years, so when they went from a Morris Traveller, (no lights for turn indicators, but little flags with reflectors which popped out the side) to a DS21, the difference was enormous.
    First car they owned with a heater, intermittent wipers, bright headlights, front wheel drive and, which impressed them the most, reversing lights.
    From memory it was not in the main cluster, but a separate, under the bumper unit — did the job though.
    While it was still new Dad, with all of us on board, managed to get it stuck in a ford, he was a bit too optimistic about how high the suspension would go, and how the front wheel drive would pull the vehicle through…
    Gave it a river smell which never went away.
    The other peculiarity was that his office car for part of this period was a Peugeot 404, which had column shift gears based on first away and down, while the DS of course had first towards you and up. Made for a new unexpected downshifts when he was not concentrating.

  10. My 1960 ID 19 had the bullet taillights, but my 71 D Special had those similar to the article, I can’t for the life of me remember if my ID19 had reverse lights or where they might have been mounted, but my 71 Special did have them and they were in the main cluster. Maybe a US market requirement?

    I did not know any Citroens were built in England but my ID19 was 1st sold and delivered in Maine, so I wonder if it came from Jolly Olde? It did not have those triangular reflectors tho, just the small rectangular ones.

  11. I have the collected films of Charles and Ray Eames, and of many fantastic shorts, one of my favorites is a Q&A about design (it appears to be called Design Q&A) that talks about designers embracing constraints, as design cannot exist without constraints. This is a fantastic example.

  12. “Bertone clipped the roofline at the C-pillar, allowing for a break in that arc and a smaller and tighter rear end.”
    Dammit, there’s a joke in there somewhere, but I’m just not seeing it…

    Thanks for this fascinating article on one of my favorite cars of all time. Also, I’m looking forward to the future article about amber brake lamps!

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