The 1965 Citröen ID19 Is Unforgettable

·19 min read
Photo credit: Noah Wheeler
Photo credit: Noah Wheeler

When this 1965 Citröen ID19 was created, it was nothing special. About 90,000 variants of this car, either in its bargain-bin ID19 guise or as the luxurious DS, were made in its model year alone. Its much-touted hydraulic tricks were novel, but after ten years of production those outside of France viewed the ID and DS as rolling party tricks, fascinating experiments that were more fun than they were actually good. The ID managed to produce all of 65 horsepower and, as one of only 30,000 Citröens of the line ever sold in America, it could not even benefit from the French-market engine-displacement tax breaks that made it so economical in the first place.

And yet, 56 less-than-gentle years later, I am convinced this ID19 might be the most special car in the world.

This particular ID19 lives about 8,000 feet above sea level with Noah, its owner and an engineer at Singer Vehicle Designs, in Beaver Creek, Colorado. Those handy with altitude-related power-loss calculations will have already realized that this ID19 brings only 49 horsepower to bear on the substantial elevation changes that define the state's Western topography. Please note that 49 horsepower is not actually enough to maintain the speed limit on some of Colorado's steeper roads; Noah says there are roads he would travel on a weekly basis, were it not that the car simply cannot manage them.

The top of the continent

My visit with Noah and his car got off to an inauspicious start when he picked me up in his Fiesta ST. As it turns out, his route to the airport included particularly long stretches of those roads with which the ID19 cannot cope. This provided a few hours of introduction to the car, the plan, and perhaps most crucial for a lifelong denizen of sea level like me, the simple realities of altitude. On the way we detoured through Loveland Pass, one of Colorado's many named mountain passes. This one, like so many others, bridged the Continental Divide.

The Continental Divide is the apogee of the Americas, a serration running down the spine of both continents, defined at its highest points by the summits of the Rocky Mountains and the Andes. Those two mountain ranges are so steep that all of the water in this half of the world flows to either the Pacific or the Atlantic depending on which side of the range it falls. In North America, most of our highest points are in Colorado, so for all intents and purposes, it’s the top of our corner of the world. The entire state more or less drains water out into the rest of the country, feeding rivers that lead to the Mississippi, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Gulf of California, carving marvels like the Grand Canyon along the way.

It is a staggering thing to see. In the Fiesta, crossing a pass was the sort of thing that stirs memories of Rally Monaco and the Col de Turini. Noah was quick to remind me that a Citröen DS21 won that very race in 1966. The plan was therefore inevitable: We were going to get his Citröen ID19, the car that could not reliably travel the freeway to Denver, over the Continental Divide.

Photo credit: Noah Wheeler
Photo credit: Noah Wheeler

A national treasure

With the mission set, it was time to see the car. For enthusiasts of a certain age, this Citröen needs no introduction: The ID and DS were innovative four-door sedans built in the low millions by Citröen from 1955 to 75. Although mechanically they were like nothing else, conceptually and spiritually they were kin to the Volkswagen Beetle, Fiat 500, Austin Mini, and the muscle car, genuine national icons that enjoyed global recognition almost from the day they were drawn. France's national car is a bit more luxurious than the rest in its legendary DS guise. The ID is a more affordable trim level designed to solve the problems Citroen suffered when they replaced the everyman Traction Avant with a serious luxury sedan.

And what a serious car it was. The DS built on the Traction Avant's innovation as a trailblazing mass-produced front wheel drive car by introducing a wide collection of new and experimental technologies. The headline-grabber is naturally the hydraulic suspension, a marvel of engineering as majestic and comically flawed as Achilles. This pressurized system allows the car to glide effortlessly over Colorado's brutally coarse roads. Ride height is adjustable, from a reasonable posture for a sedan of its time to a cruising altitude more in line with a modern compact crossover. No matter the height, the ingenious system is always auto-leveling, leaving the ultra-soft ID19 so flat in corners that the team behind Volkswagen's current generation of active anti-roll bars would be impressed.

The system also allows the car to sit very low when parked, then rise on its own before embarking. It is a neat little trait, particularly when you wait on the front to lift after the rear. But if you’re not careful it carries a pretty serious risk. The exhaust is mounted low enough that an ID19 that does not actually raise itself before backing up over a bump, any bump at all, will simply tear it off. That happened to the car's last owner, requiring Noah to get a full replacement before he could regularly drive it.

Of course, it also leaked. Constantly. This era of ID19 used a synthetic hydraulic fluid abbreviated as LHS, which has long since drained from the car. It now uses modern hydraulic fluids, and these leak exactly as horribly as you may expect. Nonetheless, the car wears a nice little tribute to its former lifeblood: its classic car license plate reads "LHS leak."

The other quirks are divided into two groups, those designed by Citröen and those made inevitable by Citröen’s designs. On the intentional side, you have a column-mounted 4-speed shifter, a wonderful little one-spoke steering wheel, and those massive pontoon fenders that theoretically make for easy and repeatable manufacturing. The car's successor, the CX, would either abandon or significantly modify all three.

The unintentional quirks are those to be expected of a 56-year-old car. There are leaks, worrying sounds, and latches that don't quite work as they should. What sets the Citroen apart from its contemporaries is that many of its issues are almost impossible to fix. The complete lack of Citroen parts and specialists was a crisis by the time former journeyman variety-show host Jay Leno found himself working in a dealership in the 70s; today, Citroen specialists with access to manufacturer-recommended parts are rarer than farriers or swordsmiths. And given that Citroen sold only 30,000 of these cars in North America, their work is in far less demand.

Fortunately for our intrepid Citroen owner, Denver has a Citroen mechanic. Of course, as we have already noted, that is not a place this particular ID19 can either reach or return from. Noah had the car towed to Denver, where his mechanic underwent the long process of taking a car bought off the side of the road with little to no pre-purchase research and bringing it to a roadworthy state. Unfortunately, one item on the parts-needed list was an entirely new fuel tank, something neither Noah nor his mechanic could actually source. Instead, the tank was boiled to remove years of particulate that had caused the car to occasionally choke and forced a fuel filter change every 100 miles or so.

My original plan was to join Noah for his ill-advised drive home. But the car was ready months early, so he drove it home with another friend instead. They planned the flattest possible return route, adding hours to the journey in a desperate attempt to get the car home. After 50 miles, the fuel filter issue popped up. A quick change did not help. They gave up.

Weeks later Noah tried again. The car got home, but only after holding up traffic at 40 MPH for an hour and a half. The fuel issue was not yet actually fixed, but now the car could go 150 miles before needing a filter change.

Photo credit: Noah Wheeler
Photo credit: Noah Wheeler

Noah's car has one other particular quirk, something Citröen’s engineering staff never even considered. Back in 2004, the car’s last owner was enamored by the art they saw in a parking structure in nearby Vail. The artist was contacted and given a modest proposal: Hand-paint the sides of the ID19 in an original design, sign it as a finished project, and call it a unique part of her oeuvre.

Both variants of the car have names intended as puns in French. ID translates simply to "idea," while DS more aspirationally reads as "Goddess." As "Idea" is likely a rather poor inspiration for a hand-painted graphic treatment, the ID19 was instead adorned with goddesses from the name it did not have. On its hood, a woman in a massive headdress appears to cast a spell to throw thunder across the far corners of the surface. On either side, an elegant art deco woman suspended by ribbons presents a globe in a design resembling a more elegant take on Troy Lee's famous "Nuclear Gladiator" Supra from the first Fast & Furious. The roof features the moon, which is classically thought of as goddess territory. On the back, the theme is stretched to its absolute limit; the decklid simply features two women in bathing suits, with no implication of divine power whatsoever.

This is how the car looked when Noah found the car on the side of the road with a "For Sale" sign. As it turns out, the artist had purchased it back from the owner who commissioned the work as part of the original deal. She eventually found she had little to no use for one of the most finicky cars ever built in a place where it cannot actually be driven every day, so she sold it to the first person who came along. Her work now rolls through those same mountains in the hands of an owner who’s happy to keep the unique art on the side of the car as long as he owns it.

The long way up

We took the car for a quick spin the night before the journey. It worked fine. Therefore, it was time to take it on a 200-mile road trip. We decided our pass would be Independence Pass, which peaks at 12,000 feet when it reaches the Continental Divide. To add a little poetry to the journey, we decided it would be a day trip to grab lunch at a French café in Aspen. That particular cafe was a round hundred miles away.

Having never driven a Citröen charitably rated at 45 horsepower up a mountain, I happily trusted Noah with the actual driving duties and relegated myself to navigation. Ten minutes into the drive, I joked that he would simply have to floor it in second the entire way up. He replied that this was already the plan. Not only that, he had actually been at full throttle the entire time to that point. The car is simply not powerful enough to drive on normal roads at partial throttle, even in a low gear.

The first hills were a struggle, but nothing too serious for the ambitious little ID19. We drove past exactly the sort of local landmarks you expect to see in the mountains: A beautiful hidden enclave town called Red Cliff; Camp Hale, the training camp for World War II’s famous Tenth Mountain Division ski soldiers; an abandoned mining town named Gilman. That last is even more disconcerting than it sounds; Gilman is abandoned because the adjacent Eagle Mine was declared an EPA superfund site in 1984.

It was along these roads that the ID19 found what would be the first of many fans. Our route took us through the relatively gentle Tennessee Pass and our first brush with the Continental Divide, so we stopped to take a photo.

We got back on our way to Leadville, a city that sits at 10,100 feet. Here, if the ID19 had never lost a single ounce of power to time, it would still be rated at just 44 horsepower. Noah casually informed me that some ID19s came with a taller gear ratio designed specifically for climbing the mountainous regions found throughout France. I immediately understood this as a brilliant solution to the exact problem we were about to face.

Unfortunately, his ID19 did not come equipped with that gear ratio.

In Leadville, at the base of the pass, we met the drivers of a V-12 Cadillac and a Packard Super Eight. Their pre-war relics each produced more than double what Citroen could claim in 1965. When we left, we agreed to meet again at the top of the pass. We never saw them again.

We found ourselves alone on the road for most of the climb, thankfully. A few miles of it even involved guest appearances from our good friend third gear. But usually things went exactly as expected: Flat out, second gear, no lifting unless absolutely necessary, sometimes for uninterrupted ten-minute stretches. The car never really held up traffic, but at full power it was no quicker than the average commuter. For that hour, it was forced to live at its own limits.

At the top, 12,000 feet, a perfectly built brand-new ID19 would have been down to 39 horsepower. But our car made it. A few dozen people came up to ask questions. The more confused asked if it was a Renault. The more knowledgeable asked how it got to the peak in the first place. Now confident the car could actually climb the summit under its own power, we broke to try out a telephoto lens on the many hairpins below. It was here that the scale of the pass actually hit me.

Photo credit: Noah Wheeler
Photo credit: Noah Wheeler

Like Pikes Peak, and unlike absolutely anywhere else I have ever encountered, each successive switchback seemed to cover the span of the highest point in an average place. Looking down five, six, or seven sets of straights in either direction meant looking across about seven miles of road. Yet at the top everything was utterly still. Bigger peaks in every direction reached as high as 14,000 feet, but the pass itself went over a grassy little plateau and a few still ponds. It looked like the moors of Scotland might if Scotland happened to sit 9,000 feet higher than it does. If you ignored every single thing happening in every direction off the viewing platform, it seemed like where such a delightful, confounding car belonged.

But it was not where the Citröen belonged. The Citröen belonged in Aspen, at a French restaurant that was closing in just under 45 minutes. With gravity in our favor and the wind at our backs, we rolled down 4,000 feet toward the city.

Aspen is named after a famous tree that appears in great numbers all around the city. Famously, a colony of aspen trees grows as one organism, fanning out to create a massive grove of sprouted trees that share a root system. This makes them resilient to fires and particularly stable in shifting mountain terrain. It’s a fitting name for the former mining boom town, which reached its peak in the era before the automobile and spent the next 70 years slowly fading out of existence before it was saved from the ghost town fate suffered by so many towns throughout Colorado. It was skiing that saved Aspen, leading it to new life as a resort town resembling the alpine villages of France, Italy, and Switzerland, towns that better-engineered ID19s had been geared to climb through.

Unfortunately, that French restaurant in that alpine town had in fact closed by the time we arrived. But it was not all lost: The French owner was watching the Tour de France while he was closing, lagging a little bit behind his usual schedule. He turned us away until Noah mentioned that we had arrived in a 1965 Citroen. This stopped him in his tracks.

He offered us coffee and we offered him a ride in the car in return. We looked on as he told his family the story of Charles de Gaulle's legendary escape in the back of a self-leveling DS21, apparently for the second time that week. While we waited for the suspension to raise itself, he told us that the sound and smell of the thing reminded him of a family member's DS21 decades ago, a car that he rode through the mountainside to roadside picnics. The hydraulic suspension, he told us, would make him a little bit queasy when he sat in the back; its yacht-like floating nature apparently gave him seasickness rather than carsickness.

We would be stopped four more times in Aspen alone. On the last occasion, we stopped to get gas at a small station that was also occupied by a Jeep Grand Wagoneer and a Ferrari F8. One bicyclist riding by stopped to see the living would-be Stellantis archive. He finally commented to all of us that the Citröen is the one he wanted. The Ferrari and Jeep owners agreed.

Photo credit: Noah Wheeler
Photo credit: Noah Wheeler


'Imperfect' is an understatement

The drive back up Independence Pass was less eventful. Flat out in second gear remained the only way forward, but at this point it had become clear that the car could handle it. The real concerns came while heading downhill. Now at about 150 miles, the fuel filter started to fail and the car started to sputter. Facing a loss of sunlight, we pulled over alongside a barn that had collapsed decades earlier to make the change. As dramatic as it looked to passers-by, it was a planned procedure completed in a matter of minutes.

But it did not actually go as planned.

The car did not return to its full power. The sputtering, the sputtering that was supposed to clear up about two miles after a filter replacement, went on for ten. I texted the Citroen mechanic the moment we got an ounce of cell service, but that window disappeared and we could not see the response for another ten miles. Now that the headlights were on, we wondered if the freshly-installed electronic fuel pump was struggling with a battery drain. The mechanic told us that the two things were not drawing power from the same things, so we pressed on.

We stopped for dinner and got going again in actual darkness. It was at this point that I learned the car had just one working low beam. Not just one working headlight, mind you. On high, both lights worked perfectly. But just one of the low beams actually worked.

But the car soldiered on, one headlight glowing in a constant tribute to Jakob Dylan's sole hit record.

Photo credit: Noah Wheeler
Photo credit: Noah Wheeler


Unforgettable, above all else

The ID19's flaws are unbelievably obvious. This thing has four identified leaks alone, and there are probably more. When I drove it I quickly learned that the tree-mounted gear selector was not in any of the three patterns I had considered. Ripping the exhaust off was such a concern that on more than one occasion I got out of the car to make sure it was off the ground before leaving a parking spot. It is an unserious car, one that cannot actually operate as anything more than an about-town car in a place as unforgiving and extreme as Colorado.

It also might be the single most appealing car I have ever seen. Over the course of a week, perhaps three dozen people came up to ask questions about it. Some vaguely remembered that it was a neat French car from the past. Others had vivid memories of a long-lost DS21 that they haven't seen in 30 years. It commanded audible hooting and hollering at stoplights, waves from drivers in high-end 911 variants, and, for at least one person, the sort of intense, multi-sensory Gallic nostalgia previously only available to the food critic in Ratatouille or Marcel Proust. Its appeal spanned generations, genders, and nationalities, all amplified by the hand-painted art on every corner.

There are better cars—many, many better cars. But I have never seen a car more widely liked. Despite being best known as an interesting if singular chapter in the history of automotive engineering, the qualities that make the ID19 special jumped out to everyone that saw it. In an era where so many cars require an explanation to be appreciated, the Citroen tells a rich story simply by floating down the road. There is more to it, yes, but one does not need to understand the Rallye Monte Carlo or Charles de Gaulle to understand that this is a truly special car.

Back in 1956, Road & Track's giddy review of the DS painted it as a revolution the automotive world is not quite ready for just yet. It seemed inevitable that the many brilliant innovations that defined every angle of the DS would eventually come to normal cars, probably in a much more reliable guise than Citröen could produce. In reality, only the headlamps that turned with the front wheels, implemented in the final generations of the cars, actually made their way to a significant number of other makes and models. The DS name lives on as the company's luxury line, but the last hydropneumatic Citroens suspension faded quietly in 2017. The concept of active body leveling is alive and well in the form of active anti-roll bars, but Citröen’s auto-leveling technology never caught on with another manufacturer.

And that is what makes this car so special. In an era of history that is in America so tied up with far-fetched dreams of what would come next, France mass produced a car that boldly stated its own vision for the future. As an import in America, it failed miserably. But it lives on as a folk hero, with a unique legacy unmatched by just about any other car in the world. You simply understand it the moment you see it.

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