A Road Trip, Life Lessons, And A Citroën
I’m not sure where my crazy obsession with Citroëns originated. Maybe it was a vague memory from my first trip to Europe back in the early ’80s. I was a skinny twenty-year-old college brat hitchhiking around with a backpack. I slept on trains and stayed in the worst hostels imaginable. But I remember seeing these bizarre French cars zipping around Paris. I remember thinking “The French… Who else could produce such a strangely designed car?”
Years later, I found myself living for good design. My job was to think of a better way to do things. Better visuals. Better creative. I made my living challenging my ideas… Then at some point, I took another look at this bizarre French car.
As I learned more, I could see the parallels between this strange machine and my goals in life. When they introduced the DS in 1955, it was the most radically advanced car ever built. It was thirty years ahead of everything else. The list of advancements went on and on but what sparked my imagination was the fearless decision to do what nobody else had ever done. It was a huge gamble for the small French car company, but it paid off. They made over one and a half million DSs and they changed automotive design forever. My 1971 DS is nearly identical to the original model in 1955 and still today, looks amazing. The ride is sublime. The interior is fantastic, eccentric as hell, but fantastic.
The Citroen design and management teams could have been called crazy to take such a huge risk, except that they were right. The DS was voted the Product of the Century at the FX International Design Award ceremony. The Macintosh computer came in second. The Boeing 747 came in third. Vive La France. Vive La Crazy. Then the best automotive designers alive convened a few years back and voted the DS the most beautiful car ever built. Jaguar and Ferrari came in second and third.
So I realized at some point that I wanted to posses one of these strange machines before I die. Bucket List if you will. Then the more I thought about it, the more I realized that if you have something on your bucket list, why wait? You could die tomorrow. Or next week. And all those bucket list goals would be little nothings left on a scrap of paper that die with you.
I took two years to learn everything I could. I searched the usual places: Craigslist, Ebay, every Citroën website I could find. I learned the best years, what to look for, what to avoid. I now know more about these crazy cars than anyone really should.
Craigslist came through. I was checking the Sacramento listings and found her. The picture wasn’t good, but all the things I wanted were there. Later year, green fluid (it’s important), Euro spec with the swiveling headlights, and five speed. It was perfect! Low miles and excellent body and interior. So it was the perfect choice and it was in Northern California. The only thing better than getting the car you want is to fly across the country to drive it home.
The deal was struck and the timing chosen. But the most important question was whether my nineteen-year-old son Maxx could accompany me. We talked about it and he loved the idea.
After arriving in Reno to pick up the car, we spent an hour learning about all the strange French ways of doing things. This was important. Everything is backwards and upside down. We exchanged lots of cash, signed papers, threw our bags in the trunk, and hit the road.
The owner’s wife secretly told me she had a boyfriend many years back that drove a DS. “He used to take me to the drive-in… Did you know the front seats fold flat and make a bed?” She winked.
Later, I tried it and she was right. Roll the seats down and you can sleep comfortably. Only The French.
Our first stop was the nearest Walmart. Ice chest, drinks, and fly fishing rods for the thousands of hungry trout along our route that we knew were waiting for us. As we pulled up to Walmart, a beautiful French girl skittered up quickly on her pointy little heels to get emotional over our newly acquired symbol of her homeland. She loved the DS and couldn’t believe one was in a Reno Walmart parking lot. She gushed for twenty minutes and when she left Maxx said “I want one of these…”
Citroen put a lot of amazing technology in the DS. It was the first car with removable body panels (steel, aluminum and fiberglass). It was the first with inboard disk brakes, crumple zones, rollover protection, swiveling headlights, turn indicators at eye level, and true aerodynamics… All in 1955 when most cars looked like chrome refrigerator boxes. And it gets 30mpg.
And then there was the suspension… Instead of steel springs, they created a pressurized hydraulic system using fluid and compressed nitrogen. The car floats like it’s on a waterbed, because it is.
So this 41 year old car rides better than any modern car I’ve ever driven. At 80 mph you can hardly feel the road. The seats are big, plush grandma couches. And even with no AC, driving through the summer desert heat was pleasant. The big open, bright cabin let a great breeze blow over you. We never really missed the AC. We didn’t even miss a radio.
I rediscovered something from my first summer-long road trip in a 1966 VW Bus. In a modern car, you are coddled and kept away from the world outside. In a DS with the windows open, you become part of that world. You smell smells. You feel the breeze. You hear crickets. And since you’re not in a rush, you pull over anytime something looks interesting.
We passed through Northern Nevada. It was flat mostly. But it didn’t matter, it was wonderful. Floating over The Great American Desert in a crazy French spaceship with Maxx. Friendly waves and smiles from everyone that passed.
We stopped at the last casino before leaving Nevada for a big lunch and crossed the border into Utah. The state line was easy to spot. Big shiny casino hotels give way to cheesy, miserable motels. The map showed that the Bonneville Salt Flats were right ahead. No way we could pass that up. It was otherworldly and the DS was right at home.
Heading out of Salt Lake City we headed southeast. It was a long climb through the hot desert. The Citroën was running hot so I pulled over to let it cool off. Got back on the road and after a few more miles, all hell broke loose: Steam was pouring out of the hood. Pull over fast! Open the hood! Coolant spewing everywhere! Whip out the iPhone and find a tow truck with a flat bed! Call the previous owner to find out how to get the thing on the truck without destroying it! It was a Sunday afternoon and nothing would happen ’til tomorrow. Dushesne, Utah, was our new home, maybe for a day, maybe for a week.
The goal of every journey should be to remember where you’ve been and to be open to every sidetrack that falls in your lap. Let the road take you and enjoy every scent along the way.
And so we took on Dushesne, Utah and I discovered that fly fishing sucks. I mean, maybe, eventually I’d love it. But give me a good Shumano Curado and some braided line and an Amazon full of peacock bass or some Texas flats full of hungry reds instead. Whipping around that big plastic line meant pulling hooks out of my head several times. Maxx, on the other hand made it look like art. He just felt it. The river running behind our lousy motel in the little one-restaurant town was beautiful and swift and we tried our luck as the afternoon flowed into evening. All I caught was my own head but Maxx was in his element. Whatever was living in those burbling waters, as it turns out, was safe.
The mechanical problem turned out to be pretty simple. What I realized is that old Citroëns need to be tightened up every 30 or 40 years. The hose clamps on the radiator were just loose and the fluid squeezed out in the heat. The mechanic figured it out, tested the system and we were good.
I love traveling with Maxx. We’ve had some times I will carry with me the rest of my life. Family trips are great but once in a while you need to grab your son or daughter and go away. Just one on one. It’s not about teaching big life lessons. It’s not about making anything happen. It’s about just being who you are and appreciating someone who will always be a part of you.
I think the first trip we did together was skiing in New Mexico. I guess Maxx was maybe nine or ten and I really learned something about him. I learned his rhythm. I could tell when he was raring to go up the mountain and when he was running on empty. I let his rhythms rule the day and it was fantastic. We were going up an early morning lift. The first of the day. It’d snowed all night and as we rode up the lift, I looked below us and saw only perfect snow. No tracks. No people. We were the first up the mountain. I told Maxx to take a careful look around him. See every detail. Every tree and curve of the snow… And take a picture in your head.
I can still see that picture. I bet he can too. Maxx and I have fished a lot. Even when he was young, he loved fishing. He had the patience and was fascinated with what could be under the water’s surface. We’d fished the Texas coast for redfish and twice in the Amazon for all manner of horrible and wonderful jungle creatures. He was fourteen when we first went and Loree had special ordered all this protective, anti-mosquito clothing. Thick socks, long pants and shirts.
After the first day it all sat in the tent and he spent the rest of the week barefoot in the Amazon rivers, as comfortable as any native born jungle kid. The peace of the place takes you over and the rest of the world stops existing. It’s my favorite place on earth, and I suspect it’s Maxx’s too.
So anytime we saw a stream on this trip, in the mountains or deserts, we’d stop. We’d get out the fly rods and wade out into the water and whip that line over our heads. Its a beautiful thing to just pull over when you see something that needs to be pulled over for. We figured that if we actually did catch some fish, we’d find some roadside bodega and bribe some short order cook to fry them up.
We never needed to do any bribing. Maxx did catch a fish on a lake somewhere in New Mexico in our first fifteen minutes and we put it back in the water, figuring we’d be hitting them hard the next few hours and have plenty for dinner.
That was our one and only fish and it turned out to be lousy cheese enchiladas for dinner instead.
There are no strangers on this road. Every stop in a Citroen DS is interesting. Someone will come over to talk to you. It’s a little like taking a purple llama for walk. You stop for gas in any lost, little burg and the old guy at the next pump will come and ask what that thing is. Kids point and wave from passing cars. People took pictures and videos. Conversations long and short kept you from accomplishing anything in a hurry.
Which is fine. We weren’t in a hurry. And even if we were, the Citroen wasn’t in a hurry. With a four cylinder engine, it gains momentum at a rather leisurely pace. It’d do just fine at 80mph. We even hit 90mph a couple times I think (our miles to kilometer math was suspect).
We met a lot of people. Maxx even got pretty good at The Story Of The Weird French Car. I’d be in a gas station buying more Monster Energy Tea and he’d be out giving the whole story to some mystified traveler who’d either never seen one and thought it was a vintage Porsche or Saab or, on rare occasions, knew exactly what it was and was thrilled to see one for the first time in dozens of years. It’s like coming into town with free cookies or a basket of kittens. Everyone wants a reason to smile. After a while I realized we were doing a public service, spreading happiness and joy everywhere we passed. Strange French Car Joy.
It’s been years since I’ve driven a car I had to think about. Hop in, turn the key and go. But with this newfound DS, I quickly reverted to my youth… Driving strange cars that could simply decide to stop working for any random reason.
You’d carefully start it. Listen for strange sounds. Gently change gears. Don’t push her too hard. Drive her like she deserves your respect. No whipping her around corners in controlled drifts. Check the oil. Check the fluids. Watch the gauges and lights and appreciate every new mile you cover. It’s refreshing. You get in touch with the fact you’re in a unique hand-built machine who’s nearly as old as you are.
Of course, in the middle of the night in an empty desert, you pay extra attention.
We drove through Lubbock, Texas. Lubbock has two-hundred million cattle waiting to be turned into McMeals. During a hot summer day it’s dismal. During a hot summer night, it’s dismal and dark. Somewhere around The Stink we started seeing hundreds of red blinking lights on the horizon. Soon they were all around us. Finally, that alien invasion they’d been promising for years. I figured we were safe since they’d figure we were there to greet them in our spaceship.
But it was not to be. Wind generators.
So we braved the Stink of Lubbock and as we saw Amarillo ahead she started missing. It was maybe 2AM in the middle of nowhere and the Citroën’s engine is missing, running rough, running like hell. And the last place you want to be broken down is exactly where we were. Quick, get out the iPhone and find a mechanic next to a motel. My logic was to get to the mechanic shop, turn her off and see if she’d start again. if not, we’d walk to the motel and try in the morning. It was a great plan that actually worked perfectly. We checked into a dumpy motel and the next morning the mechanic tightened the coil wire and the DS started right up.
Of course, it was complete lunacy to assume you can drive a forty-one-year-old French car halfway across the country at the height of summer. There are hundreds of thousands of things that can go wrong but if you take too long to think like that, you’ll never leave the house.
It turned out to be a truly grand adventure.
Think about it. See some of the most beautiful countryside on earth, with your son, in one of the most amazing automobiles ever created. Pretty hard to beat that. Even with a couple of breakdowns, I wouldn’t change a single minute.
How do you spot such an opportunity? Or do these things only exist when we dream them up. It’s up to us to come up with the concept, however unlikely it may be, and then work backwards against a million odds to make it happen. I’ve been on a lot of great walkabouts all over the world. Each trip has added something to my life and opened my view of the world. We are the sum of our adventures so we owe it to ourselves to take as many as possible.
I wonder how my father’s life would have been if he had the luxury of taking walkabouts like this. He gave me the opportunity to see the world, even if it was on my own. I guess that’s the duty of a father to his children. Give them the opportunity to see the world on their own terms with whatever gifts you can give them. My father let me believe I could make it on my own and I did because of his faith in me.
I hope to give Maxx and Marlo those same gifts. Know you can take on the world and win. I know you can. I’ve seen it in you. Do great things because I believe in you.
And never shy away from an adventure.