Journalists the world over have spent countless millions of words and even more brain cells trying to outdo one another contextualizing the launch of the Citroën DS. The much-teased French sedan blew minds when it broke cover in 1955 with futuristic looks and serious (for the time) high-tech credentials. Earning rave reviews, the DS can be credited not just for the continued salvation of Citroën but also for its cultural impact, including the scholarly essays it inspired.
The most famous of these navel-gazers was Roland Barthes’ “La Nouvelle Citroën” (“The New Citroën”), which appeared as a chapter in Mythologies, a collection of essays. Many a journalist would give their right arm to be able to spin high-falutin’ snow like the word-blizzard Barthes summoned for the launch of this four-cylinder sedan. The letters DS, the author notes early on, are pronounced “diesse,” like the French word for goddess. Then he’s off to the races.
A literary theorist, semiotician, philosopher, critic, writer, and linguist, Barthes had all of the leading bullshit arts covered, making for a florid work, magical for today’s reader to behold.
He postulates that cars were the day’s Gothic cathedrals, “the supreme creation of an era.” I agree that was so then, if no longer. But from this easily understood point, Barthes impressively launches a crippling fusillade of word jazz that leaves the humble blowhard likes of us lying by the side of the road.
“Speed here is expressed by less aggressive, less athletic signs, as if it were evolving from a primitive to a classical form. This spiritualization can be seen in the extent, the quality and the material of the glass-work. The Déesse is obviously the exaltation of glass, and pressed metal is only a support for it. Here, the glass surfaces are not windows, openings pierced in a dark shell; they are vast walls of air and space, with the curvature, the spread and the brilliance of soap-bubbles, the hard thinness of a substance more entomological than mineral (the Citroën emblem, with its arrows, has in fact become a winged emblem, as if one was proceeding from the category of propulsion to that of spontaneous motion, from that of the engine to that of the organism).”
A 595-foot home run of words, shot like a cannonball out of the park, then out of the county.
“[O]riginating from the heaven of Metropolis, the Goddess is in a quarter of an hour mediatized, actualizing through this exorcism the very essence of petit-bourgeois advancement.”
OK, that time Barthes took the words right out of my mouth. But I think you get the idea.
Cars were the day’s Gothic cathedrals, “the supreme creation of an era.” I agree that was so then, if no longer.
Attempting a similar meditation, today’s essayist first confronts the difficulty that cars, for all of their advancement and wonder, haven’t changed enough to keep society fascinated the way they used to. Other objects have emerged to captivate financial markets more, as consumer mindshare is steadily lost to non-automotive offerings. No way General Motors can ever do planned obsolescence as rapidly and thoroughly as Apple, and the stock market knows it. It’s not fair, you might argue—with a car, everything is so hard to make and so big and easy to see—but it’s true.
It doesn’t help that many modern cars really do seem boring. Not that there wasn’t a lot boring about a 1972 Torino, to provide but one of a million examples. But the fact that it was a car affording mobility seemed to mean more then than it does today. And today there are so few radical machines. For its part, Citroën has backpedaled from the pesky technologies that made the DS unique for decades.
This return to convention is a shame, especially on the eve of PSA’s return to America. Citroëns (and Peugeots, as PSA makes both) can be credibly sold here as premium brands. But they won’t be on firm ground if they fail to offer cars of true style and interest rather than the cost-cut crossovers in which they seem to specialize now.
Looking elsewhere for literary inspiration, then, some might rightly see the Tesla Model S provoking the mightiest of literary snowstorms, but not from me, fine machines that its owners believe their cars to be. I like Teslas, and there’d undoubtedly be a lot to say on the style front, because they became for a moment a key fashion accessory for certain monied subclasses, though not, I would suggest, for reasons of actual styling.
But what if I had to nominate a candidate for ascension to the Hot Air Hall of Fame, with words by the cubic foot and something approximating the head of steam Barthes had on tap to write his essay? One machine that comes to mind is the Honda Clarity. It has been little remarked upon; indeed, its arrival went almost completely unnoticed, but in fact it not only looks quite unusual (if not up there with the DS), but also and more important it stands as an incredibly fine automobile whose technological specifications point squarely at a future that has already arrived, with an extreme facility for saving gas, at an almost impossibly reasonable price.
We could speak of its styling, which manages to look different like few other cars that look different these days, as this effect is typically achieved by looking bad. Think Toyota Prius, itself a potential candidate for advanced reflection once but also a car that just doesn’t do it for me now. The Clarity Plug-In Hybrid Touring I drove 600 miles the other week does.
The Clarity looks and drives better than a Prius. But then it ought to, with 212 combined hp compared to the Prius Prime’s net 124. And at $37,495 versus more than $34,000 for the Toyota, it isn’t priced much higher, either. It handles better and rides better, too, if not yet a car to be confused with an Alfa Romeo Giulia. (Dirty secret: Citroëns didn’t handle great, either.) Further setting the Clarity apart is an interior whose leather and faux suede finishes track as decidedly upscale, plus every gadget and power convenience you could reasonably hope for, even at half again the price.
The Clarity rounds a circle begun with Honda’s Insight. This magazine ran one for a year in 2000-2001, mostly in my care, during which we rang up 25,000 miles. With a tiny 1.0-liter, three-cylinder gas engine and quirky, largely aluminum bodywork, America’s first hybrid was a loss-leading step into the future—and we loved it. It remains admired by the knowledgeable and beloved by a loyal cadre of owners still. But it was hardly a car for everyone—which was good for Honda. The company lost money on every one.
I remember chortling back then when I got 61 mpg in the city. Well, the other day I drove to the Jersey Shore and back in the Clarity plug-in and registered 199 miles per gallon. On longer runs, mileage above 60 was typical.
The Prius is the car that proved the value of hybrid technology, along with the possibility of building such machines profitably. But it failed to ignite the spirit. That’s what the DS did many years ago, and that’s what the Clarity did for me. That much is clear—clearer even than the 5,000-word essay someone ought to write about it.