This Day In History: August 22

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On August 22, 1962, President Charles de Gaulle of France survives one of several assassination attempts against him thanks to the superior performance of the presidential automobile: The sleek, aerodynamic Citroen DS 19, known as “La Deesse” (The Goddess).

When the Citroen DS made its sensational debut at the 1955 Paris Motor Show, its streamlined, understated form stood out among the tail-finned and chrome-covered cars popular in that era. A far cry from Citroen’s famous 2CV (dubbed the “ugly duckling”), the DS had a 1.9-liter engine and power-assisted gearshift, clutch, steering and brake systems. Its crowning aspect, however, was a hydropneumatic suspension system that Citroen would become known for, which automatically adjusted the height of the car to keep it level and enable the driver to maintain control more easily. Citroen took 12,000 orders for the DS by the end of that first day, and it soon became known as the preferred mode of transportation among France’s wealthy and most powerful citizens.

In August 1962, a group called the OAS (Secret Army Organization in English) plotted an assassination attempt on President de Gaulle, who they believed had betrayed France by giving up Algeria (in northern Africa) to Algerian nationalists. Near dusk on August 22, 1962, de Gaulle and his wife were riding from the Elysee Palace to Orly Airport. As his black Citroen DS sped along the Avenue de la Liberation in Paris at 70 miles per hour, 12 OAS gunmen opened fire on the car. A hail of 140 bullets, most of them coming from behind, killed two of the president’s motorcycle bodyguards, shattered the car’s rear window and punctured all four of its tires. Though the Citroen went into a front-wheel skid, de Gaulle’s chauffeur was able to accelerate out of the skid and drive to safety, all thanks to the car’s superior suspension system. De Gaulle and his wife kept their heads down and came out unharmed.

Frederick Forsyth dramatized the events of that August in his best-selling novel “The Day of the Jackal,” later made into a film. In 1969, de Gaulle–knowing that he owed his life to that Citroen–attempted to prevent the outright sale of France’s premier auto manufacturer (owned by the Michelin family of tire fame) to the Italian automaker Fiat by limiting the stake Fiat could buy to 15 percent. In 1975, to avert potential bankruptcy, the French government funded Citroen’s sale to a group that included its French rival, Peugeot; the result was PSA Peugeot Citroen SA, formed in 1976.