Custom Citroen DS 23 ute

By: Michael Browning - words & photos

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John Lengton owns Australia's only Citroen DS 23 ute

Most car enthusiasts – even the most rusted on – regard Citroen’s seminal DS as unapologetically quirky. Citroen’s then-owner Michelin intended it to be and is said that to understand the thought process behind it is to understand the French themselves.

In the first 15 minutes following its debut at the 1955 Paris Salon, 743 orders were taken and those for the first day totalled 12,000. During the 10 days of the show, the 80,000 deposits for the new DS set a record that stood for more than 60 years until eclipsed by the Tesla Model 3, which reportedly garnered 180,000 first day deposits in March, 2016.

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Silhouette shows its considerable length

Other than its spaceship styling, novel hydropneumatic self-levelling suspension, power steering and brakes, semi-automatic transmission, different front and rear wheel tracks, inboard front discs, fibreglass roof to lower its centre of gravity, bolt-on body panels, roof-mounted rear turning indicators, foam-filled seats and a single spoke steering wheel were amongst its other jaw-dropping innovations.

| Read next: 1973 Citroen GS 1220 reunion

Even the new Citroen’s name was typically French. Both the DS and its simpler sibling, the ID, used pun for model names. ‘DS’ is pronounced as ‘Déesse’ in French (Goddess), while ‘ID’ is spoken as ‘Idée’ (idea).

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You'd swear this was buit at Citroen the workmanship is that good

So what type of person sets out to make a D-series Citroen even weirder? Step forward the late Albie Dutton and his son Jeff, who in the early 1980s created Australia’s only Citroen DS Ute. Then, around 35 years later, John Lengton, now of Timboon in Western Victoria, who has followed his childhood memories of Sir Donald Campbell’s World Land Speed Record-setting Bluebird, to take their quirky Citroen dream to its spectacular conclusion.

AODutton & Sons were a Melbourne coachbuilding icon, whose origin dated back to 1911, but since the late 1960s were a major Citroen dealership run by brothers Albie and Len Dutton.

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Jeff Dutton by then was a bit of an automotive trend-setter, having ‘Outlawed’ a Porsche 356 Speedster for himself in the 1970s, so he and his father decided to create a distinctive work ute to promote the family’s Citroen business.

They did a deal with a friend to purchase his Monte Carlo Blue DS21 Safari (Break in French) wagon for the purpose, but when the friend called around to collect the cheque he found his former pride and joy spread all over the Dutton workshop floor, thanks to Jeff and his father’s handiwork with an angle grinder!

"Thank goodness he went ahead with the deal," recalled Jeff. "It would have been very hard to have put it all back together!"

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Converting a D-series Break into a Ute is a fairly straight forward process that no-one in their right mind would attempt today given the rising value of early DS-series Breaks, but it is relatively straightforward. As the lower structure is largely self-supporting, you can unbolt the roof panel without too much trouble and simply lift it off in 45 minutes. Then, after reconfiguring the rear seat area and load bay, the only ‘foreign’ part required is the rear window to separate the cabin from the load bed, which comes from a ubiquitous Holden EH Station Sedan.

That first DS Ute became the Dutton dealership hack, but it met an untimely end one day when it was t-boned irreparably outside the Burnley, Melbourne showroom.

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EH Holden rear window

Undaunted, Jeff and Albie decided to build another. The second donor Break was a white DS23 that was ordered by the owner of Wantirna Wines for European Delivery in late 1974. After touring Europe, it was shipped back to Australia and remained in the family for around 10 years before Duttons acquired it..

With its top chopped and load bed rearranged by Jeff and Melbourne engineer Don Bergman in suburban Noble Park, the ute was immediately set to work delivering Citroen parts, carrying bricks in its spare time to build the rare car showroom that Jeff Dutton was building in nearby Chapel Street, Richmond. This working class task was assisted brilliantly by the Ute’s hydraulic suspension, as it allowed its load bed to remain at normal height – even when fully loaded with bricks!

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Very classy ute interior

It later passed into the hands of Jeff’s friend Pat Coram, who painted it black before later being acquired in 2005 by Darwin-based enthusiast, John Lengton.

Formerly from Port Augusta, Lengton enhanced his abiding affection for D-series Citroens during his time as Service and Parts Manager of Darwin’s Morgan Motors, which was the city’s Citroen, Porsche, Saab, Alfa Romeo and Jeep dealer in the 1980 and 1990s.

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A place for everything

According to Lengton, this special affection for the ‘Goddess’ came from his childhood memories of seeing Englishman Donald Campbell in his streamlined ‘Bluebird’ set a new world land speed record for a wheel-driven vehicle of 403.1mph (648.7km/h) at Lake Eyre in July,1964.

"My father worked for BP Australia and was tasked with locating a suitable salt lake for the speed attempt and then setting up a course and infrastructure for the Bluebird attempt," he recalled.

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"Seeing the sleek Bluebird sitting in a shed at the homestead and later on display in Adelaide had a huge impact on me. Every time I saw a Citroen Goddess pass by afterwards its shape reminded me of Bluebird!"

Years later in Darwin, when he began working on them, he became fascinated by the left-field way the French approached design. "If they could have made a square wheel work, they would have!" he laughed.

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Ute body taking shape

So, after going out on his own in the mid-1990s, Lengton decided that the Dutton DS23 ute would make a great workhorse and classic restoration project for his business, The European Garage. The opportunity to put my own stamp on this already special car was irresistible.

After initially doing duty as a working ute and parts hack in his business, a workshop fire provided the impetus for its full ‘no expense spared’ restoration and transformation into a unique luxury French cruiser that took place over a four-year period in Darwin from 2010-2104.

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He began by stripping the ute of all its parts, replacing or reconditioning everything from the ground up. His obsession with detail extended to importing the ute’s rare Michelin XVS tyres from Europe, which were specifically designed for the car.

"I might have gone a bit overboard, but I felt it was worth it," explained Lengton. "You won’t see another one here!"

After Barry and his son Craig at Darwin Autocare Panel Works took the core bare chassis and fully sandblasted it refashioned new enclosed rear mudguards and applied the new glass-like solid black paint, the Ute took on a new long, stealth-like look, particularly when the hydropneumatic suspension is dropped to its lowest level.

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Then, determined to complete the best possible restoration and not trusting road transport, Lengton then put the Ute on a train, met it in Adelaide and drove it to Melbourne trimmer Gary Blackman.

There, its interior was upgraded to beyond Pallas luxury level, highlighted by the luxurious red leather used extensively in its cab.

Blackman’s work is stunning, with Lengton specifying broader than standard pleats in the billowing armchair front seats, while other details like the complex perforated leather door trims have transformed the Ute to Pallas-plus level of luxury, as all Breaks were only available in basic ID spec, given their intended utilitarian purpose).

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By that stage Lengton was reconsidering his plan to use the ute as a distinctive support vehicle for clients he serviced for regularly in classic on and off-road events, like Targa Tasmania, although he had already fitted out its load bed with removable checker-plate boxes, while a full tool kit tool kit slides out through one of the rear doors, which are still fully functional.

However given how well the project has come together, together with its $60-70,000 build cost, he has decided against it being reborn as a working class classic.

These days the DS23 ute is the unchallenged ‘queen’ of Timboon, in Victoria’s Otway Ranges where it has pride of place in Lengton’s immaculate classic home-based workshop.

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Why has he gone to all this bother on what basically is a former working vehicle?

Well, for a start, there’s unlikely to be another one in Australia soon – rising DS Break prices will ensure that no-one will be game to tamper with an original and, even if they do, they are unlikely to top Lengton’s high-bar resto.

Then, there’s the satisfaction of owning a unique Citroen Goddess produced by a grand old car company that celebrated its centenary in 2019.

"No other vehicle I have ever driven attracts the attention that this gets as it floats along, regardless of the terrain," he said. "No matter how exotic or what price, there’s simply nothing else like it. Just like Campbell’s Bluebird."

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1974 Citroen DS custom ute

Body Two-door utility
Engine 2347 cc 2.3lt 4-cyl OHV
Transmission Semi-auto 4-speed
Suspension Hydropneumatic self-levelling
Brakes Hydropneumatic-assisted, discs,
Power & torque
97kW @ 5200rpm,
195Nm @ 2500rpm

 

From Unique Cars #448, January 2021

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