Curbside Classic: 1969 Citroen 2CV – The Most Original Car Ever

How many truly original cars are there? Here’s the test: take any car, and one can almost always find their antecedents or inspirations. One that stands out is the Citroen 2CV: no one had ever built a car remotely like it. Its suspension alone is so unique and unlikely, that it qualifies it, never mind the rest of the car. The 2CV makes the Model T and Volkswagen look  downright conventional, which they mostly were. One could say that the whole era of French automotive originality and eccentricity began with the 2CV. Yes, many copied it, but it copied no one.

The 2CV was the engineer’s dream job. To create the ultimate in automotive minimalism is a huge task; in many ways much more demanding than creating a high-end car. And for much of the first half of the automobile’s history, it was a recurring quest. And a very difficult one to get just right; most tended to overshoot or undershoot. The 2CV nailed it.

Some have compared the 2CV with the Ford Model T. While it’s true that the T ended up being a bit like the 2CV, putting a whole generation on wheels for the first time, it didn’t start out that way. In 1908, the Model T was not minimalistic at all, but a very modern and highly capable “full-sized” car for the times. Ford’s ability to mass produce it at ever-lower cost is what made it so accessible.

And the Volkswagen had a different brief too: to transport a middle-class family comfortably on Germany’s new Autobahns at 100kmh, with a fuel consumption of 7 L/100km (35 mpg) while doing so. It was a scaled-down Tatra streamliner, a bit too much so, actually. A fine design with excellent engineering, but not all that long on originality.

The 2CV had a brief too, but one quite unique: “an umbrella with four wheels”, that would carry four farmers and 50 kg (110lbs) of their goods to market, at 50 kmh (31 mph), using 3 L/100km (78 mpg). And have a suspension so capable, that no eggs in a basket would break if it was being driven over a freshly-plowed field. And be as cheap as the dirt it had to traverse. How would you like that to be you marching orders?

The 2CV was the result of the Michelins’ takeover of Citroen in 1934, after the firm faltered from the heavy cost of introducing their Traction Avant. Pierre Michelin felt that Citroen was too dependent on upper-price level cars, and initiated the TPV (Toute Petite Voiture – “Very Small Car”) project.

The engineer placed in charge of the TPV project, André Lefèbvre, was experienced with racing cars, and had developed a philosophy of suspension design that put him in the avant garde. He was an exponent of a rigid body and of long-travel suspension that would keep the wheels planted to the road no matter what the conditions; although freshly plowed fields probably wasn’t what he had in mind before the TPV.

A number of TPV prototypes were built in the 1937 – 1939 period, using a brilliant but very complex suspension with no less than eight torsion bars. Here’s how it’s described at wiki:

The suspension system used front leading arms and rear trailing arms, connected to eight torsion bars mounted beneath the rear seat: a bar for the front axle, one for the rear axle, an intermediate bar for each side, and an overload bar for each side. The front axle was connected to its torsion bars by cable. The overload bar only came into play when the car had three people on board, two in the front and one in the rear, to take account of the extra load of the fourth passenger and fifty kilos of luggage. It was designed by Alphonse Forceau. This suspension system did not make it into the delayed and redesigned production car.

Probably a bit too complicated and expensive. But highly original indeed. Take that, Packard! And all this in an “umbrella with four wheels”.

The TPV was all set to go into production in 1939 when a certain bit of nonsense intervened. Many of the prototypes were destroyed, to keep them out of the hands of the Nazis. A few were stashed in barns. And the engineers had time to mull over what changes they might eventually want to make to it.

After the war, France’s new Socialist government and semi-planned economy directed Renault to focus on small cars, and Citroen on medium-largish ones. But Citroen did develop the definitive production version, including a change to an air-cooled boxer twin, with all of 375 cc and 9 hp. And by 1949, the 2CV was given the green light for production.

Although the eight-torsion bar suspension was axed, the production 2CV’s suspension was just as capable, if not more so.  The super-long travel and ultra soft springing remained, but was now accomplished by two sets of coils springs mounted in cylinders horizontally alongside the platform chassis, and connected to the individually-suspended front and rear wheels via bellcranks and pull rods. That alone would have made a very advanced system.

But there’s more: the cylinders in which the coils travel is not fixed, but have springs of their own, which allows them to move, thereby creating the first (I believe) active suspension. When the front wheel hits a bump it compresses its spring, but also moves the cylinder forward some, which in turn pre-loads the rear spring. This tends to both keep the 2CV level, despite its ridiculously soft springs, and is effective in controlling front-aft pitching.

The suspension is not interconnected side-to-side, which does mean the 2CV tends to really lean in corners. And it’s ridiculously easy to rock back and forth sideways, as we used to delight in doing as kids whenever we saw one parked on the street. We just couldn’t believe how soft it was, and how wildly we could rock one.

Amazingly as it may seem, 2CVs do not tip readily, despite their wild angles in hard cornering. Thanks to a super-low center of gravity, and none of the abrupt transitions that rear-engined and swing-axled cars like the VW and Corvair exhibited, the front-wheel drive 2CV just hangs in there, and its wheels hang down there, as if glued to the pavement. The fact that the 2CV helped pioneer Michelin’s new steel-belted tires only added to its grip. Like so many exotic things French, one has to experience a 2CV to appreciate it properly. It’s an acquired taste, for most.

The 2CVs suspension and configuration ushered in a whole new era; in France, long-throw soft suspensions became almost ubiquitous, and defined cars from there for decades. The Renault R4 was a blatant rip-off of the 2CV, but a bit more modern and powerful, and became a best-seller for seemingly ages.

Citroen developed the basic 2CV into several offshoots, including the odd-ball Ami 6 and the slightly-more palatable Ami 8 Break, like this one.

Alex Issigonis was heavily inspired by the 2CV’s suspension in developing the Hydrolastic suspension. And I wish a dollop of the 2CV’s suppleness had found its way into my harsh-riding Xb.

Enough on its suspension; lets take a look at some of the other original aspects. The 2CV pioneered what every engineer will tell you is the most rational, advanced and logically ultimate configuration: a boxer engine ahead of the front-driven wheels. This became the sign of uncompromised advanced cars ever since: the Panhard, Lancia Flavia, Alfasud, and of course Subaru. Low center of gravity; unparalleled smoothness, especially for a twin; maximum space utilization, am I forgetting something?

Oh yes; the boxer twin idea itself wasn’t original; and BMW’s motorcycle twins were already legendary. So the fact that the 2CV engine bears more than passing resemblance to it is not a coincidence. But it was worth studying the BMW’s design: the 2CV engine has enjoyed a stellar rep for longevity, right from the get-go. In the fifties and sixties, when many European small-car engines often lasted no more than 50k miles before an overhaul, the 2CV engine could go three times that far. The French rep for fragility is often misplaced.

Of course, the early ones were very un-stressed. With 9 hp, 40 mph was the top speed. With time, the engine grew in displacement and power; by 1970, it sported 602 cc and 33 (net) hp; good for 115 kmh (71 mph). Since 1980, it was rated at 29 hp, which improved economy with little impact on performance (who’s counting?).  But a 602cc “Duck” will flow along with city traffic well enough, with proper rowing of its umbrella-handle gear lever.

The cooling fan is directly mounted to the front of the crankshaft, and there is no thermostat-controlled adjustment, so it tends to runs cool in cool weather.

That explains the plastic “muff” that 2CVs sport in the winter months, to try to generate some sense of warmth from its heating system for its occupants.

Speaking of, another brilliant aspect to the 2CV is its four doors and room for four adults and a decent trunk. This really sets it apart from all the little micro-cars that were all the rage right after the war (and some well before it); most were little more than motorized sidewalk toys. The 2CV was a tall boy, a CUV a half-century ahead of the times. And erstwhile Chrysler President K T Keller would have been proud of the 2CV’s “father” Pierre-Jules Boulanger, who insisted that its roof be raised because he liked to drive with his hat on.

And more brilliance inside: the 2CV prototype’s seats were truly hammocks, suspended from the ceiling. BTW, this and so many other aspects of the 2CV’s design was all about weight (and cost) saving. The TPV was planned to be built mostly out of aluminum, but the rising cost of that metal forced a change to steel, and innovative ways to still keep weight down, like the “corrugated” body panels on early versions. The efforts paid off: the 2CV weighs in at around 1200 lbs (560 kg), a phenomenally low weight, given its roominess.

The production version used “lawn-chair” type seats, with easily replaceable cushions available for $29.95 at every WalMarché in France.

Here’s how they look in our featured car, which is legally registered as a 1969 model, but looks (mostly, at least) to be more modern than that; probably from the eighties or so, and imported from Belgium.

Now that’s an instrument panel I can get behind. No touch screens, but plenty to touch.

Its owner, Geoff Koerner, is a professional gardener and has owned this forsythia-colored 2CV for a dozen years. There have always been one or two 2CVs in daily use in Eugene.

For a long time there was a charming retro Charleston model. I had a crush on it for years. I could really see having a 2CV; it just speaks to me a bit more than average (which is saying something). I fit in one well (they are very narrow but tall), and it makes a perfectly good around-town scooter.

And I love the idea of rolling down that giant fabric roof on sunny days; this looks just like Oregon, heading up into the mountains…at a leisurely pace. Who’s in a hurry? Never in a 2CV. This is a car that forces one to slow life down; the 2ZEN.

That at least in part explains the 2CV’s appeal to European youths from the late sixties on, when it became what the VW Beetle was in the US. The Beetle never was much of a counter-culture-mobile in Europe, because too many kids grew up in one. But the 2CV really spoke to the younger generation, and became an icon.

Especially so, the Fourgonnette Van, which became the European equivalent of the VW hippie bus; a rite of passage for 1970s German college graduates was to take one across the Sahara, or some other exotic expedition. This one was shot more recently at the top Emigrant Pass near Death Valley (image: expeditionportal.com).

The Fourgonnette was highly original and extremely influential in its own right. It created the whole category of light vans based on small cars that has become a huge category on most parts of the world, and includes the Transit Connect.

The 2CV’s story could go on almost endlessly; so many variants; so many possibilities, so much goofiness, so much passion by its devoted cult of owners. Like this twin-engined 4×4 Sahara model, of which a few hundred were built. But mine has to end, and this is a mighty good place to do so. But feel free to keep adding to the story; it’s really just barely begun.