Seventy years ago, in the fall of 1948, Citroën unveiled the most iconic small car France had ever seen to a universally frosty and skeptical reception by automotive pundits. The 2CV has had its time in the sun on CC a few times already, but when I chanced upon this one back in the home country recently, I couldn’t just pass it by. And there’s a birthday to celebrate. So let’s see what there might be left to say about this little tin snail.
More than most cars, the 2CV has several potential birth dates. The car was presented to the public in 1948, but not its engine. The first production cars actually made it to the streets in mid-1949 (only about 900 units that year), but the 2CV was much older than that; The project kicked off in 1935, when Michelin bought out Citroën, whose launch of the Traction Avant had been the straw that broke the firm’s financial back. The new boss, Pierre Michelin, followed his family’s dream of a real French people’s car – an idea that was very much in the zeitgeist of the day. The project began with a large survey of potential users, which was as broad as possible. Farmers, women, young people, urban professionals, day-trippers and civil servants were canvassed for their opinions and wishes regarding economy cars. Armed with this data, Michelin and his VP for Citroën, Pierre Boulanger, defined the brief of the TPV (Très Petite Voiture or Very Small Car) as capable of transporting two farmers, 50 kilos of potatoes or a barrel of wine plus a basket of eggs across plowed fields without breaking an egg, with a maximum speed of 60kph and at an average of 3 litres of gasoline per 100km (78 mpg).
Pierre Michelin died in a car crash on the road to Michelin HQ in 1937 and was replaced by Pierre Boulanger as CEO of Citroën. By now, several prototypes were buzzing around Citroën’s secret proving grounds at La Ferté-Vidame. The TPV as it was in 1937-38 was quite different from what the 2CV ended up being. The flat-twin 375cc engine, closely based on BMW motorcycle plants, was water-cooled and mated to a 3-speed gearbox. The suspension was all-torsion bar – but it employed eight bars. Some of the chassis was made of magnesium and the body was made of aluminium alloy; only the wings were made in steel. Only one headlamp was mandated by French legislation, so only one was included – same with the windshield wiper. There was no electric starter: some cars tried a lawn-mower-type string starter, but the final prototypes had a crank handle.
The car was deemed good enough to be launched by mid-1939. It would be the star of the Paris Motor Show in October. Production of about 250 cars was ordered and publicity material was getting designed and printed. Then everything was aborted when France and Britain declared war on Germany in early September. All but a handful of the original 2CVs were destroyed rather than fall into German hands. In 1941, Boulanger ordered an internal audit of the 2CV programme that recommended a number of changes for the car to be viable post-war. The real cost of building the 1939 2CVs had been 40% over its estimation, the audit found. With aluminium and magnesium prices set to stay high after the war, the 2CV would need to be redesigned in steel.
A number of other changes were implemented during the 2CV’s second gestation, from 1942 to 1948. The engineering team persuaded Boulanger to have a fourth gear, so that the little engine could be used with more flexibility. Quirks such as the hammock-style seats, which literally hung from the car’s ceiling, were also ditched in favour of less adventurous solutions. The engine was completely reworked by Walter Becchia, who came from Talbot-Lago. Becchia initiated the change to air-cooling for the little twin, which measured at just 325cc and only provided 9 hp (DIN). The suspension was completely new too, with a very clever system that perfectly filled the brief for not breaking eggs (for more details, I heartily recommend Paul’s CC post). The brake pedal also actuated the rear brakes now, as opposed to the original car’s cable-operated handbrake for the rear. An electric starter also found its way under the hood.
But the most obvious change was the 2CV’s esthetics. The use of extremely thin-gauge steel dictated that large pressings such as the hood would have to be corrugated. Having had zero input (as per Boulanger’s wishes) into the original 2CV, Citroën head designer Flaminio Bertoni was now given a chance to do something about the car’s looks. Initially, the cyclops headlamp was still a feature, though now integrated within the hood / grille. But the blatantly skinflint image, coupled with export concerns, soon mandated two headlamps. But Boulanger wanted the cheapest kind – the old pod style. Bertoni managed to give the little car a more rounded face thanks to puffier front wings and a better-defined grille, as well as skirted rear wings that would become a signature Citroën feature for decades.
The 2CV really was an instant hit, though its father Pierre Boulanger barely saw it: in late 1950, he had a fatal car crash on the same road as his predecessor did. It took Citroën years to get through the backlog of orders – the waiting list stretched to five years in the early ‘50s. Every year, from 1949 to 1961, production increased.
Citroën introduced a 2CV van version, which soon accounted for a quarter of 2CV sales. A slightly more elaborate sister car, the Dyane, was launched in 1967 to try and push the 2CV out to pasture. But by 1970, the old car was back at the top of the sales chart. Throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s, Citroën produced over 200,000 small twin-cylinder cars and vans per year – not counting the Ami 6 / 8 and Méhari.
By 1980, the 2CV was in its fourth decade – a long time for any car. And sales began to wane slowly, as export markets also dried up or even banned the 2CV. The saloon’s sales went below six figures, hovered for a couple of years, then settled around 55,000 units from 1983 to 1986 and gradually plunged below the 10,000 mark for the car’s last model year, 1990.
So let’s take a look at the one I found in a bit more detail. It wears a lovely “jade green” (as per Citroën’s terminology) that was only available from 1979 to 1983. This is a terrific colour, which would not look amiss on a late ‘50s car. Orange or pea green 2CVs are also very nice, but this one looks older than it actually is because of its pastel hue.
The 2CV 6 Spécial was the one above the base model in the ‘70s. The “6” meant the engine was the Ami 6 / 8 twin, which was a blistering 602cc and 29 hp (DIN). The “Spécial” meant that it had the most basic finish. The 2CV Spécial (without the “6”) was the base model until 1979, with the smaller 435cc engine. The pointlessness of having to make three different flat-twins (435, 602 and 652cc) at the same time dawned on Citroën and by 1980, the 602cc twin was the only engine available on the 2CV. More “luxurious” versions included the Club and the limited edition Charleston with two-tone paintwork and more chrome.
The real difference with the more elaborate trim levels is the Spécial’s interior, which used a tiny little speedo that hadn’t changed since 1963 and a cheaper two-spoke steering wheel. The right-hand stalk turns on the lights, just like its ancestors did in every Traction Avant since 1934. The 2CV Club has a bigger horizontal dial from the Ami series and plusher upholstery. I concur with the original buyer on his choice – why spend money on fancy gadgets when you’re buying the simplest and cheapest car around?
Aesthetically, the 2CV had changed a bit from its original presentation by the ‘70s. In 1954, government-mandated turn signals and rear lights were incorporated; rear bootlids started to appear in the late ‘50s. The first big change was the new hood and grille, introduced in 1961 by Bertoni. The corrugated hood, with its retro louvres, was given the boot except for the low-production 4×4 Sahara model, with its famous rear-mounted second flat-twin.
The Belgian 2CVs introduced a nicely shaped C-pillar quaterlight on their deluxe model, which was soon optional on French-built cars as well. The front doors switched to non-suicide / front-hinged configuration in 1965; five years later, the Ami 6 Club’s trapezoidal taillights were grafted on the 2CV, necessitating a minor butt-lift. Also in 1970, all 2CVs finally got 12-volt electrics, front wing-mounted turn signals and seat belts.
In 1974, most 2CVs got square headlamps, but by 1980, round headlamps were back on all models except the Club, which hung on to them for a few more years. I have yet to find a conclusive reason behind this short-lived and aesthetically-dubious change. Did Citroën do this under duress from threatened government legislation? Was it due to the supplier? Was it an ill-thought-out idea from a distressed company? It did not harm sales, that’s for sure. But bringing the range back to round headlamps coincided with a change in Citroën’s perception of its aging entry-level model.
For in 1980, the Charleston appeared. It was a lovely limited edition two-tone car that year and the 8,000 units were eagerly snapped up in no time. The car’s incredible success led it to become a trim level within the 2CV range, a sort of posh version for the ‘80s. But it traded on its age, not on youthful appeal. From 1980 onward, the 2CV became a retro car and was marketed as such in France. Instantly, it became more of an old person’s car than anything else, associated with elderly farmers and nuns. That was certainly the case in my youth – the 2CV in France in the ‘80s and into the ‘90s was far more geriatric than in its other big export market, Germany. The only noteworthy technical modification in the ‘80s was the introduction of front disc brakes in 1981.
The 2CV went through the ‘80s with a succession of sales-boosting limited editions, such 1981’s For Your Eyes Only-themed yellow “007” complete with bullet-hole stickers, 1983’s marine-themed “France 3” seen above or the Bundesrepublik’s own “I fly Bleifrei”, announcing the car’s conversion to lead-free gasoline in 1985. But sales shrank pretty much every year regardless.
Besides, Citroën had long wanted to get rid of the Levallois plant that manufactured the 2CV. One of the first assets to be partially sold or redeveloped when Peugeot bought Citroën in 1975 was Citroën’s original Quai de Javel factory, on the left bank of the Seine. By the ‘80s, Citroën’s second-oldest factory, in the Parisian suburb of Levallois, was beyond ancient. There was zero automation in how a 2CV was put together. The factory had been making Citroëns since 1925, having been built originally by Clément-Bayard a couple of decades earlier.
There were still enough buyers to keep the 2CV in the dealerships though, so when Levallois finally closed for good in 1988, the 2CV’s labour-demanding production switched to Portugal. In 1986, Citroën launched the all-new AX supermini (originally planned as a Talbot) to replace the entire flat-twin range soon. The conjunction of the AX and the loss of domestic production meant the 2CV was done for, including its famous air-cooled flat-twin, which would no longer be made after the car’s final production day – 27 July 1990. Export sales had dwindled to nothing by then anyway, though that had not always been the case.
The 2CV was a hit on many export markets in Europe, South America and Asia, though it was less fond of hot climates than it might have been. The car’s relatively low power, weight and FWD were not assets in some markets (North America and Africa). Other markets simply needed time to adopt the little car on its own terms. British-built 2CVs from Citroën’s Slough factory so completely bombed in the British market that it was dropped from the line-up by about 1962. Though the Ami 6 and the Dyane did sell in the UK, the 2CV did not cross the Channel again until 1974, where it finally met its public – 20 years late.
What made the 2CV such a compelling proposition? Cheap to buy and run, better on rough roads and snow than many a heavy 4×4, four doors and four seats, deceptively roomy inside and it’s a convertible. The downsides were a very loud and rather feeble engine, terrible heating and insulation, heavy steering and (especially later models) rust. The amazingly soft suspension can cause the occupants of the car to feel as if it’s about to roll over in fast or tight turns. Fun if you’re expecting it, but always slightly unnerving.
The best stuff is in the details though, such as this door knob (handle?). The 2CV’s minimalist design owed a lot to engineer André Lefebvre, who also masterminded the Traction Avant and the DS. Lefebvre came to Citroën from Voisin, an erstwhile aircraft pioneer turned automaker after the First World War. Gabriel Voisin had taught Lefebvre about the beauty of clean, aircraft-influenced designs and weight-saving solutions that were the hallmark of Voisin’s exclusive line of cars. In no Citroën is the Voisin DNA more visible than in the 2CV. The 1939 version was especially and uncompromisingly Voisin-like, with its alloy body and crude geometric styling. Once tempered by Bertoni’s unerring eye, the Citroën DNA became more visible, but traces of the original are still there – in this knob and in many other places, such as the flip-up front windows or the shape of the cabin.
One endearing quality of this car that is not at all easy to write about is the sound. If you grew up in Western Europe anytime from the ‘50s to the ‘90s or even 2000s, you know the sound of the Citroën flat-twin and you can pick it out, just like picking out the VW flat-4 becomes second nature. That flat-twin has a very distinctive voice. It is unusually high-pitched and whiny at idle, but when you put your right foot in, the whine turns into an angry growl. The sound is even louder if you’re in the car. And unless you’re in really flat areas, the only way to drive a 2CV is with a heavy right foot, getting everything you can from 435 or 602cc.
And that flat-twin noise was so widespread also because Citroën had used it in so many cars. The bizarre Ami 6 (1961-69) and slightly less-bizarre Ami 8 (1969-79), the Dyane / Acadyane (1967-87), the Méhari and its derivatives (1968-87) the Peugeot-based LN / LNA (1976-86), the Visa (1978-88) and the Romanian-built (and Opron-designed) Oltcit / Axel (1984-90).
The LNA, Axel and Visa got the most advanced version of the twin, a 652cc providing a dizzying 36 hp (DIN), but could also be equipped with 4-cyl. engines. In 40 years of production, the flat-twin’s capacity almost doubled, as did the car’s top speed, and its power output was quadrupled. The total number of flat-twin Citroëns is not easy to compute. If one could conservatively guess, at least 9 million cars – including about 4 million 2CV saloons – were made with some form of this noisy little motor in France, Portugal, Belgium, Iran, Britain, Vietnam, Senegal and other places.
The only folks who really took to the 2CV other than Europeans were the South Americans. Citroën had an assembly line at Arica, in northern Chile, where local content laws and other concerns transformed the 2CV into the Citroneta, which was built there throughout the ‘60s in several variants. Chilean production continued in the ‘70s, but with a much less modified version of the 2CV.
There was also an assembly line set up in Argentina. In 1980, Citroën officially pulled out of the country for various reasons, but 2CV production continued under the locally-owned IES brand, using modified Citroën-sourced CKD kits and the moniker “3CV America” well into the late ‘80s. The alternate universe down in that continent is a treasure-chest of oddities, though home-grown oddities certainly also existed.
The 2CV was decidedly not built for was speed and luxury. Yet this obvious fact did not deter some to go to pretty extreme lengths to try to remedy this situation, greatly aided in this venture by the wonders of fiberglass. In the ‘50s, a Monsieur Dagonet took on the challenge and produced a few strange and interesting lightweight variants of the 2CV. Some of them kept the four doors, others were sold as coupés, but all were chopped down and their engine heavily breathed upon. One could get a racing roadster from Monsieur de Pontac (no “i”), who produced a few of these bizarre cars, including one with flower print bodywork. Fiberglass specialists UMAP also produced a nice-looking coupé for a bit, as did Citroën UK, who introduced the British-market-only Bijou in 1959 in a desperate attempt to increase 2CV sales.
A few coachbuilders did try to work on the little Citroën, but weight was always a problem – especially in the ‘50s with the smaller engines. Perhaps the prettiest of the lot was this coupé by Allemano, commissioned by Citroën Belgium in late 1955 to see if a small production run could be made. It could not, but this is where the British branch took the idea (though not the styling) for their failed Bijou. Trying to turn the 2CV into a sports car or a fashionable one was not a straightforward task, and none of these attempts made any impact. But the weirdest outgrowth of the 2CV tree later sprouted, far away in the East…
The Romanian Oltcit started life as a Citroën design bureau exercise (Projet Y) in 1968 aimed at replacing the 2CV. It was to use the underpinnings of the Fiat 127, as the Italians were closely involved with Citroën at the time. It was ready for production (with Citroën underpinnings) by 1974, now codenamed VD (voiture diminuée), when the Peugeot takeover put the project on hold. Citroën themselves started to redevelop the VD as the Visa, with Peugeot underpinnings. The old Citroën-based VD was dusted up in 1976 when the French signed a contract with the Romanian government to build a factory there for a new car, the Oltcit. Renault had successfully co-created Dacia this way a few years earlier, so Peugeot were tempted to do the same. The VD prototype was already there, production-ready. Only the engine would change: the new 652cc plant, created in 1978 for the Visa, would be used along with the 1.1 and 1.3 litre GS flat-4. Bogged down by red tape, the factory was only finished by 1981. Production was very slow to get off the ground after that.
Citroën (i.e. Peugeot) owned 36% of the Oltcit factory and part of the deal was that they would import half of the Romanian production and sell it on the Western European market as the Citroën Axel – a new car, albeit with 10-year-old styling, appalling build quality and only available as a two-door hatchback. Imports started sluggishly in mid-1984, but Citroën spent so much fixing up the cars sent from Romania that they were sold at a loss. The Axel was a parasite: its base model was the cheapest car on the French market – below even the 2CV, which probably ate into 2CV sales. It later became evident that the Romanians (including Dacia) were making cheap black-market copies of French parts and installing those in cars meant for the domestic or COMECON market. Citroën parts were used in Axel versions, which Oltcit sold back to Citroën at an agreed price. This was the last straw for the French, who pulled out of the whole thing in 1988, though Axels were still sold until 1990. Oltcit became Oltena and nixed the 2-cyl. version in 1990 as well, though the flat-4 cars were made until 1996, when Oltena became a Daewoo factory. The Axel is mercifully rare nowadays. Unlike the 2CV.
The pantheon of small cars has many divinities. The Fiat 500, the Beetle, the Trabant, the Mini and the Renault 4 are up there, along with the 2CV. Only the Beetle beats it in terms of lifespan. This year, as it officially turns 70, it remains the only ‘30s-designed car – along with the Beetle (happy 80th, BTW) and the Morgan – that we still see, in some parts of the world, on a daily basis. The remaining stock is now usually well-cared for and increasing in value, so the 2CV will be with us – in some European countries, anyway – for some time yet.