All hail the immortal tin snail! We’ve covered the 2CV pretty extensively on CC already – I’ve even written one of these up myself. My recent jaunt back to France has yielded a couple of interesting variants. Things are about to get a bit slimy.
I’ll just assume the basics about the Deux Chevaux (that’s how to pronounce “2CV” in French) are known by all – otherwise, please read one of the CC posts linked at the end of this one. Suffice to say that the little Gallic gastropod has attained icon status, as exemplified by a few key numbers: a production span of 40 years, over 5 million made, 602cc at best, current value (in good condition, like the Charleston above): over €10,000, i.e. over twice the price when new.
But cold statistics mean little to explain the 2CV. It’s both extremely rational as an automotive solution, and completely left field as a phenomenon. It was almost born prematurely in late 1939, but the war forced it back in development for an additional decade, so it became a symbol of the post-war boom and finally made the horse cart obsolete in rural France.
By the mid-‘70s, though, the old snail was starting to lose some of its uniqueness. The Renault 4 was a major rival. It aped the 2CV’s best traits – crazy soft suspension, FWD, no frills, four doors – but added a rear hatch, modern styling, a slightly more capable 4-cyl. water-cooled engine and the might of Renault (i.e. the French State) behind it. Peugeot got in on the city car segment in 1972 with the 104 – though it was much more expensive than the 2CV. More ominously, various quirky imports were snapping at the snail’s heels (wherever that may be): the Fiat 500 and 126, the Mini, the Beetle and others were competing for urbanites, while Eastern invaders from beyond the Iron Curtain and Japan were sharpening their knives.
It was so pervasive that even Citroën got in on it. They attempted to upstage their own escargot by launching the Dyane in 1967 – a bizarrely tame rehash of the original, albeit with a shade less elbowroom. They followed it up with the LN in 1976 – a Peugeot 104 hatchback with a flat-twin, something of a bastard child. Not surprisingly, the 2CV survived this friendly fire as well; sales remained healthy, particularly once the Dyane’s 602cc twin was made available on the 2CV, including the van version.
The van was the 2CV range’s Achille’s heel. The Renault 4 van’s superior performance and greater hauling capacity caused the Citroën to lose momentum in that side of the race earlier. In 1970, the 2CV van was given the Dyane’s bigger engine and in 1975 the platform and suspension were beefed up slightly to increase hauling capacity to 400 kilos.
That year also saw a big change in the 2CV’s appearance, as the headlamps went rectangular – a most unfortunate development, in my view, that remained with the car for the remainder of the decade and stuck to the Club trim saloons even beyond that.
The 2CV van, however, never made it past 1977. Citroën switched the front end to the Dyane’s sheetmetal, probably to make up for the saloon’s lackluster sales. The Acadiane, as the van came to be known, outlasted the saloon and was sold, without fanfare, until 1987. The Visa-derived C15 replaced it and gave Citroën the smash hit that had eluded them in light utility vehicles until then.
But here’s the odd thing: despite the passage of time, the noisy yet feeble engine, the complete lack of passive safety and the design’s overall archaic nature, the 2CV made in to 1980, ditched the lymphatic 435cc twin for good and got something of a second (or third or fourth) wind. And that’s where the Charleston came in.
Since the mid-‘70s, Citroën made a bunch of special edition 2CVs, in a bid to shift more colorful snails for the masses. It worked a treat, but in October 1980, they launched the Charleston. They initially made 8000 units, but those literally flew out of the showrooms and some were quickly re-sold, virtually brand new, for prices higher than the MRSP. Citroën did the obvious thing and, by mid-1981, the limited edition Charleston became a full-time regular in the 2CV lineup.
The most notable difference between the initial limited run and later cars like our CC are the headlamps, which were red initially and became fully chromed. Additional two-tone combos were also available, aside from the tried and true red-and-black. The black and yellow only lasted one model year and is now sought after, but the two-tone gray that replaced it was such a hit, even Tintin used it as a moon buggy.
Inside, the Charleston had a bespoke seat material, strangely featuring a pattern shaped like a Renault logo. Other than that, the two-tone paint and the chrome hubcaps (and headlights), it was like any other 2CV. Yet it cost a little bit more than its siblings and brought in a new generation of clients to appreciate the unique delights of gastropodeical transport. An overwhelming majority of the Charleston’s buyers were under 35, which was decidedly not the case for any 2-cyl. Citroën model to date.
That didn’t preclude other limited editions to pop up regularly in an attempt to have enough people shelling out for the old snail despite its age. And it usually worked pretty well, too. They even recreated the Charleston with the Dolly in 1985, which was also gradually integrated into the range.
The Charleston stayed on as the fancy 2CV right until the end of the line – in fact, the very last 2CV made in July 1990 was a two-tone gray car. Just as the retro wave was about to hit the automobile world, the most genuinely retro car went out of production.
It was fitting, therefore, for me to find these two variants a couple weeks ago. A square-eyed ‘70s proletarian still working for a living and a restored retro-themed go-go ‘80s yuppiemobile – the duality of the 2CV personified.