(*This is not a car, it is a way of life.)
Every car producing nation in Europe has a car which has a special place in the public memory. The German Beetle, the Italian Fiat 500, the British Mini and Morris Minor, the Dutch DAF 33, the Swedish Volvo PV444. In France, it is the 2CV, the Citroen Deux Chevaux.
The Citroen 2CV needs no introduction on CC – Paul Niedermeyer has previously covered 2CV’s history more than well enough to avoid any attempt at that here. Rather, I’d like to highlight and explore the place the 2CV has in France, and for the French.
There have been many great and influential French cars, some of which have been seen here and some of which are to come. Cars like the Citroen Traction Avant, the incomparable Citroen DS, the Renault 16, the Peugeot 404,504 and 205 and Renault 5 and Espace to name but a few.
For a car with an engine of 602 cc and some 29 hp, unless it happens to be one of the early 425 or 435 cc versions with 12 or 18 hp, and dating from a design of the 1930s, to be still in active use as a daily driver across France is quite something. Paul showed us a 1972 Beetle recently, noting that it is an 80 year old design. The 2CV is not far behind. And in Europe, except Germany, it is probably more numerous.
The history is well known – conceived before the war, expected to be in production in 1939, the prototypes hidden all over France in barns, cellars and goodness knows where else for the duration, introduced to the public as the most basic car of all in 1948, sold for over 40 years and with over 4 million examples built, it was aimed at the first time car buyer, the rural owner moving up from a horse and cart or bicycle in many cases, and with an economy of purchase and ownership which fitted so well with those straitened times.
The original cars were basic in the extreme, but fulfilled a definite need. The original specification called for a car that could drive over a ploughed field with a basket on eggs on the seats, all unbroken, so that the driver, wearing his hat of course, could sell them at market without delay. And it did that. The secret to that was the innovative torsion bar suspension – simple, and brilliant.
Of course, there were other design requirements. It had to carry four or five people, 100kg of potatoes, cases of wine and other assorted cargoes. It had to be drivable whilst wearing clogs. It had to be faultlessly reliable and unbelievably economical.
Later cars had a fixed boot lid and rear window, but all had the roll back roof. Great flexibility and versatility. Carry tall things? Carry long things? Enjoy that Languedoc sunshine?
Low maintenance came as standard with the flat twin, air cooled engine, mounted so forward that it could be removed and replaced very quickly if necessary. A 2CV could be maintained in a basic village garage, perhaps by the same person who looked after farming equipment or supplied spares for the local wine makers’ equipment. It was a car for people who perhaps had never seen, let alone used, an internal combustion engine before.
Size wise, this was bigger than many economy cars, with a wheelbase of 95 inches, albeit comparatively narrow by the end of its run, with a flat floor adding to the spaciousness. Four seats were standard, all removable for carrying flexibility and al-fresco dining. That meant they had to be light, and they were – little more than deckchairs with bolts on the frames.
But this car was faster than you might think. The light weight (1200lb), front wheel drive and that astonishing suspension allowed more speed to be carried into a corner than you might consider even remotely sensible. Get behind a well driven, lightly laden 2CV on a bendy French D road and you may well find you have to be surprisingly alert and sure footed to get by. Even then, he’ll be behind you at the lights when you get into town. Hills were a bigger issue, though.
The big thing about the 2CV is its place in France’s social make-up. Outside Paris, France is pretty well not class conscious, and buying a new car every few years for the experience of the new is much less common than in, for example, the UK. French cars tend to get replaced when they need it, and people tend to buy what they need, not what they want. That’s why cars like the Renault 16, Scenic and Espace did so well.
Ignore the stereotype of the arm waving, shouting Frenchman – France is a relaxed country of relaxed people, not racing down autobahns or running for underground trains. It is a country that takes the time necessary to do things – be it the long lunches, the time taken to grow and harvest grapes to make and then age the wine, the care taken with the decoration of the patisserie or the lingering conversations around the street cafes.
Heck, even playing boules is allowed to take the time necessary, and a space is allocated in almost every town. The 2CV fits this nature so well, better than a Mini fits the British personality for example, that it could have been intended to do. Well, actually it was, and that is probably why it lasted for over 40 years. The Mini lasted for 40 years because BL couldn’t afford to replace it.
The van, or Fourgonnette, was a favourite with the PTT, the French post office, for many years and with local delivery users across France, from wine to bread and everything in between. Is there anything more French than a 2CV delivering fresh bread?
Ultimately, Citroen started to mimic the 1980s Mini, with a series of special editions with elaborate paint schemes, special interiors and no more power – this Charleston version is typical. But these moved away from the true 2CV, and are more likely to be seen in the UK or Germany than France. In France, it is the simple 2CV Special.
This tongue in cheek sense of humour effectively became one of the cars strengths – adverts like this were typical in the 1970s and 1980s, and it wasn’t just on the UK that the advertising took an unusual approach.
The car was also renowned for its basic interior. Need fresh air? Fold up the side windows, or roll back the roof.
There were no unnecessary features in a2Cv, as in many economy cars. The gear lever spruted out of the dash, like an umbrella and controlled a linkage runing ove the top of the engine. Looking at this, I can see where Alec Issigonis took some inspiration, also.
And if the 2CV was too formal for you, there was always the Mehari. Actually derived from the Dyane, this had a GRP one piece body in a similar way to the VW Beach Buggy. Ideal if you lived on the Camargue.
There were competitors. The strongest was undoubtedly the Renault 4 – so close in many ways but with 12 years’ experience to make it better. A hatchback and more power, obviously, but somehow missing a lot of the charm and character. A practical, engineering led answer to the same question, also long lasting and commercially more successful. But not a 2CV.
2CV production ended in 1990. The later Dyane and Ami derivatives died in the late 1970s, superseded by cars like the Citroen LN and Visa.
But the 2CV, and the Dyane and Ami, is still seen every day in rural France, doing what it has always done – moving local people and the chattels from one place to another, not quickly but not holding up traffic either, with more capaciousness than a modern supermini, probably more ride comfort and certainly a more distinctive noise.
It is hard to get frustrated behind a 2CV. They make you smile, unless you’ve got a plane to catch. Somehow, you know the 2CV wasn’t made for people you had planes to catch, though. The most pressing engagement would be getting your produce to the market, on Wednesday, for about 8 am. Lunch at 12pm sharp in the square, with the other stall holders, and then some boules or a glass of Pastis at a street café. In winter, back home for a warming dinner, cooked and eaten with local wine. And a baguette, of course.
The Deux Chevaux is more than just France’s VW Beetle, or Fiat 500, or Morris Minor, or even Mini. It is all of them, and it is France’s Land Rover as well. It is, frankly, France on wheels, and that makes it something quite different to any other car, arguably unique and something that personifies its homeland, the people and their lifestyle.
“Ceci n’est pas une voiture….c’est un art de vivre”; it seems to catch it so well. You could only put that in a Citroen Deux Chevaux, where it unquestionably belongs.