It was designed in the 1930s as entry-level transportation for people who had never before owned a car. It was powered by a simple, robust, easily-serviced air-cooled engine, and rode on a surprisingly sophisticated fully-independent suspension. What it lacked in pavement-burning and corner-carving performance it more than made up for with ruggedness and reliability.
It was first put into mass production as Europe began rebuilding itself after World War II. Seemingly against all odds, it remained in production for decades with only minor changes. Thanks to its cute, cuddly, fashionably unfashionable looks, it inspired a level of affection all out of proportion to its actual worth as a motor vehicle. It starred in memorable movie roles and became a favorite of "hippies" and others who wanted to project a free-spirited, beat-of-my-own-drum image.
No, I am not talking about the Volkswagen Type 1 ("Beetle"). I'm talking about that other air-cooled countercultural icon: the Citroen 2CV ("Deux Chevaux").
The original aluminum-bodied design was developed in the late 1930s. It was intended as a first car for farmers, and the specification called for a low-cost vehicle that could transport two sturdy French peasants and 100 kg (220 lbs) of produce or farm goods at a speed of 60 KPH (37 mph) on unpaved roads, and cross a plowed field without breaking any eggs being carried in the cargo area. The car was ready for production in 1939, but work on the project halted when the war broke out. During the occupation, the prototypes and design drawings were kept hidden from the Germans. After the war, the design was reworked to use steel body panels because aluminum had become too expensive for the desired price point. This, and other changes, delayed introduction until 1949.
The "2CV" name is an abbreviation for Deux Chevaux Vapeur, "two steam horses," which is actually a technical legal term from the French tax code. France taxes automobiles based on their engine output, and the 2CV was designed to fall into the #2 horsepower tax class. It did not mean that it had only a two-horsepower engine.The Deux Chevaux's engine was more powerful than that. Much more powerful. Four and a half times as powerful! The 375cc two-cylinder engine in the original 2CV produced a thundering nine horsepower.
Stop laughing. Yes, it's true you can get lawn tractors with more powerful engines, and the 375cc Deux Chevaux is one of the few cars that a Type 1 Volkswagen or a Nash Metropolitan can utterly humiliate on the dragstrip. That's not the point. The Deux Chevaux was meant for country back roads, not the Autoroute. It weighed only 1,200 pounds, and the 9-horsepower mill--driving the front wheels through a four-speed gearbox--is adequate to get the little fella up to its (admittedly modest) specified design speed. On the other hand, it is reputed to have achieved a Prius-like 78 MPG.
The fully independent suspension was designed to handle rough roads and plowed fields. The leading arms on the front wheels and the trailing arms on the back wheels on each side were interconnected in a manner that kept the body level on uneven surfaces. Combined with soft spring rates, this gave the Deux Chevaux excellent rough-road and off-road performance. It also gave the Deux Chevaux fairly extreme body roll in cornering and a bit of a waddling gait. It's said that you can get a 2CV to rock just by sitting in it and wiggling in your seat.
This cleverly-engineered platform was topped with a four-door body styled by Flamino Bertoni. Though the bodywork was designed primarily to be cheap to construct, Bertoni managed to get the curves of the roofline and fenders and doors to synchronize so that the Deux Chevaux looked functional, cute, and distinctive all at the same time. The roof was a long piece of canvas fitted in channels on the top of the body side stampings. It opened at the front to create a sunroof, and at the back to allow access to the trunk. The side windows do not roll down; they're split horizontally and the bottom half is hinged to open by folding up.
While the French automotive press was decidedly unimpressed, the public fell in love with the Deux Chevaux. Citroen got the price point and specifications exactly right for the target market, and demand soon outstripped supply. Within months of its introduction, there was a three-year waiting list, which eventually increased to five years. Used 2CVs were soon commanding a premium for immediate availability.
It's a tribute to the original design that there were so few changes over the years. The most significant of these occurred in the engine bay. In 1955, the 375cc engine was replaced by a slightly more powerful 425cc model. In 1968, this gave way to a 602cc engine putting out 28 horsepower, which actually bumped the car up into the #3 horsepower tax class. In 1970, the new M28 version of the 602cc engine produced 33 horsepower, making the later models the "muscle cars" of the Deux Chevaux world. A latter-day Deux Chevaux has a top speed of 75 mph and can actually run on the Autoroute--though 2CV owners will readily admit that acceleration takes some patience and it's a good idea to phone ahead and reserve a place in traffic as you start down the on-ramp.
Externally, there have also been a few changes. In 1957, a metal trunk lid replaced the canvas one. In 1960, the hood was redesigned. The front "suicide doors" were replaced with the conventional kind in 1964. In 1965, rear quarter windows were added. Even with these modifications, unless you are attuned to the spotting differences, a 2CV from the very last production batch is hard to tell from the 1949 original at a distance.
Citroen used the 2CV platform in some of its later economy cars, none of which ever really replaced it. There are a few production variants that also deserve mention. The most important from a sales perspective were the two million or so "commercial" 2CVs, with a truck body replacing the rear seats. There were 25 fiberglass-bodied "Radar" roadsters built in 1958. The Sahara four-wheel-drive off-road version is a 2CV with a second engine and drivetrain in the trunk area--they've become quite rare, with only 27 of the 694 produced known to have survived.
Sales fell off in the late 1960s as more sophisticated vehicles became more affordable for more people. There was a bit of a renaissance after the early 1970s gas price spike, and the car also gradually became a symbol of "Frenchness" and non-conformity. It was featured in the French-language comic Adventures of Tintin and appeared in many films and TV productions, most notably the 1981 James Bond adventure For Your Eyes Only--about which we'll have more below.
While it was and still is dearly loved, by the mid-1980s the 2CV was also obsolete and uncompetitlve, and sales continued to decline. At some point, the car would no longer be able to keep up with Europe's increasingly stringent new vehicle safety standards. Production was moved to Portugal in 1988 to take advantage of lower labor costs, but this was just a rear-guard action. Citroen finally pulled the plug in 1990.
Though the 2CV's story parallels that of the Volkswagen in may ways, there are a few major differences. A VW Type 1 is a "Beetle" or a "Bug" the world over, in nearly every language. The Deux Chevaux doesn't have such a consistent cross-cultural nickname. In France, Deux Chevaux is sometimes contracted to Deuche or Deduche. In the UK, it's called a "Dolly" or a "Tin Snail." In Norway it's a "Jemseng," which means "iron bed." (?) In most of the rest of Europe, its nickname is some variation on the local word for "duck."
More significantly, while Volkswagen would happily ship Beetles to any country where someone might be willing to buy them, Citroen did not go after the export market nearly so aggressively. The Tin Snail sold in decent numbers in Europe, and made it to the Middle East and parts of South America, but an attempt to manufacture it in the UK for local consumption failed after only a couple years. Only a few thousand were sent to North America, all before 1960. The car's minimalist nature made it uncompetitive in the U.S. market, and unfavorable currency exchange rates didn't help. One source says that when Citroen gave up on the U.S. market, the remaining unsold cars were scrapped because it wasn't cost-effective to ship them back to France.
There was also the matter of build quality. The Beetle's German engineering and quality control were exemplary, and VW wasn't shy about mentioning this in its advertising. The Deux Chevaux was built out of the cheapest available grade of steel and assembled with a decidedly more casual attitude. In later years, there was less and less attention paid to assembly quality, and the gauge of the steel used in the body and frame was reduced in an effort to keep the price down.
These differences are reflected in the all-time production totals. The 2CV was in production from 1949 to 1990. A respectable 3,872,583 sedans (and a couple million more commercial versions) were built. Nothing to be ashamed of there, but contrast that with the astounding total of 21,529,464 Beetles produced from 1945 through 2003.
Of course, that's not quite a fair comparison. The Type 1 was a masterpiece of engineering and functionality, and few designs of any product will ever approach its level of what the engineers call "elegance." Citroen's ugly duckling was designed to a more modest set of specifications, and just wasn't as much car as the Bug. In the context of what it set out to do, though, the Deduche succeeded brilliantly--and it's just so gosh-darned cute you can't help but love it, soft springs and glacial acceleration and all. I wouldn't want one for a daily driver, but for leisurely runs to the ice cream stand on summer evenings, you could do a lot worse. It might even be fun down in the park in the twisty part in the gorge between the old mill and the goldfish pond--and you'd have no trouble keeping within the 25 mph speed limit!
I'll leave you with the chase scene from For Your Eyes Only. Bond (Roger Moore) is on the run from the bad guys, and after his Lotus Esprit is destroyed by an over-enthusiastic anti-theft system, he and "Bond girl" Melina Havelock (Carole Bouquet) are forced to make do with her yellow Deux Chevaux. Though the bad guys' Peugeots have them seriously "out-horsepowered," Bond and Melina use the 2CV's ruggedness and off-road capabilities in making good their escape. The Bond films aren't exactly known for their gritty realism and attention to detail, but this depiction of the Tin Snail's performance envelope is not too exaggerated. Vive l'escargot de bidon!
The red 2CV at the top of the page came from the website of 2CVsRus, a company in Seattle which specializes in restoring these interesting vehicles. The black and white shot of a '51 model with the original suicide doors is from Flickr user Yannick C. The overhead shot of the red and white one is from Flickr user Count Rushmore, and shows the canvas roof and corrugated hood to good advantage. The one with the groovy mod psychedelic mural on the side is from Flickr user taiyofj. The vintage Citroen brochure, with Tintin on the cover, came from the British Tin Snail fansite 2CV Online.
--Propriétaire du chien appelé "Cookie"