Beloved of generations of counter culture types from hippies and peaceniks, through vegetarians, to the fabled Peruvian basket-weaving collective, the 2CV was born of one man’s vision to get the roads cleared of French farmers’ wagons – much as the Mini was meant to rid the world of bubble cars – and it attacked its target with singular and wholly admirable determination.
Together with tens of ordinary private French motorists, in 1935 Citroën boss Pierre-Joules Boulanger had tired of finding himself queuing yet again behind a slow-moving procession of farmers in horse-drawn wagons bound for market. Accordingly he decided to produce a car which was not just simple and affordable enough to appeal to these farmers and their wives for daily use, but one which was also sufficiently rugged for it to play an active role in the actual running of their farms and smallholdings.
His brief for the new car was therefore simple but radical: the car needed to have room for four – Boulanger insisted that a six-footer should be able to keep his hat on – weigh no more than 5.9 cwt or 300 kg, and be capable of carrying a 110lb barrel or a sack of potatoes at a speed of 37 mph. It also had to be capable of driving a minimum of 56 miles on a single gallon of fuel, and cost no more than one-third of the price of a Traction Avant (q.v.). Suspension travel was to be considerable, in order that the car could traverse the worst possible terrain – a ploughed field, for example – and do so without breaking a basket of eggs plonked on the passenger seat.
The toughness, durability and versalitity of the finished product was eventually to be proven beyond doubt, of course. After losing his oil one 2CV owner managed to nurse his along for an amazing 500 miles by stuffing the gearbox full of bananas. Another crossed the border into Italy to complete the grindingly arduous 1955 Mille Miglia (finishing in 271st place) and from 1958-67 there was even a four-wheel drive version on sale with an engine fitted at each end. Little wonder then that the original prototype (with its weight-saving single headlamp) was ordered to be chopped up in 1939 in order to prevent it falling into the hands of the Nazis.
To meet these wide-ranging performance parameters in the first place, a wide range of different options had been considered by the firm’s engineers, including an advanced, chassis-less design with lightweight magnesium suspension arms. They also looked at several highly novel materials for the distinctive, snail-like bodywork including a type of waxed cloth stretched over an alloy frame, bamboo and even papier mâché. By 1938 they settled on an aluminium chassis and steel body, the intention being to have the first 250 cars ready for the Paris Salon the following year.
Unfortunately these pre-production cars were all shockingly bad: under-powered, too softly sprung, too slow and way too expensive to be put into production. Fortunately, very few were actually built before the Germans invaded, and actually with the benefit of hindsight that was probably just as well.
Instead, following the war literally everything about the car was rejigged: by the time they went on display again in Paris in 1948 there was an all-new air-cooled engine (the original had been water-cooled), a new 4-speed gearbox, rather more conventional sheet-steel construction, cheaper, flat-glass windows . . . in short a car which today all of us would recognise as a classic Deux Chevaux.
The suspension was still pretty complex, but it worked beautifully. Everything else was as simple as the company could get away with: windows which folded instead of winding down; a tiny 375cc two-cylinder engine based on a BMW bike design; seats which were removable to improve the load-carrying capacity; even hingeless doors and bolt-on panels which could be stripped off within minutes.
One journalist cheekily asked whether the car was supplied with a tin-opener but on the whole the French loved it; indeed initial demand so exceeded supply that the company took the extraordinary step of rationing them, giving priority to country vets, midwives and medics. As a result it took a while to get started on this side of the Channel, a situation not helped by import duties which meant it cost substantially more than, say, a baby Austin or Morris Minor, either one of which was positively limousine-like by comparison.
Today, however, the enduring simplicity of the 2CV makes even the latest cars an outstanding starter classic – cheap, characterful and very easy to work on – with a variety of specialist companies dedicated to helping penny-pinching owners keep them on the road. They’re surprisingly good to drive too, providing you can live with the racket, adopt an almost Zen approach to its positively vintage levels of performance, and don’t mind becoming a stranger to the outside lane of the motorway. (Steep hills can be a bit of a challenge too, in fact at times you wonder whether this thing’s actually any quicker than those wagons which used to drive M. Boulanger so barmy).
Probably an early saloon or (if you can find one) a 2CV van – preferably finished in flat, 1950s Parisian municipal grey – is a nicer thing to own than one of the slightly cheesy and self-conciously retro ‘Charleston’ or ‘Dolly’ limited edition models from the 1980s. Mechanically they’re all much of a muchness, so try and find a car which looks like it’s been cared for. Routine maintenance is surprisingly important as the engine really needs new oil every 3,000 miles. It’s also important to establish that the brakes are sound – check the reservoir to make sure it’s topped up with the correct (clear green) Citroën LHM liquid – as new master cylinder rubbers could cost as much as £400 to buy and fit. Generally however 2CV parts are well-priced and readily available, and the cars themselves are as personality-packed as many cars costing three or four times the price.