2CV cover

Economical ingenuity: 70 years of the Citroën 2CV

Cars Culture

70 years of Citroen's 2CV

 The ‘umbrella on wheels’ or the ‘tin snail’, the unmistakable Citroën 2CV has also been a 24-hour endurance racer, a James Bond film star, a delivery van, a beach buggy-type fun machine, and, in twin-engined four-wheel drive ‘Sahara’ versions, a go-anywhere mountain goat of a car. Along with the original Fiat 500 and Mini, and Volkswagen Beetle, it’s become a four-wheeled cult of a motor. And like its economy car bedfellows, it wasn’t meant to be like that.

Conceived as a vehicle for the French rural masses, the original design called for a motorised carriage which would carry up to four adults in comfort, as well as a cask of wine, and 50kg of potatoes. The fabled non-broken basket of eggs was also a pre-condition, and is as much of a cult as the car itself. Developed by Citroën owner Michelin before World War II, all work on the ‘Toute Petite Voiture’ (‘TPV’ or ‘Very Small Car’) stopped during the hostilities. TPV prototypes were mothballed away from the occupying forces, with the final production 2CV launched at the Paris motor show on 7 October 1948. Groundbreaking ideas included self-levelling suspension, front-wheel drive, an idiosyncratic four-speed gearbox and radial tyres. The name? 2CV means ‘deux chevaux’ (‘two horses’), and originally referred to its design-specified two tax horsepower taxation class.

2CV side

As the design of the French economy car barely changed until the end of production on 27 July 1990, the first cars were as recognisable as the last. All shared the same basic silhouette and curved wings, roll-back canvas roof and fold-up windows. The first cars were fitted with a 375cc flat-twin four-stroke air-cooled engine, with capacity increased to 425, 435 and 602cc during the intervening 42 years. The 2CV was an immediate success, Citroën swamped with orders during its Paris debut. At around £175, it was half the price of its Volkswagen rival, and buyers had to wait three years to get one. Production started small in 1949, when 846 2CVs were built. A year later, 6,196 cars rolled off the lines, with that total more than doubling again in 1951.

Built in Slough from 1953 to 1960, by the mid-1980s, the UK and West Germany were the 2CV’s best foreign markets. But, just like that triumvirate of economy car rivals, the petite Citroën’s appeal stretched worldwide, from Asia and Africa to South America and beyond. In common with its peoples’ car peers, it also fended off competition from models designed to kill it. The 1961 Ami and 1967 Dyane were more avantgarde 2CV-based Citroëns, and along with the 1978 Visa and 1987 AX formed a four-prong modernisation attack, but the old stager lolloped on, also inspiring the off-road and plastic-bodied Méhari of 1968, a cult car in its own right. But just what is it that keeps the Citroën faithful worshipping at the altar of the 2CV?

Malcolm Bobbit, 1990 2CV6 Spécial

Motoring writer Malcolm Bobbit has owned his 1990 Sky Blue 2CV6 Spécial for four years, and the car is the latest in a long line of Citroën ‘A’-cars. “I have owned 2CVs and Dyanes since the early 1970s and having sold my last 2CV in 1993 decided that life was not complete without a Citroën Deux Chevaux. I was keen to acquire any type, whether an early ripple bonnet or a later model, and spoke to a Citroën specialist friend who knew of a very late blue Spécial for sale. He had looked after for some years and knew it to be excellent: I bought it without even seeing it.

“I use the car for all sorts of journeys, shopping included,” says Malcolm. “I just enjoy driving it and keeping it in use just as was originally intended. The 2CV is an essential part of Citroën heritage and being designed as a simple ‘umbrella on wheels’ makes it a joy to own and drive. To have a car that is so minimal makes for huge satisfaction. And then there is the huge history of the 2CV, which makes it such a landmark car. What makes it attractive is it remaining faithful to the original design – the simple but wonderfully comfortable seats, minimal instrumentation and the extraordinary approach towards basic yet innovative engineering.

Malcolm enthuses: “The roll-back roof, hinged windows and absence of gadgets give the 2CV its loveable uniqueness. There is also the need for anticipation when driving, such as when overtaking and using the gearbox when tackling hills. Driving the 2CV is being part of the car itself and understanding its ethos as well as knowing its limitations. It is the little things about the 2CV, like the wonderful push-pull-twist gear change mechanism, which make it so beguiling.”

Ian Kelso, 1981 2CV6 Charleston

Film-maker and professional photographer Ian Kelso bought his 1981 2CV Charleston in August 1985 because of “her” low insurance costs and 44mpg fuel economy. “I love how much fun she is to drive and the fact that she needs some effort to get the best out of the 602cc, high-revving engine. I also like the body roll which belies the quality roadholding you feel through the steering wheel in the way of a sports car,” Ian exclaims.

Having driven Ian’s car for ourselves, we agree with his sentiments about the car’s “fantastically comfortable” ride shared with his 1966 Citroën DS. Ian’s 2CV glides over road imperfections, the passengers barely feeling anything at all, while the steering feel is among the most pure we’ve experienced. “A Citroën hallmark, the 2CV converts rough roads into a gentle up-and-down motion for the passengers while the DS glides like a magic carpet over the top as the hydraulic suspension absorbs the shocks and bumps. The Dutch nickname for the DS translates as ‘The Flat Iron’ which is a very apt description,” Ian notes.

Ian Seabrook, 1986 2CV6 Dolly

Self-titled ‘classic car nerd’, motoring writer and editor of HubNut.org, Ian Seabrook is another long-time 2CV fan. “I’ve owned 2CVs since I was 18,” he says. But why? “The simple reason is the sheer joy that comes from driving one. There are few cars that offer as much fun for so little power. You can have the time of your life at entirely legal speeds. Mix in a great social scene and superb parts support and frankly I can’t see me ever not owning one. We even used ‘Elly’, our 1986 Dolly for our wedding, riding it like a chariot!” Ian grins.

An automotive icon of the 20th century, the Citroën 2CV’s appeal is rooted in its simplicity. One of the reasons why production peaked during the 1970s oil crises, its no-fuss, no-frills character endeared it to 3,868,634 owners over its four-decade production run. Spin-off variants added almost five million more, proof, if proof were needed that the clever and intelligent minimalism instilled in the car from its birth 70 years ago was all that was needed. Bon anniversaire 2CV!