Was it the 2CV’s slightly duller brother, or the car the 2CV should have become?
In all practical respects the Citroën Dyane was an improvement on the 2CV. The sliding front windows were more convenient, the two position fabric sunroof easier to use, the hatchback more versatile, the bodywork a little more slippery. Yet, despite comprising nearly 17% of total 2CV derivative Citroen production in its 15 years, against the 2CV saloon’s 45% over 42 years, it is a bywater in Citroën history because, of course, it isn’t a Deuche and, in terms of original intent, it isn’t even strictly a Citroën, since it was intended to be a Panhard.
Based on the 2CV platform, it was developed as a counter to the Renault 4, which was perceived as being a bit more ‘civilised’ than the 2CV. The Panhard connection is because, having been forced to sell itself to Citroën, for a while the new owners were playing at being nice to that noble marque, before unceremoniously dumping it the year the Dyane was actually unveiled with chevrons on the grille.
The Dyane was available in 425cc (later 435cc) and 602cc form, though with only 32 bhp available in the largest version, the smaller engined versions were maybe just too slow. Available in the UK from 1968, we got the fully specced Confort version with one piece moulded plastic door mouldings rather than hardboard and a spare safely located under the bonnet rather than bouncing around in the boot. Earlier versions had a comfortable bench front seat in a breathable plastic. Both front and rear seats came out easily for picnics. Spanish versions had wind-down front windows and sliding rear windows, whereas back passengers in more Northern lands had to rely on the sunroof for ventilation. There was also a van version, the punningly named Acadiane.
My family bought a Primrose Yellow Dyane 6 new in 1972, replacing the rust borne Fiat 124 I’ve written of elsewhere, and it was dragged off to scrap car heaven about 10 years later after around 80,000 miles. During that time I had been a significant driver and, for the latter part of its life, the only driver, so I guess I must take full responsibility for, effectively, running it into the ground. In mitigation, cars seem to last longer these days, though compared with the Fiat the Citroën had a long life. In the end, rust was the killer for our Dyane too although of course today I could, and would, rescue it with new floor panels or, even, a galvanised chassis.
I was the prime mover in suggesting the Dyane purchase and I loved it from the moment we got it. After a couple of years I took up the rubber mats and found a Paris Metro ticket left by one of the guys who built it. It gave me a bit of that signed Aston Martin engine block sort of feeling. It’s now over 35 years since I drove a Citroën twin, but I remember every sensation, from the weight of the steering, the sliding of the gear lever, the lurching forward to the bracing against the door on left hand bend. When I drive my SM, it’s clear that it’s the Dyane’s stuck-up relative, far more airs and graces but, at heart, oddly similar. Only my living in London has stopped me from buying one again.
Not that I suppose a sentient Dyane would have felt the same about me. It was abused, I admit. I took it off road too many times, once memorably taking it down a military tank testing track into a dip from which it was remarkably hard to get out. It did, however, get out, something that its predecessor would certainly not have achieved. I drove around Europe on holiday various times, on three occasions four-up with our belongings and full camping equipment in boot and on roof rack, and the 602cc twin buzzing along at full revs all day, if needed, never missing a beat. Until one year crossing the Pyrenees, when a helicoil in the left hand sparking plug failed causing a persistent misfire, rather critical with only two cylinders. Afraid that debris might get into the cylinder I dismantled the side wing (15 minutes work) then removed and replaced the cylinder head (no gasket required) and had it all back up running smoothly enough in time for an afternoon swim. This is a tribute to the car’s partial friendliness to the amateur mechanic, not my abilities. I say partial because other items, like the inboard drum brakes (discs were fitted on later variants) could be more of a pain.
Even the oddities and faults were endearing. With no distributor (spark was delivered simultaneously to both cylinders, even though one was wasted at the top of the exhaust stroke) and a starting handle I never got stranded. The engine idled in first at a funereal walking pace, meaning that you could get out and walk beside the car, if you thought that was a clever thing to do (naturally I did and ended up running over my hand). Fuel consumption could be good – 50 mpg was quoted but, naturally, I never saw that. For me it was somewhere in the 30s, not bad for then anyway, even if it sounds a lot now. The horizontal interconnected suspension tubes needed occasional lubrication, to avoid a rather loud scrooping noise that resembled, in my imagination at least, the sound of two elephants humping. The heater was fed by a cowl around the fins of the air-cooled cylinders with flexible tubes letting the warm(ish) air and, in the case of leaks, any other noxious fumes trickle into the cabin. Wikipedia claims it gave ‘excellent heating and demisting’. Well all I can say is ‘Citation Needed’. Yes, it was more effective than my motorcycle, but on one cold journey my partner got into a sleeping bag, unfortunately not a driver option. You could however keep food warm by putting it into the tubes.
I drove it very quickly since, once you’d picked up speed you seldom needed to slow. There was then, and still persists, the idea that the large roll angles of Citroëns denoted low roadholding ability, and I felt it my evangelical duty to disabuse people of that. So there was plenty of juvenile hassling of so-called ‘sport saloons’ on corners and, particularly, roundabouts. Also, it was surprisingly fleet in a straight line, capable of an indicated 80 mph plus on the flat, a fact that the police could testify to (‘just keep a close eye on that speedo in future son’). Even traffic light duels had their moments since launch control mode (run the engine up to around 3,000 rpm, drop the clutch and let the scrabbling Michelins take up the slack, hold it in first until the revs peaked then slide it quickly and smoothly into second for that nitro moment) meant it would leap away from most things up to 20, even 30 mph.
For a year or so I ran a later Dyane. It was more or less the same car, yet orange rather than yellow. It had lost its press button starter, had separate orange nylon covered front seats and a folding rear but, for no discernable reason, it wasn’t as good. The engine just wasn’t as free and willing. In the end I disinterred its predecessor.
Do people feel nostalgia for the Seventies? Probably only if you didn’t experience them. Yes, there was Bowie and Punk and The Godfather and … um, something else but, generally, there was the feeling that we were all going nowhere in an inward-looking, resentful country. For part of that period I was going though tertiary education, convinced that I was training for a job that didn’t exist. Sounds familiar? It might well, especially if you are reading this in a few years time. But the Dyane was a cheering, minimalist light offering so much for not much. Today’s motorist would look at it and recognise it as a death trap, something that feels as though it could disintegrate in the breeze. Yet, if you judge a car by its versatility, its practicality, its ability to entertain, its eagerness to give you the most for the least, then in many ways I’ve never had a better car. It’s a pity it didn’t have a better driver.