We pay belated tribute to a diminutive giant.
What can there possibly be left to say about the Citroën 2CV? Should we simply rehash its backstory, acknowledge its long commercial career, mention the cars it sired, and allude to its afterlife once production ceased? Surely this alone will not do. The problem with approaching cars which have attained the status of holy relics, is finding a means to see them clearly, unencumbered by the layers of nuance, of context, of perception, of received wisdom and preconceived notion which have accumulated over the half century the car was in series production, not to mention the subsequent decades since its retirement.
For there have been many 2CVs, not simply by consequence of its sheer fecundity (over 5 million made), nor the multitude of direct and indirect derivations, but in terms of what the car itself came to represent and indeed those to whom it primarily appealed. Created for an entirely different world to the one it entered, intended for a primarily rural customer, the 2CV would fall victim, first to geopolitics, then to a fundamental shift in demographics and socio-cultural change, and ultimately of course, to time itself.
France to this day remains a country with a large and intensive agricultural sector, but in the mid-Thirties, a huge swathe of the population was resident in the countryside and were desperately in need of something in advance of a horse and trap. The 2CV programme was commissioned in 1936 by Citroën’s Director-General, Pierre Boulanger, who recognised the opportunity to produce a vehicle substantially simpler and more affordable than the middle-class Traction Avant that Citroën were just starting to produce in volume.
Not only more affordable however, but something more fundamental in purpose and design. Boulanger, a seemingly modest and frugal-minded individual who had no time for dogma or imitation marshalled a team of free-thinking engineers, lead by André Lefebvre, handing them what could only be considered a dream brief. ‘An umbrella on wheels‘, he decreed; this being the what, leaving it entirely up to them to establish the how.
By 1938, Citroën’s bureau d’etudes responded to Monsieur Boulanger’s decree, creating, in the immortal words of LJK Setright (who better?), “a car so remorselessly logical there was nothing to argue, so skeletally vestigial there was nothing to criticise, so abundant in promise, it is not exhausted yet.”
The Tout Petit Vehicule (TPV) was precisely what one might imagine a former Voisin-trained engineering director might have co-created, for it relied more upon aviation practice than the kind of blacksmithery habitually then associated with the motor car.
The TPV, which closely resembled the production 2CV in appearance; albeit, in an even more rationally austere fashion, was built on a chassis and bodyshell made of Duralumin, as were most of the vestigial external panels. Only the wings and ribbed bonnet were steel pressings. The roof was naturally clad in roll-back canvas and of headlamps, there was but one – for one was all that was necessary.
The technical felicities and notable differences to the production car were such as to necessitate an article in its own right, but suffice to say, the essentials (and only they) were there. It is believed for instance, that the clever centrally mounted coil-springs which coupled both front and rear suspension arms on either side, not to mention the inertial dampers which lent the production car such an absorbent, loping ride quality were part of the design intent, but were not readied in time for the TPV prototype – at least those of the surviving versions built, to say nothing of the many more subsequently destroyed shortly after the outbreak of hostilities in 1939.
Throughout the war, the few remaining TPV’s were hidden away; Boulanger, who refused to collaborate with the occupying forces insisted on keeping his brainchild from falling into hostile hands. Quietly, throughout the war years, the TPV concept was developed and improved.
The production 2CV, when finally introduced at the first post-war Paris motor show, was almost decadent by comparison to that of its pared predecessor, but by any other measure – even the standards of ration-wrought 1948 – was an object lesson in essentialism. A second headlamp was fitted (oh the profligacy!) but the bootlid would remain composed of the same hard-wearing roll-back canvas material as that of the roof.
Another key difference lay in motive power – the TPVs employing water-cooled horizontally opposed twin cylinder engines, whereas the 1948 car’s unstressed alloy 375 cc powerplant was air/oil cooled – both of which were designed under Italian engineer, Walter Becchia. Also, the 2CV’s now pressed steel body, (aluminium being in very short supply) while cleaving closely to the TPV design, was refashioned, if such a lavish term is appropriate, by resident Quai de Javel stylist, Flaminio Bertoni.
The production 2CV stands comparison with another notable light car debut of 1948, that of Morris Motors’ Minor. A rather different and on the face of things perhaps, more sophisticated looking answer to a broadly similar question, the Minor was conceived to a less exacting brief and while intended as a more technically advanced machine than the car which eventually entered production, was developed under conditions of less intellectual and creative freedom.
At the bureau d’etudes, despite Director-General Boulanger’s aloof manner, Citroën’s engineers enjoyed his broad rapport, whereas Morris’ lead concept engineer, Alec Issigonis was up against a more conservative engineering mindset and a seemingly intractable opponent in Lord Nuffield, who famously derided the ‘Mosquito’ prototype as a ‘bloody poached egg’. Heaven knows what he’d have made of Levallois-Perret’s Tin Snail.
It’s been stated that the Martini-quaffing Spartan from Smyrna was a noted enthusiast of the Citroën, being particularly taken by the early 2CV’s corrugated panels, but for all of that, Issigonis never attained quite the same level of studied minimalism, or technical sophistication – although it could be suggested that with the original Mini, he got closer than many.
A common misconception regarding the 2CV is that it was a small car. It was in fact a light car, and by modern standards, a narrow one, which made it a far handier machine in confined spaces than many seemingly more compact vehicles. It was this, amongst its other virtues which made the deux chevaux an adept city dweller, unlike many from the countryside who make an uncomfortable shift towards urbanity. But it was the 2CV’s lightness which was perhaps its primary virtue.
That it proved itself so adaptable, so easy to live with and so durable, not only in the manner in which it ran and continued running, but also in terms of its commercial appeal, lies testament to the serious thought to which its creators lent to the task set to them and the careful application of intellect and craft with which they executed it – although whether Citroën always built them to the same exacting standards is open to question. But in service, the simplicity, access and ease of effecting most maintenance functions was really quite astonishing.
The 2CV’s career began as intended – a huge commercial success, with demand amid the French countryside such that a waiting list soon formed. By the late ’60s, as France became more sophisticated, the deux chevaux instead became the preserve of the impecunious student, the social reformer, the ecologist. But France gradually turned away from its rural past, the 2CV perhaps becoming an uncomfortable reminder of more impoverished times. By 1990 time had run out for the Tin Snail.
Today, it has in some quarters at least, become shorthand for a fetishized form of car enthusiasm. It’s little surprise that several high profile auto-journalists and presenters make considerable play of the fact they possess and enjoy early examples of the breed. After all, what better manner to display their fealty to the automobile at its most essential? Cynical? Perhaps, but it is nonetheless comparatively easy to understand why anyone who genuinely cares for the motor car might covet one.
Because the Citroën 2CV, despite its rudimentary appearance is a beautiful car. Its beauty lies not only in the inherent satisfaction derived from its rational simplicity, it also resides in the intelligence of its conception and the intellectual rigour of its design. It lies within the human-focus and lack of conceit in its intent and execution. One could define it in socialist terms – it was a car for the people, yes, but as such it neither patronised nor pandered.
Indeed, despite its apparent asceticism, it offered far more than the customer required, yet did so unsparingly – Boulanger’s rationale being that the French peasantry should be offered the best that could be possibly conceived, notwithstanding the necessity for it being simple to use, straightforward to own and inexpensive to maintain. It couldn’t be done today, for a whole host of reasons, but primarily because the modern motor industry would never countenance offering so much for so little.
So having rehashed its backstory, acknowledged its long commercial career, mentioned the cars it sired, and alluded to its afterlife once production ceased, what is left to say about the Citroën 2CV? Perhaps this: A car created without an ounce of cynicism – after all, doing so would only have added needless weight.