Whether it’s the famous opening credits of the Antiques Roadshow, with the blue 2CV carrying a grandfather clock, or the legendary factoid of the car being able to carry a basket of eggs across a ploughed field with no breakages, almost everyone is familiar with this quintessentially quirky French economy car. Many cars may have become legendary for their cheap purchase price, but very few have also been known for their design genius and mechanical longevity at the same time. The Citroen 2CV is an automotive story like no other.
Famously designed in the early 1930s to encourage the farmers of rural France away from horses and into automobiles, the 2CV’s development was halted at the outbreak of the Second Word War. Having already developed a small and rugged vehicle for the people, known as the Tout Petit Voiture, or Very Small Car, Citroen hid prototypes and any trace of the project from the Germans. They feared that it could be repurposed into cheap military transport by the Nazi’s, as had been seen with the German Volkswagen Beetle.
By 1948, with the War having been won and France beginning to get back onto its feet, the 2CV was ready to be launched to the public. Although the prewar version was made of aluminium, and featured a water-cooled engine, the scarcity of materials and the need for ultimate reliability meant that the 1948 version was bodied in steel and featured a 2-cylinder, air-cooled engine of remarkable simplicity.
Designed to be able to run for 50,000 kms at full throttle, the 375-cc engine was wonderfully un-stressed. Manufactured so that the engine’s block and crank need never be disassembled, the car had an oil cooler set behind a crank-driven fan, and so had no belt, thermostat, radiator or water pump. In place of a distributor the ignition worked on a simple contact breaker system, which also left very little to go wrong, while the brakes found on the early cars were the only hydraulic system present at launch.
To allow for the transportation of tall items, such as the aforementioned clock, the canvas roof could be rolled back, and when bulky items needed to be moved the rear bench and front passenger seats could be removed with just a couple of clips. In later years, when the 2CV had become popular with the young and trendy, these were advertised as a “convertible roof” and “removable picnic chairs”, but the origins were far more agricultural in nature.
A curious quirk of the 2CV is its remarkably good roadholding, which is as surprising as its ability to produce body-roll when cornering. The two spring sets, which are found sitting alongside the chassis rails, connect the front and rear independent swing arms. The genius of the system, above its simplicity, is that it keeps the body of the 2CV level across bumps; as the front suspension is compressed by a bump, the rear suspension is lengthened accordingly, with the opposite occurring as the rear wheel hits the same bump. As a result, the car’s body pitch is kept to a minimum.
It may not appear so to the casual observer from the outside, as a 2CV will corner with extreme angles of body lean but, for a keen driver a 2CV handles remarkably well. The set-up of the suspension means that the outside wheelbase extends by the same amount that the inside wheelbase contracts, which gives a wonderfully smooth and even weight transfer onto the Michelin X tyres - the first ever radial tyres fitted to a production car. While the 2CV may not have had a high top speed or much acceleration, once it was rolling there was rarely a need to lose momentum in a corner.
Over a million 2CV’s were sold over a 40-year production run and, although by the time the last one rolled off the production line in 1990 it did sport a larger engine and disk brakes, the overall basics had remained unchanged. With a cult following and thriving owners’ clubs across the world, the tin snail has become a true classic.
Have you ever owned a 2CV, or do you have any fond memories of traveling in one? If so, please share your thoughts in the comments below.