Rarely has a car been so ridiculed as the Citroën 2CV. At its launch at the 1948 Paris Salon, journalists lashed into this defenseless runabout with vicious zeal, and everyone who was near Paris at the time claimed to be the originator of the quip, “Do you get a can opener with it?”
They all missed the point, for this minimal car was not meant to be measured against other cars; its true rival was the horse and cart, which Citroën boss Pierre Boulanger hoped to replace with his toute petite voiture—or very small car. As the Deux Chevaux it became much more than that and putt-putted into the history books, selling more than five million by the time of its eventual demise in 1990. As devotees of the 2CV say, “You either love them, or you don’t understand them.”
In 1935, Pierre Boulanger conceived a car to woo farmers away from the horse and cart. It would weigh no more than 661 lb (300 kg) and carry four people at 37 mph (60 km/h), while consuming no more than 56 mpg. The car that appears “undesigned” was in fact carefully conceived.
Although designers flirted with notions of a chassisless car, cost dictated a more conventional sheet-steel platform chassis.
The sophisticated independent suspension system gave a soft ride.
All the body panels simply unbolted, and even the body shell was only held in place by 16 bolts.
A speedo and ammeter were the only concessions to modernity. The original fuel gauge was just a calibrated stick.
Instructions on how to start and stop the 2CV were displayed behind the sun visor.
The sober design purpose of the rolltop roof was to allow transportation of tall, bulky objects. It also happened that Citroën boss Pierre Boulanger was a six-footer who liked to wear a hat in a car. The minimal, but handy, lightweight, hammock-style seats lifted out to accommodate more goods or to provide picnic seating.
You were lucky to get them; prototypes featured waxed-cloth door coverings.
The indicators are a good example of the functional design ethos. Why put a pair of indicators on the front and another pair on the back, when you could save the cost of two bulbs by giving your car cute “ears” that could be seen front and rear.
Roll-up canvas trunk lid of the original saved both weight and cost; a metal lid took over in 1957 on French cars.
Nothing drives like a Citroën 2CV— the handling looks lurid as it leans over wildly. The ride, though, is exceptional, and the tenacious grip of those skinny tires is astonishing. All that and front-wheel drive too.
Fresh air was obtained by opening the vent on the scuttle; a mesh strained out the insects and leaves.
Prewar production prototypes had only one headlight.
Gray until late 1959, then the choice doubled to include Glacier Blue, with green and yellow added in 1960.
The original 375cc air-cooled twin, as seen here, eventually grew to all of 602cc, but all versions are genuinely happy to rev full out all day. In fact, most spend all their time being driven at maximum speed and seem to thrive on full revs. Engines are hardworking and long-lasting.
S P E C I F I C A T I O N S
MODEL Citroën 2CV (1949–90)
PRODUCTION 5,114,966 (includes vans)
BODY STYLES Four-door convertible sedan, two-door van.
CONSTRUCTION Separate steel platform chassis, steel body.
ENGINES Air-cooled, horizontally opposed twin of 375cc, 425cc, 435cc, 602cc.
POWER OUTPUT 9, 12, 18, and 29 bhp, respectively.
TRANSMISSION Four-speed manual, front-wheel drive.
SUSPENSION Independent, interconnected coil-sprung.
BRAKES Drums all around.
MAXIMUM SPEED 375cc: 43 mph (69 km/h); 425cc: 49 mph (79 km/h); 435cc: 53 mph (85 km/h); 602cc: 72 mph (116 km/h).
0–60 MPH (0–96 KM/H) 30 sec (602cc)
A.F.C. 45–55 mpg (16–19.5 km/l)