Simplicity should not mean mediocrity and few cars encapsulate this premise quite like the Citroën 2CV.
Development began in 1936, but the model was not launched until 1948 and helped to get a post-war France moving again.
Pierre-Jules Boulanger’s exacting brief demanded that the 2CV could carry two farmers up front, plus a 50kg bag of spuds and a basket of eggs in the back – without breaking any of them – over a ploughed field, while doing 90mpg.
Despite its agricultural nature, there were plenty of clever bits to the Citroën.
Excellent fuel economy – 50mpg or so – was delivered thanks to an air-cooled flat-twin that was designed by Talbot-Lago’s former chief engineer, Walter Becchia.
It featured one-piece conrods with sleeve bearings fitted to a pre-shrunk crankshaft during assembly, which helped to make the unit both strong and compact.
The result was an engine that could run flat-out for 100 hours without damage.
The eggs, meanwhile, were well catered for by all-independent interconnected suspension, with pivoting leading and trailing arms, which meant that the rear end would be primed for bumps by the preceding deflection of the front wheels.
Movement of the suspension arms also meant that a fully laden 2CV’s wheelbase was 2in longer than an empty car’s.
Despite the innovative design, not all feedback was good; The Motor reported that the 2CV had ‘almost every virtue except speed, silence and good looks’.
But the general public loved it and there was a two-year waiting list well into the ’50s, although limited production capacity was initially to blame.
Nowadays, the 2CV provides an experience like nothing else: massive body roll (but determined grip) is combined with a magic-carpet ride, while both the handbrake and gearlever sprout horizontally from the dash. That shift takes some learning, but it’s rapid once fathomed.
The roof peels back like a sardine tin, while the ‘Tin Snail’ even proves adept off road, thanks to its long-travel suspension, front-wheel drive, traction, big skinny wheels and light weight.
No wonder that it has developed such a devoted following with owner-experts to be found at www.2cvgb.co.uk, www.citroencarclub.org.uk and www.citroen-2cv.org.uk. People even race them: www.2cvracing.co.uk, if that idea appeals.
Sadly, simplicity doesn’t mean absolutely no problems, rust being one of them. It can strike the chassis, bonnet hinge, windscreen surround and vent flap, at the base of the A-posts, the side of the floor, front footwell, lower bulkhead, inside door bottoms, rear seatbelt mounts and on rear wheelarch sweeps.
New galvanised chassis are readily available, though, and many cars have had them fitted.
The soft suspension should work quietly, and a groaning sound can be cured by squirting castor oil into the spring cylinder and turning it upside down. Creaks and knocks could point to loose axle mounting bolts or dry knife-edges.
Kingpins also benefit from regular greasing – as often as every 1000 miles – while a judder on full lock indicates worn track-rod ends.
The inboard front drum brakes on earlier cars are complex to reline (though they can last 40,000 miles). Later (post-’81) models with discs are easier to service, but the handbrake may not be as affective.
The engine, though, can manage 150,000-200,000 miles without needing a rebuild. Its oil should be changed every 3000 miles and its filter every 6000 miles.
Third gear’s synchro is most likely to go first and a howling noise indicates a worn mainshaft rear bearing. Greasing the gearlever ruins the bushes so use talcum powder to lubricate it instead.
Prices have rocketed in the UK, but there are still bargains to be found in France. This Dolly was our pick, coming in at a scarcely believable €950.
It looks perfect in the photos, has covered fewer than 80,000 miles, and is of 1988 vintage, but we would advise a thorough inspection.
Stay on UK soil and a near-identical (but much better condition) car will cost £3990. Admittedly, though, it has a lower mileage and was with the same keeper for 16 years.
Double your money and you could have this example. Yet another Dolly, but in a different hue to the other two, it has been fully restored and even has a CD player.
Once the butt of many a joke, it’s the 2CV that’s laughing now. It’s slow, but surprisingly comfortable and unbelievably durable, so it’s hardly surprising that production didn’t stop until 1990.