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75 years ago, the motoring world changed for ever as a clutch of iconic vehicles made their debuts on a wave of post-war optimism. Here we look at the Citroën 2CV…
Austerity is a word rarely associated with great fun, but in focusing only on what is strictly necessary, this astoundingly spartan early ‘ripple bonnet’ Citroën 2CV is one of the most enjoyable cars in our 1948 group (scroll to the bottom for the full set) – despite sporting just two cylinders and 12bhp.
It’s also the oldest design here, too.
While the 2CV made its official debut in 1948 as a new post-war design, its development had begun before the war with the Très Petite Voiture (TPV, or ‘very little car’) prototypes, the first of which was built in 1937.
After a hiatus during hostilities, the 2CV switched from water- to air-cooling, and from an aluminium body to steel, but that pre-war head start was how Citroën managed to put an entirely new car on display at the Paris Salon in 1948 – and not one major component was shared with an existing model.
Reception to the new car was mostly derogatory from the press, but Citroën’s order books swelled straight away.
The appetite for cheap transport in France was voracious – the vast majority of its pre-war fleet of cars had been destroyed, with many having defaulted back to horses and carts.
We all know Pierre Boulanger’s basic brief: for a car to mobilise the French peasantry, and one with the suspension required to traverse France’s then dreadful, in parts war-torn, road network.
Economy of purchase and ownership were the foremost concerns in nearly every aspect of the 2CV.
But there’s delight in that purity, be it the tiny door latches – a simple sliding bar that holds the door to the inner lip of the aperture and allows a slight gap of daylight around the panel – or the deckchair-style seats, with thin cushions on top of visible elastic webbing.
The engine, too, air-cooled and at first just 375cc, can be partially rebuilt in situ in just a few hours and, at the sort of low speeds intended for it, is parsimonious with fuel.
Yet there is real sophistication to the 2CV, too.
Most famously in the soft, long-travel suspension, interconnected front to back, which gives the little car limousine-like ride comfort.
It is made of baking-tray-thin steel, roughly put together, so it does rattle over poor surfaces, and the engine is never quiet, either, but the compliant ride makes even long drives in the Deux Chevaux relaxing where other economy cars would be tiring.
Unlike its later siblings, however, the ‘tin snail’ does all of this without verging into overcomplexity.
While most 2CVs could do with a bit of extra lubrication (they are not supposed to squeak over bumps), the robust system of coil springs in tubes does without more sophisticated Citroëns’ pumps and metres of pipework, and copes well with the stereotypically French nonchalance towards automobile servicing.
It’s not just the suspension, though: the front brakes are inboard, which seems at odds with the resolutely unsporting nature of the 2CV, but reducing unsprung weight brings benefits to ride comfort.
Then there’s the full-length ventilation flap under the ’screen, which is as close to air-conditioning as you’ll get without a compressor.
While the 2CV is relentlessly rational, it picks its moments to add touches of genius: no extras or luxuries, but improving the user experience via good engineering.
The wonderfully patinated example with us today, owned by Allan Lloyd, is a 1957 2CV AZLP, a model that added a few further conveniences – mainly a whopping 3bhp increase, with the engine growing to 425cc, but also a centrifugal clutch.
Reflecting the fact that by the late 1950s Citroën was finally producing enough 2CVs for domestic consumption, so sales didn’t have to be limited to those with travelling rural professions such as doctors, vets and tradesmen, this ‘Traficlutch’ allowed easier driving in cities.
The car is able to come to a halt and set off without the clutch needing to be depressed, so you only need to use the third pedal when you’re moving the gearlever.
It works reasonably well, and does ease left-leg fatigue in a traffic jam, though it isn’t great for low-speed manoeuvring and wouldn’t have done much to improve the reputation of French parking, either.
The car must be revved for the clutch to engage, making very small movements difficult and giving it a tendency to ‘kangaroo’ on light throttle openings.
The other fundamentals of the Citroën are on point.
The brakes are unassisted drums, but nonetheless feel up to the task of stopping the featherweight car, and the pedal operation is spot-on.
The steering, an early rack-and-pinion set-up, is a delight and adds to a chuckable feeling, despite the inevitable body roll thanks to the soft suspension.
The push, pull and rotate gearshift, common to many mid-century French cars, is easy to get the hang of after a matter of minutes, though consistently achieving quick changes takes more practice.
Going on to enjoy one of the longest-ever production runs, at 42 years, the 2CV didn’t just become an icon of French motoring, but of France itself – even if it was eventually outsold by the Renault 4.
It is the 2CV, not the clearly derivative R4, that is now regarded as one of the great manifestations of the intellectual drive and avant-garde spirit for which the world loves French design.
Like few other cars, perhaps only rivalled by the Ford Model T, the 2CV embodies an entire philosophy – and it just so happens to be an object of utter joy as well.
Images: Luc Lacey
Road to the Dolly
With demand exceeding supply, updates to the 2CV were slow: a locking metal boot came in ’57, and by ’60 the ‘ripple bonnet’ had been replaced and C-pillar windows added.
Myriad specs led to a baffling array of models, with cheaper versions often continuing older body styles or engines.
The off-road Méhari, Fourgonette van and twin-engined 4x4 Safari offered further variation.
In the ’80s, Citroën embraced its growing retro appeal with two-tone Charleston and Dolly editions, before production ended in 1990.
Images: Olgun Kordal/Tony Baker
- Sold/number built 1948-‘90/5,163,893
- Engine iron-block, alloy-head, ohv, 375cc flat-twin, single Solex carburettor
- Max power 9bhp @ 3500rpm
- Max torque 14lb ft @ 2000rpm
- Transmission four-speed manual, FWD
- Weight 1124lb (510kg)
- Mpg 55
- 0-60mph n/a
- Top speed 41mph
- Price new £350
- Price now £6-15,000*
*Prices correct at date of original publication
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