Citroen 2CV: A Classic Exercise in Profound Minimalism
On October 8th, 1948, the Citroën 2CV debuted at the Paris Motor Show to an unimpressed crowd. One American purportedly remarked upon its reveal, “Does it come with a can-opener?” Meanwhile, a correspondent for Autocar called it “the work of a designer who has kissed the lash of austerity with almost masochistic fervor.” Despite the kneejerk criticism, though, the 2CV was a hit with the buying public and remained in production for over 40 years. Today it is as synonymous with France as a Breton shirt, the Eiffel tower, a smoky corner cafe or a flaky croissant.
Of course, austerity was pretty much the entire point of the 2CV, and to fully understand why, you’d have to go back to the very beginning of its development: 1936, a time when the rural dwelling French still relied on horse-drawn carriages, and even the humblest cars were priced out of reach. Wanting to create a true car of the people, Citroën Vice-President Pierre Boulanger challenged his team to create an “umbrella on wheels” of sorts, a minimalist car that was cheap to buy and so stupidly simple it could be easily repaired and maintained, even on a shoestring budget.
His design brief went something like this: The car should carry four people, and 50 kilos of potatoes (or a keg of beer, depending on who you ask) at 60 kph while consuming three liters of fuel for every 100 kilometers. Similarly, it should be able to traverse rugged terrains and drive through a freshly-plowed field without cracking a basket of eggs. Looks were more or less irrelevant.
The product of this brief was the TPV (Toute Petite Voiture, or “Very Small Car”), a rudimentary, aluminum-bodied car with hammock-like seats that hung from the interior ceiling. The TPV was set to debut at the 1939 Paris Auto show, but once France had declared war Germany, the project was scrapped. All working prototypes of the TPV were either dismantled, buried or hidden away. Boulanger didn’t want to see his creation seized and become a part of the Nazi war machine.
After the war, France was in much worse position to mobilize its people, and just about 100,000 of France’s two million pre-war cars in France were left. What’s more, the government instituted a “Plan Pons” to regulate car production with scarce materials which, in short, limited Citroën to only producing the more upscale Traction Avant. It wasn’t until the government disbanded this plan that the 2CV could come back to fulfill its original vision, though revised with a redesigned steel body (aluminum was too expensive at this point), steel-tubed seats with rubber support (instead of roof-mounted hammocks) and a 375cc air-cooled flat-twin engine producing nine horsepower and achieving a top speed of around 35 miles per hour.
Basic though it was, the car resonated with a recovering Europe and eventually went on to be a success in export markets like South America, Africa and Asia. All in all, nearly 9 million 2CVs were built, and production lasted until 1990. Though the 2CV was bound to change somewhat with the times — more “luxurious” features and larger engines would eventually enter the mix — the car stayed true to its humble roots.
That much is obvious when driving one of the 2CV’s later iterations. In my case a mid-’80s “Club” model. Step in, and you can tell that there are a few small upgrades made throughout, including a more ergonomic steering wheel, better interior trim pieces and, most notably, a finer plaid upholstery with the look and texture of a Penfield flannel.
That said, even with these improvements, the car is still an exercise in profound minimalism as it was on the original. The body panels are crêpe-like thin, so much so that the hood flexes upon opening. Air conditioning is reduced to two small, vents above the dash that channel oncoming headwinds into the cabin aimed at your face and upper torso. The seats can be removed and used to have a roadside picnic, if you like. The windows open by flipping upward and out, and the vinyl roof manually peels all the way back, the like top on a tin of sardines, to expose the interior to the kiss of the sun on a warm summer day.
But the most notable addition to this later 2CV is the engine, the 602cc flat-twin that became the standard on late model 2CVs making around 30 horsepower which bestowed it with the ability to (barely) hit modern highway speeds, though I’m not entirely sure how badly I wanted to test that out. My time in the 2CV was mostly concerned with around-town driving, and even then the sensation of speed was amplified well beyond the reality shown on the speedometer.
The best analog I can think of is an old two-stroke moped. You really need to push and rev to eke out every smidge of power, and with that come vibrations and noise that combined with its light weight make the whole experience feel weirdly visceral despite how slow you’re going. Amplifying that is the four-speed manual which is unlike anything you’re likely to experience in another car. The 2CV has a standard(ish) H-pattern with a dogleg layout (which means first gear is down and to the left) but rather than pushing a lever forward and back, you’re pushing the shifter in and out of the dash while twisting it.
It goes something like this: Twist the lever to the left so it’s angled towards you, then pull out to go into first. Then, push it back inward while twisting it to the right (so the knob is standing straight up) to go into second. Pull it straight back to go into third. Then, twist the shifter to the right (so the knob is angled away from you) while pushing back inward to put it into fourth. Make sense? No? I’m sorry.
But whatever. It takes about thirty seconds after ham-fistedly trying it in person to make sense, and the shifting action (at least in this lovingly cared for example) is crisp, intuitive and satisfying. That, combined with the fact that you have to drive the car at ten-tenths all the time (remember: moped) yields a decidedly raw driving experience. What’s more, that soft, long-travel suspension — the one designed to save a basket of eggs from Humpty Dumpty-esque fate — provides both a smooth ride and a… unique cornering experience. This thing leans. You haven’t truly experienced body roll until you’ve driven a 2CV, yet the car has proven nigh impossible to topple, even during hard driving.
It’s hard to think of another car that offers such a distinct driving experience, which I think has a lot to do with why the 2CV has become canonized as an automotive icon. Yes, we tend to measure cars regarding their overall performance and their backstory, but these are figures and yarns that are more often than not regurgitated, telephone-style, by the enthusiast community. But our most distinguished automotive memories, more than anything, are characterized by the tactile experiences we have in a car and the personal stories we share.
Consider this: the owner of this 2CV, whom hails from the Netherlands, acquired it because she had one in her family growing up. She and her sister would drive it from Amsterdam to the South of France in the summertime. Just imagine that, more than 700 miles — one way — through the French countryside, the top rolled down and sun beaming, the thrum of a flat-twin engine reverberating throughout the tin-like cabin, with the car vigorously leaning into every corner.
Her story is just one of, literally, millions — and there really are millions because of the 2CV’s initial raison d’etre as a simple, affordable car for the people. Today we have much more modern, safer and better-appointed cars to fulfill that mission. And that’s fine. Because today, I could imagine owning a 2CV as fun, daily runabout, driving it to the store to buy brie cheese and a baguette, inspiring smiles both from drivers and pedestrian along the way. The car still lives on, a sublime little umbrella on wheels, still creating stories.
Viva la 2CV.