The 2CV - A French icon: La toute petite voiture

It is 18 years since Citroën ceased production of the Deux Chevaux, apparently embarrassed by a vehicle dubbed the 'umbrella on wheels'. But a new exhibition shows that, to some, this car is still a star. By John Lichfield
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The Independent Online

Sixty years ago this year, a strange little vehicle appeared at the Paris car show. It looked like an upside-down pram with a corrugated bonnet and a canvas roof.

It had no starter motor and one headlight. Its windscreen wipers were operated by the forward motion of the wheels. Its seats looked like cheap canvas deckchairs. The wheels were as thin as saucepan lids. The car – for it was a car – was available in any colour that you wanted, so long as it was dull grey.

Thus was born the Toute Petite Voiture ("really little car"), or Citroën Deux Chevaux, a car that suffered mockery throughout its 42 years of production but has come to be regarded as an automotive icon. To generations of foreign visitors, the "2CV" pottering along a rural road epitomised France just as much as berets, baguettes, yellow cigarettes or farm buildings painted with Martini signs. Sadly all, save the baguettes, are defunct or very scarce.

The 2CV may be scarce but it is not forgotten.

The life and times of the Toute Petite Voiture are recalled in an excellent small exhibition, which begins this week at the Cité des Sciences et de L'Industrie in Paris. Peugeot Citroën and 2CV lovers are planning other commemorative events this year.

The exhibition includes one of the five remaining examples of an abandoned early production run from 1939. The outbreak of war forced Citroën to stop work. The 250 prototypes were hidden away, and, in some cases, even buried, to prevent them from falling into the hands of the Nazis. (There is no telling what difference a couple of armoured divisions of 2CVs might have made to the outcome of the war.)

The 2CV was the mid-1930s brainchild of Pierre-Jules Boulanger, the head of Citroën, who also inspired another Citroën icon, the slope-backed DS saloon of 1955. Long before the Volkswagen was heard of, M. Boulanger decided that there was a market for a cheap, easily maintained, basic car to replace the horse and cart on French rural roads, and even on the fields. His specification was for an "umbrella on wheels", a car that could carry 50 kilogrammes (110lb) and four people at up to 60kph (35mph) and cross a ploughed field carrying a basket of eggs. Since the seats were removable to allow animals to be carried, that has sometimes been elaborated to "a car capable of driving across a ploughed field with a sheep in the back and a pile of eggs on the front seat, without breaking the eggs (or the sheep)".

The car that appeared at the 1948 Paris motor show, the 2CV Type A, was an advance on the original. It could go up to 80kph (50mph) and had an air-cooled engine that could travel for 100 kilometres (60 miles) on a gallon of petrol. Although the car was immediately mocked by the French motoring press, it was, in several ways, a revolutionary design.

There was independent suspension on each wheel, but with front and back wheels linked to give a kind of gentle wave movement if the car hit a bump, of which there were plenty on French roads in 1948. The 2CV also had a light, easily serviceable, almost indestructible, air-cooled engine. That was based on motorcycle engines and was held in place by just four bolts. The car had, in fact, a capacity of eight chevaux, or eight horse power. The deux chevaux refers to the notional, low, French taxation category into which it was cleverly designed to fall.

From its commercial launch in 1949, the car was a triumph – a triumph that even Citroën had not expected. Far too few 2CVs were made at Citroën's plant at Levallois-Perret on the north-western boundary of Paris. There was a waiting list of between three and five years for a 2CV in the first half of the 1950s.

Everyone of a certain age has a favourite memory of a 2CV.

When I was 14, in 1964, I spent the summer with my godmother in Brussels, who had a 2CV, which she called Caritas (Charity). By that time, Citroën's colour restrictions had been considerably relaxed. Her car was a pale fawn. The updated 2CVs also had two headlights, an electric starter and electric windscreen wipers. Otherwise, little had changed.

We drove the length and breadth of the Benelux in Caritas. With my godmother at the wheel of a 2CV, the Benelux loomed as large as Canada. She refused to accept that she could drive faster than 40mph. At that time, 2CVs had three forward gears and then a gear mysteriously marked "S".

This, I now understand, stood for surmultipliée, or "overdrive". The original Citroën specification demanded three gears and this was the engineers' way of providing a fourth gear without alarming their rural customers.

In any event, I don't think that my godmother ever risked the "S" gear. It also took me most of the summer, and several crushed fingers, to work out how the maddening, folding, rather than winding, side-windows worked.

Efforts were made to expand the 2CVs international horizons beyond Belgium. There was, briefly, a factory making the 2CV in Slough. Citroën produced a pick-up and a van version of the 2CV. From the mid-1960s, the company splashed out on properly upholstered seats.

From 1967, there was a more modern-looking variant called the Dyane. There were also all-terrain, and souped-up roofless versions and a bright yellow "James Bond" version, linked to a scene in the 1981 film For Your Eyes Only, in which Roger Moore makes a getaway in a 2CV.

The car historian L J K Setright, the author of Drive On! A Social History of the Motor Car, described the 2CV as "the most intelligent application of minimalism ever to succeed as a car". A British motoring journalist, less flatteringly, once described a 2CV as the "result of an illicit liaison between a deckchair and a Nissen Hut".

In Britain, and elsewhere, the strange little vehicle failed to compete properly with the original VW Beetle or even the Morris Minor and Morris Mini. French car industry historians blame Citroën for failing to realise that it had a potential winner abroad until it was too late. The Beetle often cost twice as much as the 2CV but it went on to sell 20 million vehicles worldwide, compared to five million for all the variants of the 2CV.

By the late 1970s, nonetheless, the 2CV became a lifestyle statement, popular with hippies and ecologists. There was once a joke that part of the factory finish of a 2CV was a back-window sticker saying "Nuclear? No thanks".

A dashingly young French prime minister, Laurent Fabius (38 when he took office in 1984), established the 2CV as an urban runabout for the chattering classes. He selfconsciously drove to the prime ministerial offices each morning in one of the later, trendy versions of the former rural egg and sheep carrier.

However, 2CV production in France ceased in 1989 and in Portugal in 1990. Car industry historians and 2CV fans claim that Citroën was, by then, embarrassed by its "umbrella on wheels". The car failed to meet modern expectations of safety or speed, the company said at the time. Much the same arguments were given for killing off the British Mini and the VW Beetle.

In all three cases, the popularity and longevity of the surviving cars suggest that they were abandoned too soon: victims of corporate strategy and image-consciousness. The 2CV was also, it is whispered by some industry experts, too tough for its own good. What use to a manufacturer is a little car which can last for 200,000 miles without needing significant new parts?

Surviving 2CVs, often painted in dazzling colours which jar with the car's utilitarian origins, are much sought after. In Britain, they go for up to £4,000 in the second-hand market – and for somewhat less in France.

There is also a thriving market, in France and Britain, in 2CV "rebuilds": cars which are re-constructed according to the original specifications but with extras unheard of by the car's designers (and my Belgian godmother). Is a 2CV with a multiple choice stereo CD player still a 2CV? In 2004, the musician Billy Joel gave the 2CV's street-credibility an enormous boost when he had an accident while driving one on Long Island.

In an eco-conscious age, car makers are re-examining the concept of a cheap, economical, basic, reliable, easily maintained car. Peugeot-Citroën is promising a "new Deux CV" for next year but, judging by the images, the Citroën Cactus is a snappy, little, economy runabout. It is not the kind of car that you would carry sheep or eggs in.

Ironically, perhaps, it was not Peugeot-Citroën but the other French car giant, Renault, which led the way in Europe in exploring the possibilities of a retro car, stripped back to the basics. The Logan is, however, a stretched limousine compared to the odd little car with noddy wheels and a soft roof which appeared 60 years ago this October.