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The classic car that’s as French as bagels, bread sticks and berets

If you fancy yourself as a bit of a car buff, here’s a quick quiz question for you: what’s the least changed car in motoring history?

Now if you answered the Citroen 2CV, you smarty-pants, give yourself full marks – well done!

France’s famous Citroen 2CV, or Deux Chevaux, first saw the light of day in 1948 as an almost impossibly simple vehicle designed to drag French farmers from the days of the horse and cart into the modern motoring world.

When the last one rolled off a Portuguese production line on the 27th of July 1990 over 9 million had been produced, making it one of the most successful cars in history, as well as the least changed.

Only the French could have come up with something as simple, utilitarian, minimalist and downright quirky as the beloved Deux Chevaux. It’s as French as bagels, bread sticks and berets. What other car could stipulate an ability to cart a basket of eggs across a ploughed field without breaking them in its design brief?

If there’s one word that really captures the spirit of the 2CV, it’s minimalist. Right from the word “go” Citroen’s designers put any concerns about the actual look of the thing to the back of their minds as they concentrated purely on simplicity and reliability in a car that could be easily repaired by rural mechanics.

The earliest ones boasted one taillight and a windscreen wiper that was driven off the motor. Hinged windows were a feature from the get-go. The canvas roof rolled all the way back, opening-up the interior for big, tall loads and so that the driver and passengers could enjoy the great outdoors.

“Performance”

The original engine was a simple air-cooled horizontally opposed twin of 375cc. And yes, that’s not a misprint! The tiny engine produced a gobsmacking 9 horsepower and could accelerate from nought to its maximum of 64km/h “in about a day”.

But that puny performance was all a part of the plan because the motor was heroically under-stressed, ensuring its long-term reliability no matter how hard or long Pierré or John-Paul pushed it across those ploughed fields. And on top of that it could go 100 kilometres on just three litres of fuel.

Over the 42 years of its production the engine in the little tin snail blew out to an almost unimaginable 652cc, which along with an electronic ignition system, produced a blistering top speed of 115 km/h. Phew!

But apart from improved engines, mild facelifts, fancy paintwork and outrageous pandering to hedonistic fantasy like upholstered interiors and mirrors on the sun visors (sacré bleu!), the 2CV remained very much unchanged.

Popularity

From its very introduction the 2CV invited derision for its snail-like looks. “Does it come with a can opener?” asked one American motoring journalist. But the French took to it with an unrivalled enthusiasm, with everyone from farmers to vets, priests and doctors flocking to it. The waiting list for a new one blew out to five years, while immediately available used models changed hands for more than the price of a new one.

By the late 1980s, however, the modest little 2CV was a motoring anachronism. While it still had a cult following for its anti-consumerist ethic, it couldn’t keep up with modern safety standards with its poor crashworthiness, while its performance also fell lamentably short of modern vehicles.

Influence

These days it’s easy to laugh at the 2CV for its eccentric design, simplicity and feeble performance, but that’s to overlook its influential place in motoring history. It was the little car that got France, and much of Western Europe, up and motoring again after the Second World War.

Few cars have nailed their design brief quite as successfully, and the little tin snail boasted some really clever engineering, with a tubular steel frame and self-levelling suspension that gave it an incredibly soft ride.

Cornered hard, that suspension lengthens the wheelbase on one side, while its long travel makes it almost impossible to roll a 2CV.

Its front wheel drive layout was also ahead of its time, becoming more-or-less the standard for small economy cars and pre-dating the Mini by 11 years.

The 2CV saw several variants including the fourgonnette van and a 4WD version, the Sahara, which had a second engine and gearbox in the back. Weird? You bet! But then the Citroen 2CV was always a little out of the usual.

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