A few years ago, I was at a small Italian car show in St. Paul called Under The Crazy Moon which celebrates the grand opening of the Italian restaurant, Pazzaluna. Amidst the throngs of prancing horses and golden bulls blending together like some multi-million dollar traffic jam, I spotted this odd snail shaped commuter car off in the distance. As to not lose Jana, who was 50 feet away and making a mad dash in heels to see this automotive mollusk, I immediately blew off the Ferrari 308 GTB I was looking at and needed to investigate to see what the commotion was about.
It was a perfect example of a Citroën 2CV (Deux Chevaux), the most iconic French car of all time. Soon more people were paying attention to the 2CV than the Aventador pictured behind it, and what can be only described as a small mob lead mostly by women and small children descended upon the tin snail. It’s no spoiler to say that it’s design is rather crude and that the car isn’t exactly fast with the best of them putting down a whopping 29 HP. So, we have to ask, why did people get so excited over this? What’s the deal with the Citroën 2CV?
To understand how this strange little car came about, we have to look at it’s history. In the 1930’s, Citroën was trying to make a peoples car for the French automotive environment, much like Ford did with the Model T and the Germans had with the Porsche Type 32 for the “Volkswagen” program. Citroën’s first attempt, the wildly over engineered Traction Avant, put the company into bankruptcy. From there they ended up getting bought out by Michelin, the tire company. Luckily, Michelin had the same people’s car mission but preferred a plan that wouldn’t end in bankruptcy so they started back from scratch.
Citroën’s new head of development courtesy of Michelin, Pierre-Jules Boulanger, created a litany of requirements for the car to achieve. It had to be able to haul four people, along with a sack of potatoes, while getting 80 MPG and be fast enough to get there on time. The maintenance costs had to be as low as possible and the overall price of the car had to be the cheapest in France at the time. Then just for good measure, you also had to be able to drive through a rough field with a basket of eggs without breaking any of them, which was a common occurrence for French farmers at the time. It was supposed to be everything to everyone, including the sizable French farming community.
The R&D started in the late 1930s and, as one would expect with such heady goals, was rife with setbacks. It was as if every piece of the process was having a problem, but by 1939 Citroën was ready to unveil the car at the Paris Motor Show in October. Unfortunately, as we all know, if there was ever a poor year to release a car in Europe, it was 1939. In September, Germany invaded Poland and the Paris Motor Show was cancelled due to the start of WWII.
Soon after Germany was done with Poland, France was next on the chopping block. To keep the car out of the hands of the Nazis, who would most certainly confiscate it for their own use, the 2CV prototypes were stuffed away in a barn where a skeleton crew of engineers would continue development of the car for after the war. While WWII was a devastating tragedy, there was a silver lining as it allowed Citroën’s engineers to perfect their formula for after the war while keeping busy and out of the public.
At the end of the war, nearly all of Europe was reduced to rubble and every manufacturer in the world just went through between 5-7 years with no R&D or new models at all. For the European brands, they were lucky enough to even have a factory to build in. Although Citroën’s factory space was minimal, they did have a fully developed people’s car and a country that needed a people’s car to get back on it’s feet. So upon it’s reveal in 1948, one would imagine that it would be met with endless praise by the press. However, the unveiling of the 2CV was met with nearly universally appalling reviews by the press calling it ugly and crude among many other choice words.
The opinions of the automotive press were completely disregarded and within months Citroën struggled to keep up with demand. There was a waiting list of three years, it was like trying to buy a Tesla back in 2017. It reached a point in the late 1940’s where the price of a used 2CV was more than that of a new one. Citroën had to give priority to customers who had extremely long commutes and couldn’t afford other cars first.
Garnering the endearing name “étain escargot” or “Tin Snail”, the car became a national symbol of strength and the rebuilding of France. Despite it’s crude aesthetic of the most basic form of transportation, the car was endlessly innovative. The production process had been streamlined as much as possible, along with the FWD drivetrain and 8 HP flat-2 engine. Technology like radial tires that we use today debuted on this car, along with a speed dependent windshield wiper system and it also had the most unique suspension system ever fitted to a car. Instead of a leaf spring or any of the normal suspensions you’d see on a car from the 1940’s, the 2CV used a horizontal swinging arm style suspension.
A spring mounted horizontally in a tube (marked 4 on the image above) was compressed as the wheel met a bump, a second spring would pull the rear wheel forward preparing it for the same bump in the road. This allowed the car to stick to the road as if it was glued to it despite extremely soft suspension and some truly comical body roll.
By the end of the 1950’s, Citroën began to update the car and luxuries like locks on the doors, a metal bootlid (previously cloth) and more powerful engines began showing up. Then in the 1960’s Citroën released a 4WD version, called the Sahara. Being the avant garde company that they are, a conventional engine, transfer case and propeller shaft to the rear wouldn’t do. How would Citroën make their 4WD system?
The simplest way they could think of, they added a second engine in the back. Although that sounds ridiculously over complicated, it actually made sense. The twin engine Sahara would allow the owner to control power between FWD, RWD or 4WD and if the car broke down, they wouldn’t have to search for some rare part in the middle of nowhere to make it run. Even better, if they had an engine failure in the middle of some inhospitable environment, like the Sahara, they could still limp it on one engine back to a town for repairs.
Meanwhile back in the developed world, the standard Citroën 2CV was experiencing immense popularity, even over twenty years after it entered production. Right when sales began to slump for the first time, the 2CV had it’s second windfall in the face of crisis. The first 1970’s Oil Crisis began and overnight the most fuel efficient car on the road was more demanded than ever. A new generation of owners were falling in love with the 2CV throughout the 70’s and a litany of special edition models came out during this timeframe.
The car even made it into the 1981 OO7 Movie For Your Eyes Only and it had arguably one of the best chase scenes in the history of that series. At a twentieth of the price for a Aston Martin DB5, this is possibly the most affordable Bond Car available.
In addition to performing well for young people driving on poorly maintained urban roads or farm fields, it also did very well in the roughest of terrain. Rally drivers were experiencing great success with 2CVs because what it lacked in speed it made up for in reliability and adaptability. It turns out that extremely long suspension travel allowed the car to have unparalleled off road handling.
With this success, Citroën even created a race series in the 1970’s just for the 2CV called The Citroën Raid series. These were rallies across some of the most inhospitable environments on earth. The routes were epic marathons from Paris to Kabul, Afghanistan (10,252 miles) or Paris to Persepolis, Iran (8,388 miles). The key to this strategy was showing off just how rugged and dependable the Tin Snail was compared to it’s, more advanced, modern compatriots.
Today it’s racing pedigree continues and there are still 24 hour 2CV endurance races being held on some of the most renown tracks in Europe such as Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps, Snetterton and Mondello Park. Although they’re held by 2CV owners clubs now, they did originally start with Citroën’s factory sponsorship. It’s still astonishing to see a car designed in the 1930’s being raced in 24 hour races nearly 70 years after first being produced.
On occasion a car company will make a car that is absolutely timeless, a car that has a charm that absolutely transcends time and generations. Citroën’s 2CV embodies this to the fullest. It was meant to be the most basic form of transportation possible but it became the people’s car of France, it possessed a racing pedigree on par with the best and there are even children’s books about the car. The production of the 2CV went on for 42 years until it was finally ended in 1990 and even nearly 70 years later is still beloved by anyone who knows of it’s existence. Next time you see a 2CV be sure to tell it “Merci Monsieur Escargot!” and now you know what’s the deal with the 2CV.