Citroën 2CV by Malcolm Bobbitt
Citroën 2CV: Different is Everything
Anyone who has driven a Tin Snail will know this is a car unlike any other. Its corrugated appearance and propensity to lean alarmingly through bends is all part of its abandonment to conventionality. A curious creature that treats pavé and cobbles with contempt as its suspension soaks up rough surfaces, its propulsion is by a feebly powered air-cooled twin-cylinder engine that lays no claim to spirited performance.
My acquaintance with the Citroën 2CV began in the mid-1950s when, as a nine- or ten year-old, I discovered Paris courtesy of the obligatory school visit. By then, Citroën’s minimalist miracle had been in production for not even a decade but already had become a familiar sight. Even though it was constructed at Citroën’s Slough factory it was seldom seen on this side of the English Channel. British motorists shunned it in favour of Morris Minors, Austin A30s and Standard 8s. Put off by its stark bodywork, headlights on stalks emerging from the corrugated bonnet, the pull-and-push gear lever and a hostile interior with deck chair-like seats simply missed the point when it came to social acceptance.
The 2CV was therefore quite different to anything I’d seen in my native London, and that includes such eccentricities as Bond Minicars and Reliant Regal three-wheelers. I remember being fascinated at the way the nose-down and canvas-roofed Citroëns scuttled along, and how their loudly chattering motors echoed around the boulevards.
Memories of Tin Snails shuffling around Paris were reignited when visiting provincial France in later years. By then they’d vastly multiplied in numbers to become commonplace in villages and towns as well as loping along rural roads and emerging from fields. Van versions known as fourgonnettes carried baguettes, barrels of vin rouge as well as taking live animals to market.
When it came to buying my first car my parents were aghast at learning of my desire to acquire one of those odd-looking French contraptions, which in their opinion had to be viewed with the greatest suspicion. Wouldn’t a proper car be more sensible?
Enduring seven years of British cars and having flown the nest, a new right-hand drive Citroën Dyane 6 was purchased in March 1974. Costing a little over £800, this 2CV sibling in its posh clothing was the nearest one could get in Britain to a Deux Chevaux. Two weeks after taking delivery of the Tin Snail and comprehending its ethos, together we embarked upon an exploration of Northern France. A short time later the Gallic call was satisfied with a dash across the Channel and southwards past the Loire and Dordogne en route to the Camargue and Provence.
The yearning for a proper Deux Chevaux was fulfilled when I succumbed to an ancient and not entirely reliable left-hand drive model. Compared with the 602cc Dyane, the 1955 425cc 2CV needed a lot of persuading in order to maintain any sort of speed, at best nudging 40mph on the level. Even modest inclines were met with dramatic drops in speed, while steeper hills amassed a tailback of frustrated drivers. Patience is everything when driving an early 2CV: the windscreen wipers are driven by the speedometer cable, which means in wet weather they crawl across the glass at a pace that would leave a tortoise breathless. Instrumentation is confined to a tiny speedo and a volt meter, so in order to know how much petrol there is in the tank it’s necessary to pull up, alight from the car and check the dipstick in the fuel tank aft.
Though my stable has housed an eclectic array of cars over the decades to include a 1947 Citroën Light Fifteen, the excesses of a 1951 Bentley and, at the opposite end of the spectrum, an early 1950s Fiat Topolino, not to mention a 1961 British-built Citroën DS, a CX and a Renault 4, it never felt right without there being a 2CV. I’ve covered vast swathes of Europe in Tin Snails, one of the most memorable expeditions being to the North Cape, Norway’s most northerly point. This was in the late 1970s when the majority of roads were unmade and ferries bridged fiords.
Citroën 2CV – Different is Everything – is my 32nd motoring book to have been published. My regard for the Tin Snail and the pleasurable and exciting travel various examples have afforded over the decades, and continue so to do, provided the inspiration to impart the history of this remarkable car. Originally designed to offer the most basic motoring to those people who would not have otherwise owned a motor vehicle, its character and personality never changed throughout 41 years of production. It spawned ever so slightly more classy versions such as the aforementioned Dyane, the Ami and the British designed and built Bijou, but under the skin the basic idea of the Deux Chevaux remained faithful to the concept that was born in the mid-1930s.
Driving even a late model 2CV today is akin to being at the helm of a piece of moving history. Strangers to the car take time to understand the logic of the gear lever that sprouts from the dashboard, but the real mystery for them is the art of maintaining surprisingly high average speeds despite such minimal power. Best of all is watching them come to terms with the car’s exceptional suspension which allows it to list unbelievably when navigating twisting roads. It’s no wonder the Tin Snail induces smiles wherever it goes.
Malcolm Bobbitt's book Citroën 2CV is available for purchase now.