By Lesley Hazleton (Lesley Hazleton writes a
car column for Lear's magazine.)
This is a tough summer for the French. Bad enough that a
reunited Germany will put an end to French aspirations to the leadership of Europe. Bad
enough that the English are buying up half the Normandy and Brittany coasts as summer
homes. But now, the truly inconceivable has happened: CitroŽn has announced that, after
43 years, the last Deux Chevaux will roll off the final remaining production line, in
Portugal, at the end of the month.
Along the zinc bars of every cafe in France there's been a chorus of "Ah nonl Mais
nonl Impossible!" The Deux Chevaux, a.k.a. the 2CV, was France par excellence. It was
a cultural symbol - the vin ordinaire of French cars, the car that zipped through every
French movie you can remember, the car for which French roads were built.
I was 7 years old when I was introduced to it, a restless
tourist in the back of my parents' sedan as we drove through France. They kept my brother
and me quiet by telling us to count Deux Chevaux Inevitably, years later in Israel, I
would buy one. It was to be my one and only true automobile love.
I drank my first Armagnac in a Deux Chevaux on a nightlong hitchhike from Paris to Nice. I
dodged in and out of a battalion of tanks on the way up Mount Hermon, slipping under the
gun barrels. I drove over a desert track that I was later informed was mined; the car was
too light to set off the mines.
It was indomitable, and I was indomitable in it. In the French word,
Above all, the Deux Chevaux was about style. Or rather, antistyle. It was superbly,
defiantly, doggedly resistant to everything that sets the testosterone and adrenaline
running in the blood of car enthusiasts. It was an environmentalist's car long before
Earth Day was conceived of. A counter-culture car long before 1968.
If its detractors called it "a car designed by a committee" or a "tin can
on wheels," its admirers touted its Art Deco styling and its Bauhaus functionalism.
Its technical elegance was pure and simple: elimination. No distributor, radiator, head
gaskets. Its character was best defined by the qualities it lacked: power, speed, luxury,
prestige, aggressiveness. As the French liked to say, it was to other cars as artichokes
are to flowers.
You drove it on momentum. Despite the name, it could develop a grand total of 29
horsepower, produced by a 600 cc two-cylinder engine. It had front-wheel drive, air
cooling, independent suspension and an amazing ability to survive unblemished where other
cars would break an axle. If you couldn't exactly win at Le Mans in it, you could, with
skill, get up to a reasonable 60 miles per hour, even 70 downhill.
You could take out all the seats and have your dťjeuner sur I'herbe in comfort. You could
roll back the canvas top and travel "cabriolel" The "air conditioning"
was a flap below the windshield opened by a simple lever. And it had real headlamps not
set flush into the body but mounted proudly atop the hood. It also got well over 40 miles
per galon (80 in its original, 1947 version), when everything else got barely half that.
In the end, it couldn't compete with technology, or with the Japanese, who upscaled the
down-scale car. And so at a mere 43 years old, in the prime of its life, it is doomed to
In this age of consumer sophistication, I know it's absurd to feel betrayed by an
automobile manufacturer. But Citroen had a cultural artifact on its hands, not just a
motorcar. So, say it ain't so, Citroen. For all those memories of youthful treks through
Europe, for our hopes for a saner attitude toward power and speed, for the sake of sense
over status - mon Dieu, Citroen, pour la France!