Deux Chevaux- the ugly car that everybody loves
By William G. Miller
The advertising flier says it all: "No wind-up
windows. No retractable headlights. No cigar lighter. No turbo charge. No fan belt. No
remote control door mirrors. No cruise control. No electric sunroof. No radiator.
And then the punchline: "No wonder it's so reliable. There's nothing to go
If you haven't guessed it already, it's Europe's beloved and ridiculed Citroen 2CV - the
Deux Chevaux which is marking its 40th birthday this year.
What does this minimalist car, an invention as French as the beret and the baguette, look
Some have said it is a cross between a frog and a camel. A tin croissant. A humpbacked
bug. An umbrella on wheels. A rag-topped rubbish bin. As aerodynarnie as an aardvark. The
epiphets go on.
The point is, however, it just can't be insulted. It is so ugly, it's beautiful.
In America, people had a love affair with the Volkswagen Beetle, which has some
similarities with the Deux Chevaux - but in Europe, the Beetle never had the same appeal.
This has been explained by the fact that the Beetle Iooked too much like a car; it had a
real roof, rolldown windows, a heavy metal skin and proper door handles.
The four-seater 2CV, on the other hand, weighing in at 1,300 pounds, has an almost
wafer-thin metal covering; its canvas roof is simply rolled back and pinned down whenever
you need a sunroof, its two front windows fold out and up so that the driver can stick its
hand out for signalling; the other windows don't move at all; the gear shift looks like an
umbrella handle sticking out of the dashboard; the headlights are fully exposed and bolted
to a metal tube that runs through the hood.
Speed? It can hit 71 mph maximum (more with a following wind); clubs around the world have
the motto: "Zero to 60 in the same day. "
Stories about it are legion: Two explorers ran out of transmission fluid, packed the
gearbox with crushed bananas and continued on their way; the British bolted guns to them
and dropped them from helikopters for use by marine Commandoes; French firemen cut two in
half and welded the front halves together so that they could get out of trouble the same
way they got in.
The 2CV was the pre-WW II brainchild of Pierre-Jules Boulanger, Citroen's president, who
wanted a small, economical car for people for whom the auto had been too expensive;
basically, the farmers.
Boulanger set his requirements: a car that could carry two people and 1 00 pounds of
potatoes at a top speed of 40 miles an hour. And there had to be enough headroom for a man
to drive while wearing a derby (or as the French say, a chapeau melon). As one engineer
recalls, 'The suspension was to be so good that a crate of eggs could be transported
safely across a plowed field."
The first prototype, which was put together in 1939, had a single headlight and a
hand-operated windshield wiper and hammock seats slung from the roof.
Then came the war, and work was suspended. When the Germans occupied France, they scoured
the country for the car since they had their own plans for a simple, people's car - the
Volkswagen. But Boulanger had crated two 2CV's and hidden them, after destroying all the
rest. They were never found by the Germans.
After the war, Boulanger went back into production and was ready to unveil the 2CV at the
Paris Auto Show of 1948, only to be greeted with derision by a press that wanted to know
if it came with a can opener. The 1948 version, which came in any color as long as it was
gray, looked little different from the 1939 version, except that it now had two
headlights. Today's model looks very much the same.
The name Deux Chevaux (two horse) is a bit of a slander on its real power; the CV actually
stands for cheval vapeur (horse power) and is rated as two horsepower under the arcane
French taxation system. The two-cylinder 2CV engine is in fact, capable of 29 h.p.
Since production was started, 6.5 million 2CVs have been sold. the "Deuche"
booming in the oil crisis of the 1970s when thousands saw the advantage of driving a car
that gave 50 miles to the gallon. Once the car sold at 170,000 units a year, but
sales dropped to 43,000 in 1987 and prompted Citroen to announce that the line would be
Enthusiasts around the world protested. For instance, the British, who still buy 7,000 a
year, stripped a 2CV of its doors, panels, hood and fenders and sent them around the globe
to Deuche clubs to be covered with signatures: the car was then reassembled and presented
The French manufacturer relented, but only to the extent that it agreed to carry on making
the Deuche at a single Portuguese plant.
The 2CV, beset by a general public's switch to more substantial cars and environmental
concerns about unleaded gas, is not yet at the end of the road.
To which one can only say, Vive Le Deux Chevaux.
(Editor's Note: The writer once drove a rented 2CV
from Paris to Paris by way of Rome to the south and Helsinki to the nortk a
3,000 mile jaunt in which the car required nothing more than the required
oil change. He now owns a 2CV in England, where he lives.)