Time to Revive the Spirit of the Citroen 2CV?
By Andy Bannister
While sadly disappearing from everyday use nowadays, and a less common sight on Europe’s roads than it once was, the 2CV – or deux chevaux – had a remarkable career stretching from its 1948 launch to 1990, when the car finally went out of production at its last remaining plant in Portugal.
Few cars are as loved or loathed in equal measure. Enthusiasts adore the charm of the tiny air-cooled twin cylinder engine, the “push-pull” gear change, the almost complete absence of interior trim and features like the huge canvas sunroof, the enclosed rear wheels and the flip-up windows.
To others, the 2CV is an abomination which should have been put to death in the 1950s – an ugly, wheezing, unsafe contraption often seen clogging up roads by being driven so slowly by its self-righteous owner.
In appearance, the 2CV was old-fashioned before it saw the light of day, its narrow, upright body, separate wings and tiny doors owing more to the 1930s when the car was taking shape. Its birth was almost stifled by the invasion and occupation of France in 1940, with prototypes hidden away during the war years only to be dusted-off after the Nazis were safely defeated.
Laughed at by many even at launch, the 2CV nevertheless struck a huge chord because it provided what motorists in France and much of the world needed at that time – a simple, cheap, robust car which anyone could maintain, contained in a roomy body well able to cope with rough roads.
Unlike later “bubble cars”, the 2CV was a decent sized vehicle which could carry four big adults and lots of luggage, despite its small engine – just 375cc at launch, eventually expanding to a heady 602cc.
Pierre Boulanger, father of the 2CV, wanted to drive the horse and cart off the roads of France, then very much a peasant country. He specified his new low-priced car should be able to seat four people at up to 40mph or so and cross a ploughed field carrying a basket of eggs without breaking any. The passenger seats also needed to be removable to allow animals to be carried – all in all, a true workhorse for the country-dweller.
Today, with cars become more and more loaded with safety kit and convenience features that only a few years ago would have been options even on luxury models, a really basic vehicle seems many people’s idea of a nightmare throwback to a dark age of motoring. Tata’s recent Nano, however, shows such innovation is not dead, however, and India’s desire for affordable transportation for the masses could be compared to the situation in early post-war Europe.
Ironically, especially after the near-bankrupt Citroën was taken over by arch-rival Peugeot in the 1970s, the presence of the 2CV in the company’s showrooms increasingly became an embarrassment for the company, even if sales remained surprisingly healthy.
In the UK, where the car was reintroduced in 1974 after years off the market, it became an unexpected hit, and British sales were stubbornly high right up until the end, being loved for its quirkiness by urbanites who actually could have afforded a much pricier car.
Despite proof that idiosyncrasy has its fans, Peugeot, has often seemed determined to beat every drop of individuality out of Citroën, by plugging the yawning gaps in its range with increasingly ordinary cars.
First step on this road was the launch of the miserable 1976 Citroën LN, which had a 2CV engine in the very square-looking shell of a three-door Peugeot 104, a slow-selling rival for the market-leading Renault 5.
The company’s later small cars like the AX and Saxo, although sales hits, reinforced that trend. More recently, Citroën has rediscovered its styling individuality, in models like today’s C2 and C3 – the latter having a hint of 2CV in its curved roof profile – but they are still nothing more than Peugeots in alternative bodies.
Unlike the Mini, Beetle and Fiat 500, the extraordinary physical peculiarity of the 2CV would seem to militate against any retro revival. In 2005 a student design study called the Evoque seemed to prove the point that the shape doesn’t easily translate into a modern setting.
There have, however, been persistent rumours of a revival of some kind, with one British magazine last year confidently predicting a new 2CV by 2009, complete with the car’s trademark corrugated bonnet. This car, if it ever happened though, would most probably be just another designer pastiche with ordinary underpinnings and a sky-high price tag.
Interestingly, the current Paris exhibition twins the classic 2CV with the company’s latest small car concept, the C-Cactus, first seen at Frankfurt last year.
Citroën claims the C-Cactus and the 2CV share a common theme of innovation, being inspired by the same concern of how to do more with less. The prototype, however, is still a substantial model and miles away from being a minimalist design solution.
If the 2CV has any modern equivalent today in Citroën’s range it is probably the Berlingo MPV, a converted van which has been a great sales success even though it is not nearly the price-leader at the very base of the market the 2CV was.
With Europe’s car makers under siege from the threat of recession, fierce competition from China looming on the horizon, plus the increasing demands of safety legislation and environmental limits on emissions, the time could be right for someone to launch a car which goes right back to the drawing board.
Renault – which arguably stole the 2CV’s idea and made it work better with its 1961 4 hatchback, another hugely influential car which sold far better than its compatriot – seems to have come closest with its Dacia Logan, relying above all on cheap assembly and relentlessly paring costs to provide an acceptable, if anodyne, family vehicle.
Yet Logans are unlikely to be celebrated in a science museum any day soon, never mind in another 60 years.
If the 2CV is finally getting the acknowledgement it deserves as a truly pioneering design icon, will Citroën – or any of its European competitors – have the courage to follow it example and truly go back to basics?
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