A French Icon, the 2CV is probably France's most famous vehicular export; we take a deep dive into the history of this iconic car.
Shortly before World War Two, the French car manufacturer Citroen hit gold when it introduced the 2CV. As the clouds of war gathered, this revolutionary car did not have the chance to capitalise on its launch, but in time, it went on to secure its place as one of the most significant vehicles ever produced.
Origins of the 2CV
The Deux Chevaux, or the ‘Tin Snail’ as it became affectionately known, was born of a stunningly simple brief. The man behind the project was Citroen’s new boss Pierre-Jules Boulanger and his instruction to the designers, Andre Lefebvre and Flaminio Bertoni, was to create ‘an umbrella with wheels'.
The story goes he was driving in the countryside, stuck behind a farmer’s horse and cart. Rather than fuming with impatience, he mused the possibility of creating a low-cost alternative that the farmer would find hard to resist.
His vision was for an affordable car that would be accessible to farmers, winemakers and rural communities. It would need to be mechanically simple, with seating that was equally suitable for people and agricultural produce, casks of wine or even small livestock. Famously, he wanted the car to be able to traverse a ploughed field without breaking eggs carried in the back.
In short, his starting point was to create a car that could do what a farmer needed it to do. His first jottings were a set of requirements for what this new car should be able to do, rather than pencil sketches. The last of these requirements was that he should be able to sit in the car with his hat on.
The aesthetic appearance was secondary, with functionality the only consideration. It was a transport solution that could replace the traditional pony and trap – and it had a roof!
Launch of the 2CV
The 2CV was born in 1936, with the first models coming off the production line in 1938 ahead of the 1939 Paris Motor Show. Sadly the onset of war stalled all plans to capitalise on the early interest of enthusiastic showgoers.
There are, of course, parallels with Germany’s VW Beetle. Dr Porsche, who created the first Beetle, was influenced by Adolf Hitler and his very specific ideas of what he wanted from his Volkswagon, the ‘people’s car’. Both proved successful egalitarian concepts, but Boulanger had nobody breathing down his neck when coming up with his 2CV concept.
Despite the war, Citroen managed to tinker with the designs before re-launching to expectant crowds at the Paris Motor Show in 1948. Despite a lukewarm critical reception, sales gradually snowballed. A waiting list was set up with the customer base originally intended being shunted up the queue: smallholders, vignerons, doctors and vets in particular.
The allure of the 2CV
The 2CV proved to be completely aligned with the zeitgeist of the times. It instantly became a symbol of affordable mobility at a time when France was still licking its post-war wounds. This little car allowed livelihoods to continue and rural businesses to prosper; it linked communities and families (after all, these were the days before autoroutes). It started easily, was cheap to run and was easily maintained by any mechanic in any rural village.
Variations on a theme
While the basic form remained unchanged, or similar, for decades, Citroen introduced upmarket versions in a bid to appeal to a wider audience. The AZL was a ‘luxe’ version featuring a demister, amongst other things. The AZLP of 1958 featured a metal boot lid offering extra security, while the 1963 2CV AZAM brought stainless steel hubcaps and chrome to the masses.
The 2CV Sahara 4x4 was an oddity oozing character with its second engine squeezed into the boot and a top speed of 62mph. The 2CV Charleston proved popular to the end, as did editions like the Dolly, Beachcomber and the 2CV-007 (launched to coincide with the James Bond movie ‘For Your Eyes Only’). The 1975 2CV Special even went full circle and offered a back-to-basics edition complete with signature round headlights.
The workhorse ethic of this little car was harnessed by the 2CV van or Fourgonnette - hugely popular for some 25 years, especially with French Post Office workers and the utility company EDF.
2CV competitors and pretenders
When the Renault 4 was eventually introduced, it caused a shockwave through the rural heartland. The Renault 4 was less quirky in its looks and had a much more capacious boot – useful for anyone living in the countryside.
With aspirations to capture the UK market, Citroen launched its 2CV-based Bijou in 1959. Though designed with UK buyers in mind, it struggled from the start and was killed off by the arrival of the all-conquering MINI. Later in the 70s, the British took the 2CV to their hearts, prizing its fun demeanour and fuel frugality.
Citroen introduced the Dyane, hoping to tempt a more youthful buyer demanding a more modern look. But while successful at various moments, it lacked the flair of the 2CV and dampened demand for the 2CV. Production of the 2CV peaked in the mid-60s, though it saw a renewed surge in demand during the 1973-5 Oil Crisis.
Why was the 2CV an icon?
This charismatic little car hit a sweet spot. It had all the authentic credentials of a working man’s vehicle of choice. But with a more recently applied veneer of breezy, fun-loving chic courtesy of the younger generation. In time the 2CV was no longer a working man’s workhorse, no longer the preserve of denim-clad, beret-wearing, Gauloise-puffing rural farmers. It became an emblem of ‘cheap and cheerful’ in the most positive sense, popular with 1970s cash-strapped teachers and students.
The last Citroen 2CV built in France rolled off the line in 1988, with the iconic car produced elsewhere until 1990. Well over 5 million had been produced globally. It cemented its reputation as a little workhorse, full of character and universally regarded as easy to drive, repair and maintain.
As to why it became such an icon, the answer is not that it was a ‘Marmite’ car which was either loved or hated. Rather, it was simply a case of you either loved the 2CV, or you just didn’t understand it.
Early models of the 2CV used the same screw throughout production. The engine itself employed just 4 screws.
The earliest prototype 2CV had only one headlight, giving rise to the ‘Cyclops’ soubriquet.
In 1959 the first detachable radio was added – the Radioën.
Editor - Alan Rogers Guides
Rob is the General Manager at Alan Rogers Travel Group, he is responsible for the ongoing development of the Alan Rogers website and publication of the Alan Rogers Guides.
He has been involved in the leisure industry since completing a BTEC in Travel & Tourism in 1993. Previous roles have included the promotion of tourism in Yorkshire and running a motorcycle touring company in the Australian Outback.