Occupying an exceptional place in automobile culture and French history since 1948, the iconic Citroën 2CV (deux chevaux or deux chevaux-vapeur – literally "two steam horses") celebrates its 70th anniversary this year.
However its story goes back much further. In 1934, Michelin took over the bankrupt Citroën company, and immediately commissioned a survey to help motorise France’s large rural population, who could not afford cars and still used horses and carts. Citroën used the survey results to develop a low-priced, rugged "umbrella on four wheels" that would enable four people to transport 50 kg of farm goods to market at 50 km/h, if necessary across muddy, unpaved roads – including driving eggs across a freshly ploughed field without breaking any!
In 1936, spearheaded by Citroën’s vice-president and chief of engineering and design Pierre-Jules Boulanger, the TPV (Toute Petite Voiture – Very Small Car) was developed in secrecy at Michelin’s facilities at Clermont-Ferrand and at Citroën in Paris. Boulanger closely monitored all decisions on the TPV, proposing strictly reduced target weights, weighing and redesigning each component to lighten the TPV, yet without compromising function.
By the end of 1937, 20 TPV experimental prototypes had been built and tested - bare chassis with rudimentary controls, seating and roof, and the test drivers wearing leather flying suits, like those used in open biplanes at the time.
By 1939, after a total of 47 prototypes had been built and tested, the TPV was deemed ready - featuring aluminium and magnesium parts, innovative radial tyres, hammocks as seats (hung from the roof by wires), and only one headlight, all that was required by French law at the time.
In mid-1939 a pilot run of 250 cars was produced, brochures were printed and preparations made to present the car, renamed the Citroën 2CV, at the forthcoming Paris Motor Show in October 1939.
However on 3 September 1939, France declared war on Germany following the invasion of Poland. An atmosphere of impending disaster led to the cancellation of the 1939 motor show, and the launch of the 2CV was abandoned.
During the German occupation of France, Citroën managers decided to hide the TPV project from the Nazis, fearing it might be used for military purposes. Several TPVs were buried at secret locations - one was disguised as a pickup, all the others were destroyed, and it was believed that only two prototypes had survived.
However in 1994, three 1939 TPVs were discovered in a barn, and one of these was the "guest of honour" at the recent 2CV gathering in Uzès, organised by the 2CV Club de l’Uzège (see left). Due to its age and fragile condition, this long-lost car is only displayed once every 15 years or so, and so it was an enormous coup for the Club de l’Uzège – and if you missed it this time, you can visit it at Citroën’s Conservatoire in Aulnay-sur-Bois.
Meanwhile, with its cost a third of the price of a regular car, coupled with its modern-looking curved design, the 2CV was an instant hit when it was finally unveiled at the Paris Motor Show in October 1948. The crowd was stunned - while some laughed at its unique silhouette, others saw the qualities that had been missing from so many other models: simplicity, lightness, agility, comfort and versatility. The 2CV also offered a wide range of technologies that were novel at the time, such as front-wheel drive, soft-long travel suspension and air-cooled two-cylinder engines.
In 1949 the first delivered 2CV type A was 375 cc, 9 hp, with a 65 km/h top speed, only one tail light and a windscreen wiper which depended on the driving speed. The car was heavily criticised by the motoring press and became the butt of French comedians. One American motoring journalist quipped "Does it come with a can opener?", while the British Autocar correspondent wrote that the 2CV "is the work of a designer who has kissed the lash of austerity with almost masochistic fervour".
Despite critics, Citroën was flooded with customer orders at the show, and even within the first few days, the large quantity of orders proved that the brand - and its visionary designers - were on to something. Within months of its launch, there was a three-year waiting list, which soon increased to five years. At the time a second-hand 2CV was more expensive than a new one because the buyer did not have to wait. Production was increased from 876 units in 1949 to 6,196 units in 1950.
By 1952, production had reached more than 21,000 with export markets earning foreign currency taking precedence. The policy of Boulanger – by then company president – and which continued after his death, was "Priority is given to those who have to travel by car because of their work, and for whom ordinary cars are too expensive to buy." Cars were sold preferentially to country vets, doctors, midwives, priests and small farmers, and had a great impact on the lives of the low-income segment of the population in France.
It quickly becoming a legend - including Roger Moore as 007 driving a yellow 2CV in the 1981 James Bond film For Your Eyes Only.
With a history of continuing improvements and innovations through the years, the 2CV had an exceptional 42-year run, with over 5.1 million vehicles sold when production ceased in July 1990. Today, the 2CV - affectionately called the "Deuche" in French - remains an icon of automotive history, capturing the interest of collectors and vintage car collectors from around the world, and reaching as much as €100,000 each at auction.
2CV gathering in Uzès, organised by the the 2CV Club de l’Uzège.
Photos: Sian Griffiths Bell