Citroen 2CV - Horse sense

If you think the Citroen 2CV looks weird, wait till you drive it. The road I am traversing is as smooth as the proverbial baby’s bottom, yet I get the sensation of sitting in a boat that’s bobbing up and down while skimming waves. Add the sounds ‘boing, boing, boing’ and you think you’re starring in a cartoon film. The way it looks is the way it goes! 

I can’t believe I am driving one of the greatest cars in the world. And I can’t believe a car so weird could be so thoughtful. Or a car so thoughtful can be so simple. Yup, the Citroen 2CV is an entry straight out of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not. Getting into the car, it lets out a little bleep, and it does that every time – later I find out that the horn’s mounted on the same stalk that activates the lights, and I was honking with my knee! I am looking over a large, spindly two-spoke steering wheel and a rudimentary dash, and beyond the windscreen is a hood that curves abruptly down with two headlamps popping up at either end. It’s like sitting on top of Mickey Mouse’s head. 


Somewhere inside the tortoise-shell shaped hood is a busy little boxer engine sounding like a kitchen mixer, somehow propelling this duck on four wheels and yet forgiving my mis-shifts with the queer umbrella-handle gear lever. Heck, this car’s so incredible, it defies description, which is why I have to use all these metaphors to tell you what it’s like.Which begs the question, is this a car in the first place? The whole of France perhaps asked the same question (in French, of course) when the 2CV was unveiled at the Paris Salon in 1948. And the running joke at that time was: ‘Do you get a can-opener with it?’ But it was the 2CV that would have the last laugh, enduring for a full 42 years until production stopped in 1990, selling almost five million units across the world.

When Citroen decided to manufacture the 2CV, or Deux Chevaux (two horses) as it was famously known, they did not benchmark it against cars of that era, but the farmer’s horse cart. When your competition is a bare-basic, tough, highly utilitarian wooden contraption that’s powered by Ginelle and Giselle who’re fuelled by grass and lubricated by sugar, you can’t exactly manufacture a sedanca de ville with custom coachwork, can you? Which is why the criticism the ‘The Chevo’ (pronounced with a pout) received was unjustified, but people more than made up for that by falling in love with it.

The legend of the 2CV began way back in 1935, when the head of Citroen at that time, Pierre-Joules Boulanger, drew up the basic parameters of the car for the farmer – it should be light (less than 300 kg), be able to carry four adults at a speed of 60 kph, be extremely frugal by giving at least 20 km to the litre of petrol, allow the farmer to wear his hat inside the car, be able to accommodate a bale of hay or long planks of wood, and the most famous requirement of them all: to be able to ride over a plowed field while carrying eggs without breaking a single one of them. By the time the prototype emerged and any serious productionising could be done, World War II interrupted the development. It seems that of the 40 prototypes that were developed (these had BMW boxer engines, canvas doors and just one headlamp!), Citroen had 37 of them destroyed so they wouldn’t fall in enemy hands, and the remaining three were hidden in a barn. Development proceeded after that, till the car was finally unveiled in 1948.

What emerged at the Paris show looked like an ugly duckling, but it had an incredible number of innovations that exceeded Boulanger’s tight specifications for his tres petite voiture or very small car. A roof and trunk lid made of canvas meant that it could be rolled up for carrying bulky items. Instead of four turn signals at the four ends of the car, two were placed high up on the C-pillar and could be seen from either end. The speedometer cable also worked for the windshield wipers. The seats were essentially metal tubes on which thick canvas was draped – they were light, and could be removed from the car to make space or serve as lawn chairs! 

Except for the hood and the fenders, all the body panels were straight, which meant ease of production and for repair. The body panels were simply bolted on to the chassis, in fact the body shell required just 16 bolts to be held in place. The Mickey Mouse headlamps were there for a reason – cost-effectiveness in production – integrating them into the front fenders was expensive. The top half of the hinged window simply folded down, doing away with window controls. A long flap running below the windscreen could be opened to let in air when needed, and a mesh below filtered the elements before the air entered the cabin. Phew! With so many elements that we think necessary and which the 2CV deems superfluous, I am surprised they haven’t found a cheaper alternative for the four tyres. Actually, there are some more pathbreaking innovations that I will reveal shortly.

The Deux Chevaux debuted with a 9 bhp 375 CC air-cooled two cylinder boxer engine, and this 1980 model in front of me has a bigger 602 CC unit, still air-cooled but developing a cheerful 29 bhp at 5750 rpm and 4 kgm of torque. Power goes to the front wheels – remember, Citroen pioneered front wheel drive with the 7CV – through a four-speed manual gearbox. When I say gearbox, you would think of a floor-mounted gear lever, right? Wrong. Here, a rounded handle protrudes from the firewall, that looked as if its function was to open the hood, but no, it is the damned gear lever! Pull it, that’s first, pull it a little more with a left twist, that’s second, push it back with a right twist, that’s third and pull it in that same position, you get fourth. Simple, isn’t it? Oh yeah, damn simple. It was so easy that I was forgetting to steer while trying to get the hang of it. I am sure it would be easy to get used to, but at that time, the sheer concept was too bizarre, and I kept mucking my gearshifts. 

Then I finally figured it out. The gear ratios are engineered in such a way that they ensure that you get to fourth at the earliest. Which meant at lower speeds, you keep shifting constantly (the greater the number of shifts, the more I goofed up). Once I got into fourth (about time too), the engine was settled and I could floor it – the eager little motor looked as if it could go on like this all day. But it still sounded as if a miniature aeroplane was hiding somewhere under the hood and making all that noise. With a kerb weight of around 550 kg, this car has approximately the same power-to-weight ratio as our own little Maruti 800. 

According to some magazine tests, the 2CV with this engine could achieve a top speed of about 102 kph and a 0-to-96 kph timing of 31.7 seconds. That may not beat land speed records, but its performance is so honest and enthusiastic, that you feel like hitting those auto mags for pushing this poor little thing (and yourself, for quoting those figures). I noticed something cute – the driving position is such that you’re tilted forward, your nose is close to the windscreen, and you look like one of those pre-WW II Grand Prix drivers. It’s meant to make farmers feel good, I suppose.The reason for the car going boing-boing is the mind-blowing all-independent suspension arrangement. Why use four coil springs when two can do the job? Two coil springs enclosed in protective metal sheaths connect the front and rear wheel through long swing arms and shock absorbers on both sides. What that does in effect is split the load between both the axles – when the front wheel hits a bump, the suspension moves the rear wheel accordingly, by which the impact is lessened. Now what I felt while driving was that if I had shut my eyes, it would feel as if I am sitting in a D-segment car like the Hyundai Sonata – the ride is that plush and comfortable, it’s unbelievable a car this size can offer a ride like that. And unlike the Sonatas and Accords of the world, the 2CV can handle bad roads or even roads with the same level of ride quality. There is plenty of suspension travel, and that absorbs all the bad patches on the road without transferring it to the passengers – which meant our friend the farmer would be equally comfortable across all terrain. 

This model was running on skinny 135-15 radials – thin tyres meant a lower unsprung weight, and perhaps cost savings. Contrary to what we think, thin tyres did not mean a loss of grip. Combined with the stiff chassis and the unique suspension set-up, the 2CV’s road-holding is exemplary. Never do you feel that the rubber’s going to give way – it tackles curves without losing footing, though you do let up as you are not used to the body roll. The 2CV simply throws the rule book on how to manufacture and drive automobiles out of the window. 

If you remember, we had carried an article by Murad Ali Baig on how Eicher Motors wanted to introduce the 2CV in India (Motoring March 2002), but the project was aborted for various reasons. Today, when we are talking about a Rs One Lakh car, we should remember that Citroen successfully made it happen over half a century back. There may never be a 2CV again, but it can still teach us how to think beyond set ideas and rules.

We are grateful to Pune-based Shrinivas Thakur for allowing us to experience this amazing machine and for being patient with us while we were at it.