Without doubt there is a huge gap between a luxury car and an economy car, but a far bigger gap exists between an economy car and no car at all. And that is precisely the gap Pierre Boulanger wanted to bridge with the improvement of the Citroen 2CV, the fabled and much-maligned Deaux Chevaux.
Andre Citroen succeeded in bringing mass production to the French auto business. With his A Model and then the 5CV Trefle, the visionary leader opened the probability of owning an automobile to many who could have never considered it before his arrival. But then, the Great Depression knocked the wind from his company’s sales, and not even the well known Traction Avant could put its house back in order. Soon before he passed away in 1935, he was forced to sell the control of his company to Michelin, and at his death he was very unsure about its survival.
So, frankly, was Pierre Boulanger, who succeeded Citroen, but like the man for whom the company was named, he had confidence in the man on the street or, perhaps in this case, it is more apt to say: the man on the farm. That is true, because Boulanger had the French farmer definitely in mind when he directed the development of the 2CV. Among his instructions to his engineers was the requirement that a farmer wearing a hat should be able to do so without hindrance in the new car. And he also specified the car should be able to accept long pieces of lumber and a bale of hay in addition to four passengers.
The model that emerged from the Citroen shops in 1937 fulfilled all these requirements and offered more utility besides. The car was also far more projecting of the modern automobile than its contemporary, Dr. Porsche’s Volkswagen Beetle, and, like the Beetle, it would remain in production for more than four decades.
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The original 2CV was filled with so many changes that it is difficult to believe how severely derided it was at its launch and then during its long life as a production car. Similar to the Model T that was its spiritual predecessor, the Deax Chevaux got no respect.
But it definitely deserved respect. It was a veritable hot-bed of new concepts.
Foremost, perhaps, is its lightweight construction. In a time when an American “everyman’s car” similar to the 1937 Ford weighed in at 2,400 pounds, the original 2CV scaled just a quarter of that. (It weighed, in fact, less than half what a Model T weighed.) The benefit of lightweight construction was several-fold. First, it facililtated a small engine to propel the car at reasonable speeds, giving the twin benefits of low engine cost and high fuel efficiency. Lightweight construction also meant the use of cheaper and fewer materials, which kept the production cost down and the retail price within the range of the typical French farmer. And, ultimately, light weight meant that the typical French farmer and three of his friends could literally pick the car up and carry it off if anything went wrong. The car was so basic, things rarely did.
Under the tortoise-ribbed front hood of the Deux Chevaux was a horizontally opposed air-cooled twin-cylinder engine that displaced just 375 cubic centimeters, slightly over a third of a liter. From these two microscopic cylinders sprang a pert nine horsepower, enough to haul along the car and four passengers at a top speed of 37 miles per hour. While this sounds pathetically low in our terms, one must remember that European country roads of the time were often not capable of accepting much greater speeds.
Further, the engine delivered perfect (56 mile-per-gallon) fuel economy, a boon to impecunious Frenchmen. The small engine, which would finally be enlarged all the way up to 602 cc (and 29 horsepower) drove the front wheels through a four-speed synchromesh gearbox, in a further use of Citroen’s traction avant scheme. Of course, it is a strategy that is still with us today, unlike the Volkswagen Beetle’s rear-engine configuration that even Volkwagen has abandoned.
Even more innovative and interesting is the all-independent suspension arrangement. The most startling characteristic is that front and rear suspensions are interconnected, sharing horizontally position coil springs. By this ingenious means, two coil springs essentially take the place of four, and the 2CV suspension also offers excellent wheel travel to provide startlingly good ride quality even over unimproved roads. (It has been said that a farmer in a Deux Chevaux could slant a basket of eggs across a plowed field without breaking any.) For weight and cost savings, the 2CV sits on tires that are scarcely broader than bicycle tires, yet its independent suspension blessed it with good road holding.
Another reason for the car’s good roadholding was its incredibly rudimentary but relatively stiff chassis. Pressed from sheet steel, the chassis includes girder-like frame rails in the rockers but is not dissimilar from the Volkwagen Beetle body pan.
However, the body was at once much more innovative and much simpler than Erwin Komenda’s Volkswagen design. The 2CV’s semi-unitary body used a minimum of pricey curved stampings. Aside from the hood and the fenders, most of the body pieces were flat stampings, which weren’t only cheap to make but inexpensive to repair. The body sides, front and rear doors, and windshield frame were all of this construction.
That was nothing, however, compared to the trunk lid and roof, each of which was fashioned from canvas. Both canvas pieces were planned to roll up, so each 2CV was a quasi-convertible. Though, style didn’t dictate the roll-top roof or trunklid; utility did. Their ability to roll out of the way meant the car could accommodate awkwardly sized cargo that wouldn’t fit in a traditional closed car. The free 37-mph air conditioning was just a side advantage.
The minimalist tone stretched to the lighting design as well. Rather than attaching the headlights flush into the fenders, they were perched on tubular stock above the fenders in simply shaped pods. (Early models experimented with just one headlight.) Instead of attaching one set turn signals on the front of the car and another set at the rear, Citroen designers mounted a single set behind the rear door that could be seen front and rear.
The interior of the car was very much in keeping with the less-is-more concept. Instead of seats filled with horsehair and heavy springs, the Deux Chevaux’s seats were channeled canvas hung between metal tubes. Very light in weight, they lifted out individually for use as occasional lawn chairs or to accommodate extra cargo.
Door hardware was as fundamental as possible (at first the designers investigated have no doors at all), and there were no window cranks or window-lift hardware. Instead the top half of the hinged window folded down over the bottom half when more ventilation was required. An ordinary screw-operated flap over a screen inlet running across the base of the windshield also allowed air entry.
The 2CV’s dash was a study in simplicity with just an ammeter and a speedometer breaking the monotony. The most obvious characteristic was the stick shift that emerged from the firewall at the driver’s right hand, instead of poking up from the floor. The shift linkage took a bit of getting familiar to, but the high top gear meant the car could trundle along with the accelerator floored for hours with no damage to the engine.
Though the Citroen 2CV was laughed at when it finally came to market at the 1948 Paris Salon, it soon became a fixture in the French countryside. (World War II and its after effect had prevented its mid-Thirties design from moving into production for more than a decade.) Ultimately the ugly duckling would make up for lost time and become one of the most famous motor cars of all time. By 1990, when it went out of production to the great disappointment of many on seven continents, more than five million Deux Chevauxs were manufactured, a tribute to the vision of Pierre Boulanger and his faith in the French farmer.
Filed under: Top Classic Cars