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Citroen 2CV

Citroen 2CV

By Jack Nerad

Citroen 2CV Without doubt there is a huge gap between an economy car and a luxury car, but a far bigger gap exists between an economy car and no car at all. And that is exactly the gap Pierre Boulanger wanted to bridge with the development of the Citroen 2CV, the fabled and much-maligned Deaux Chevaux.

Andre Citroen succeeded in bringing mass production to the French auto industry. With his A Model and then the 5CV Trefle, the visionary leader opened the possibility 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 renowned Traction Avant could put its house back in order. Soon before he died in 1935, he was forced to sell the control of his company to Michelin, and at his death he was very uncertain about its survival.

So, frankly, was Pierre Boulanger, who succeeded Citroen, but like the man for whom the company was named, he had faith 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 firmly 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 unimpeded in the new car. And he also specified the car should be able to accept a bale of hay and long pieces of lumber in addition to four passengers.

The prototype that emerged from the Citroen shops in 1937 fulfilled all these requirements and offered more utility besides. The car was also far more predictive 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.

The original 2CV was filled with so many innovations that it is difficult to believe how severely derided it was at its introduction and then during its long life as a production car. Like the Model T that was its spiritual predecessor, the Deax Chevaux got no respect.

But it certainly deserved respect. It was a veritable hot-bed of new ideas.

Perhaps foremost is its lightweight construction. In an era when an American "everyman's car" like the 1937 Ford weighed in at 2,400 pounds, the original 2CV scaled just a quarter of that. (In fact, it weighed less than half what a Model T weighed.) The advantage of lightweight construction was several-fold. First, it enabled 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 fewer and cheaper materials, which kept the production cost down and the retail price within the range of the typical French farmer. And, finally, 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 simple, 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, little over a third of a liter. From these two minuscule 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 era were often incapable of accepting much greater speeds.

Further, the engine delivered excellent (56 mile-per-gallon) fuel economy, a boon to impecunious Frenchmen. The little engine, which would eventually 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 scheme that is still with us today, unlike the Volkswagen Beetle's rear-engine configuration that even Volkwagen has abandoned.

Even more interesting and innovative is the all-independent suspension arrangement. The most startling feature is that front and rear suspensions are interconnected, sharing horizontally position coil springs. By this ingenious method 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 transverse a basket of eggs across a plowed field without breaking one.) For weight and cost savings, the 2CV sits on tires that are scarcely wider than bicycle tires, yet its independent suspension blessed it with good road holding.

Another reason for the car's good roadholding was its incredibly simple but relatively stiff chassis. Pressed from sheet steel, the chassis features girder-like frame rails in the rockers but is not dissimilar from the Volkwagen Beetle body pan.

However, the body was at once much simpler and much more innovative than Erwin Komenda's Volkswagen design. The 2CV's semi-unitary body used a minimum of expensive curved stampings. Aside from the fenders and the hood, most of the body pieces were flat stampings, which weren't only cheap to make but inexpensive to repair. The front and rear doors, body sides and windshield frame were all of this construction.

That was nothing, however, compared to the roof and trunk lid, each of which was fashioned from canvas. Both canvas pieces were designed to roll up, so each 2CV was a quasi-convertible. Style, though, 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 conventional closed car. The free 37-mph air conditioning was just a side benefit.

The minimalist tone extended to the lighting design as well. Rather than mounting the headlights flush into the fenders, they were perched on tubular stock above the fenders in simply shaped pods. (Early prototypes experimented with just one headlight.) Instead of mounting 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 theme. Instead of seats filled with heavy springs and horsehair, the Deux Chevaux's seats were channeled canvas hung between metal tubes. Very light in weight, they lifted out individually to accommodate extra cargo or for use as occasional lawn chairs.

Door hardware was as rudimentary 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 needed. A simple screw-operated flap over a screen inlet running across the base of the windshield also permitted air entry.

The 2CV's dash was a study in simplicity with just a speedometer and ammeter breaking the monotony. The most obvious feature 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 used 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 ridiculed 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 aftermath 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 popular 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 produced, a tribute to the vision of Pierre Boulanger and his faith in the French farmer.
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