The Citroën 2CV (French: deux chevaux, literally “two horses”, from the tax horsepower rating) was an economy car produced by the French automaker Citroën from 1948 to 1990.
The 2CV belongs to a very short list of vehicles introduced right after World War II that remained relevant and competitive for many decades – in the case of the 2CV, 42 years.
Pierre-Jules Boulanger’s early 1930s design brief – said by some to be astonishingly radical for the time – was for a low-priced, rugged “umbrella on four wheels” that would enable two peasants to drive 100 kg of farm goods to market at 60 km/h, in clogs and across muddy unpaved roads if necessary. France at that time had a very large rural population, who had not yet adopted the automobile due to cost. The car would use no more than 3 litres of gasoline to travel 100 km. Most famously, it would be able to drive across a ploughed field without breaking the eggs it was carrying. Boulanger later also had the roof raised to allow him to drive while wearing a hat.
André Lefèbvre was the engineer in charge of the TPV (Très Petite Voiture – “Very Small Car”) project. By 1939, the TPV was deemed ready and several prototypes had been built. Those prototypes made use of aluminium or magnesium parts and had water-cooled engines. The seats were hammocks suspended from the roof by wires.
During the German occupation of France during World War II, Michelin (Citroën’s main shareholder) and Citroën managers decided to hide the TPV project from the Nazis, fearing some military application. Several TPVs were buried at secret locations, one was disguised as a pickup, and the others were destroyed, and Boulanger had the next six years to think about more improvements. Until 1994, when three TPVs were discovered in a barn, it was believed that only two prototypes had survived. As of 2003, five TPVs are known. For long it was believed that the project was so well hidden that the all the prototypes were lost at the end of the war (in fact it seems that none of the hidden TPVs was lost after the War, but in the 1950s an internal memo ordered them to be scrapped. The surviving TPVs were, in fact, hidden from the top management by some workers who were sensitive to their historical value).
After the war, internal reports at Citroën showed that producing the TPV would not be economically viable, given the rising cost of aluminium in the post-war economy. A decision was made to replace most of the aluminium parts with steel parts. Other changes were made, the most notable being an air-cooled engine, new seats and a restyling of the body by Flaminio Bertoni. It took three years for Citroën to rework the TPV and the car was nicknamed “Toujours Pas Vue” (Still Not Seen) by the press.
Citroën finally unveiled the car at the Paris Salon in 1948. The car on display was nearly identical to the type A version that would be sold next year, but lacked an electric starter: the addition of this one was decided the day before the opening of the Salon of Paris. It was enormously criticized. In spite of that, it had a great impact on low-income population.
It was laughed at by journalists, probably because Citroën had launched the car without any press advertising. Boris Vian described the car as an “aberration roulante” (rolling aberration) and the car was qualified as a “Spartan car” or a “sardine can” by many. History has confirmed that the car was charming in a lot of people’s views, and a revolution in consumer transportation, at least on the French market.
The 2CV was a great commercial success: within months of it going on sale, there was a three-year waiting list. The waiting list was soon increased to five years. At that time a second-hand 2CV was more expensive than a new one because the buyer did not have to wait. Production was increased from four units per day in 1949 to 400 units per day in 1950. Some of the early models were built at Citroën’s plant in Slough, England but the 2CV sold poorly in Great Britain in part due to its excessive cost. Expecting to boost sales, Citroën introduced a glass-fibre coupé version called the Bijou that was briefly produced at Slough. Styling of this little car was by Peter Kirwan-Taylor who was better known for his work with Colin Chapman of Lotus cars, but it proved to be too heavy for the diminutive engine to endow it with adequate performance.
In 1967 Citroën built a new car based on the 2CV, the Citroën Dyane, in response to the direct competition by the Renault 4. At the same time, Citroën developed the Méhari off-roader.
A rare Jeep-esque derivative, called the Yagán, after an Aborigine tribe, was made in Chile between 1972 and 1973. After the Chilean coup of 1973, there were 200 Yagáns left that were used by the Army to patrol the streets and the Peruvian border, with 106 mm cannons.
A similar car was sold in some west African countries as the Citroën “Baby-brousse”.
A very special version of the 2CV was the «Sahara» for very difficult off-road driving, built from December 1960 to 1971. This one had an extra engine mounted in the rear compartment and both front and rear wheel traction. Only 694 «Sahara»s were built.
The purchase price of the 2CV was always very low. In Germany in the 1960s for example, it cost about half as much as a Volkswagen Beetle.
As time went on, this rural horse-substitute gained favor with a new audience: European nonconformists who protested mass consumer culture. At the time, a popular joke was that 2CVs came straight from the factory with Atomic Power – No Thanks! bumperstickers. Owning a 2CV was like being in a club – 2CV owners would wave to each other on the road.
The 2CV was mainly sold in France and some European markets. In the post war years, Citroën was very focused on the home market, which had some unusual quirks, like puissance fiscale. The management of Michelin was indulgent of Citroën up to a point, but was not prepared to initiate the investment needed for the 2CV (or the Citroën DS for that matter) to truly compete on the global stage. Consequently, the 2CV suffered a similar fate to the Morris Minor and Mini, selling fewer than 10 million units, whereas the Volkswagen Beetle, which was sold worldwide, sold 21 million units.
In Iran, the Citroën 2CV was called the Jian. The cars were originally manufactured in Iran in a joint venture between Citroën and Iran National up until the 1979 Revolution, when Iran National was nationalized, which continued producing the Jian without the involvement of Citroën.
Only a few thousand 2CVs were sold in North America when they were new – the car was so small and inexpensive that the cost of transport alone put it into a different and uneconomic price category. The 2CV was built in Chile and Argentina to address this issue for South America.
The level of technology in the 1948 2CV was remarkable for a car of any price in that era, let alone one of the cheapest cars on the planet. While colors and detail specifications were modified in the ensuing 42 years, the biggest mechanical change was the addition of front disc brakes in 1981 for the 1982 model year.
The 1948 2CV featured:
- four wheel independent suspension that was inter-connected front to rear on the same side under certain conditions
- leading arm front suspension
- trailing arm rear suspension
- rear fender skirts
- front-wheel drive
- inboard front brakes
- small, lightweight, air-cooled flat twin engine
- 4-speed manual transmission
- bolt-on detachable body panels
- front suicide doors
- detachable full length fabric sunroof and boot lid – for load carrying versatility
The body was constructed of a dual H-frame chassis, an airplane-style tube framework, and a very thin steel shell.
The suspension of the 2CV was almost comically soft – a person could easily rock the car back and forth dramatically. The leading arm / trailing arm swinging arm, fore-aft linked suspension system together with inboard front brakes had a much smaller unsprung weight than existing coil spring or leaf designs. The interconnection transmitted some of the force deflecting a front wheel up over a bump, to push the rear wheel down on the same side. When the rear wheel met that bump a moment later, it did the same in reverse, keeping the car level front to rear. This made the suspension more responsive, enabling the 2CV to indeed be driven at speed over a ploughed field. Since the rear brakes were outboard, extra shock absorbers or tuned mass dampers were fitted to the rear wheels to damp wheel bounce.
Front-wheel drive made the car easy and safe to drive and Citroën had developed some experience with it due to the pioneering Traction Avant.
It was powered by a flat-twin air-cooled engine designed by Walter Becchia, with a nod to the classic ‘boxer’ BMW motorcycle engine (it is reported that Becchia dismantled the engine of the BMW motorcycle of Flaminio Bertoni before designing the 2CV engine).
The car had a 4-speed manual transmission, an advanced feature on an inexpensive car at the time. Boulanger had originally insisted on no more than 3 gears, because he believed that with four ratios the car would be perceived as complex to drive by customers. Thus, the fourth gear was marketed as an overdrive, this is why on the early cars the “4” was replaced by “S” for surmultipliée. The gear shifter came horizontally out of the dashboard with the handle curved upwards. It had a strange shift pattern. The first was back on the left, the second and third were inline and the fourth (or the S) could be engaged only by turning the lever to the right from the third.
In keeping with the ultra-utilitarian (and rural) design brief, the canvas roof could be rolled completely open. The Type A one stoplight, and was available only in grey. The windscreen wipers were powered by a purely mechanical system: a cable connected to the transmission, to reduce cost, this cable powered also the speedometer. The wipers’ speed was therefore variable with car speed. When the car was waiting at a crossroad, the wipers were not powered, thus it was also possible to power them by hand.
The reliability of the car was increased by the fact that, being air-cooled, it had no coolant, radiator, water pump or thermostat. It had no distributor either because both spark plugs were fired at the same time, on every two strokes. Except for the brakes there were no hydraulic parts on original models as the shock absorbers were based on an inertial system.
The car featured an air-cooled, flat-twin, four-stroke, 375 cc engine, with the notoriously underpowered earliest model developing only 9 bhp DIN (6.5 kW). A 425 cc engine was introduced in 1955, followed by a 602 cc (giving 28 bhp (20.5 kW) at 7000 rpm) in 1968. With the 602 cc engine the tax classification of the car changed so that it became in fact a 3CV, but the commercial name remained unchanged. A 435 cc engine was introduced at the same time in replacement of the 425 cc, the 435 cc engine car was christened 2CV 4 while the 602 cc took the name 2CV 6 (nevertheless it did take the name 3CV in Argentina). The 602 cc engine evolved to 33 bhp (24 kW) in 1970; this was the most powerful engine fitted to the 2CV. A new 602 cc giving only 29 bhp (21.5 kW) at a slower 5750 rpm was introduced in 1979. Despite being less powerful, this engine was more efficient, allowing lower fuel consumption and better top speed, at the price of decreased acceleration.
The 2cv also pioneered the use of the now common Wasted spark Ignition System, also known as the DIS (Distributorless Ignition System) ignition using a double ended coil fired on each revolution, (on the exhaust and compression stroke), by just a contact breaker.
When asked about the 2CVs performance and acceleration, many owners said it went “from 0-60 in one day”. Others jokingly said they “had to make an appointment to merge onto an interstate highway system”
The last evolution of the 2CV engine was the Citroën Visa flat-2, a 652 cc featuring an electronic ignition. Citroën never sold this engine in the 2CV, however some enthusiasts have converted their 2CVs to 652 engines.
The end of the 2CV
The 2CV was produced for 42 years, the model finally succumbing to customer demands for speed and safety, areas in which this ancient design had fallen significantly behind modern cars.
Citroën had attempted to replace the ultra-utilitarian 2CV several times (with the Dyane, Visa, and the AX), however its comically antiquated appearance became an advantage to the car and it became a niche product which sold because it was different from anything else on sale.
While not a replacement for the 2CV, a straightforward, unremarkable urban runabout supermini like the Citroën AX seemed to address the automaker’s requirements at the entry level in the 1990s.
In 1988, production ceased in France but was continued in Portugal. The last 2CV, gray with chassis number VF7AZKA00LA376002, rolled off the Portuguese production line on July 27, 1990. In all, a total of 3,872,583 2CV sedans were produced. Including the commercial versions of the 2CV, Dyane, Méhari, FAF, & Ami variants, the 2CV’s underpinnings spawned over nine million cars.
The 2CV was outlived by contemporaries such as the Mini (went out of production in 2000), VW Beetle (2003), Renault 4 (1994), VW Type 2 (still in production) and Hindustan Ambassador (still in production).