There is no denying that 1948 was an important year for car manufacture the world over. With the economy in dire straits following WWII, those that had previously enjoyed the 1930s boom in motoring were now charged with not just getting their own companies back on track, but with giving a boost to their country’s coffers by coming up with something that would sell at home and abroad.
One look at those vehicles that first appeared at the motor shows of 1948 is proof enough that this year would come to revitalise the industry: Morris Minor, Land Rover, Porsche 356 and Jaguar XK120 would all excite various demographics of the buying public, but in France, it was the humble Citröen 2CV – conceived by Pierre Boulanger and, similar to the Land Rover, was squarely aimed at the agricultural community. Put simply, if you made the farming community more efficient, then productivity would increase and a much needed boost to the economy would follow.
The Citröen 2CV (deux chevaux) was simplicity itself; a 9hp, air-cooled engine, housed within basic utilitarian bodywork that sat upon suspension that was designed to cope with the worst of conditions – ploughed fields and poorly maintained tracks the staple routes of rural France.
Much like the Volkswagen Beetle, the 2CV was intended to be a car for the people – affordable, yet not without appeal and its launch immediately hit the right spot with so many orders rolling in that there was soon a three-year waiting list.
Not everyone was as enamoured with the Citröen however; the motoring press at the time ridiculed its unique look, calling it ‘ugly’ and ‘primitive’, whilst others asked if it ‘came with a can opener?’. Slowly however, even the journalists came round – incapable of ignoring the popularity of the Deux Chevaux and admitting that it had a place in the automotive world.
The 2CV was built from 1948 until 1990, but over that 42-year lifespan, there were a number of variations and model evolutions. During the first 12 years, various small additions were made that would enhance ownership: a heater was added, so too were side repeaters and a lockable driver’s door, but it wasn’t until the 1960s that any real visual changes came about.
In 1960, the iconic ‘ripple’ bonnet was replaced with a design that featured fewer and much larger swages – something that would follow through to the end of production 30 years later and in 1965, front-hinged doors took the place of the ‘suicide’ doors that had been fitted since the vehicle’s launch.
Similarly, the engine would undergo a gradual series of changes that saw the initial 9hp offering increase to 29hp, but the next major model change came with the introduction of the Citröen Dyane in 1967. Although based entirely on the 2CV underpinnings, the Dyane offered a visual alternative with almost all-new bodywork with an angular tilt and the introduction of a large hatchback-style rear. The launch of the Renault 4 had forced Citröen into a response before sales of the 2CV were irreversibly affected and although the Dyane was well-received with some impressive production figures, appetite for the ‘original’ 2CV remained strong and so replacement was never really an option.
With production of the Citröen Dyane ending in 1983, the 2CV continued to sell; an appearance in For Your Eyes Only with Roger Moore as James Bond at the wheel of a yellow 2CV6 in 1981 offered a boost with the launch of a special edition model, but as the decade wore on, a number of small, economical alternatives hit the market. Citröen themselves already had the Visa, but it was the announcement of its successor, the AX that resulted in the curtain coming down on the beloved 2CV.
Even with the evolution that had gone before, driving a mid-1970s Citröen 2CV isn’t exactly a luxurious experience, but as with most vehicles that were born out of a utilitarian ideal, there is also an undeniable charm that accompanies the ‘can do’ attitude.
The 2CV is undeniably noisy, lacks the ergonomic design qualities that we have all become used to and hardly packs a punch with its performance figures, but to put emphasis on any of these factors is to completely misunderstand the car!
What it does do, is fulfil the original brief; the suspension is still impressive and offers grip and stability with excellent ride quality and braking as you’d expect from something that lacks the weight of something more bloated. Of course, the 0-100mph figure doesn’t even exist and 60mph is achieved in the time it takes to eat a sandwich, but importantly it is fun, economical (45mpg) and remains on the ‘must have’ list of many classic enthusiasts.