Prior to WWII, the mostly rural population of France did not have a cheap and utilitarian vehicle that would allow them to embrace the automobile the way Americans had with the Model T. The 2CV was conceived as the car that would mechanize the French peasant class. Like the Volkswagen Beetle, the 2CV had its roots in the pre-WWII era. Pierre-Jules Boulanger, a Michelin executive assigned to Citroën, called for a car that could carry two people and 200 pounds of farm goods over lousy French roads and go at least 100 kilometers on 4.8 liters (about 58 mpg) of equally lousy French gasoline. And the ride had to be smooth enough to traverse a plowed field without breaking a crate of eggs. The resulting proof of concept was called the "TPV" for Très Petite Voiture, or very small car. Also like the Beetle, the war intervened before production could get underway. It is rumored that the five or six prototypes built before the war were buried to hide them from the invading Nazis, lest they materially aid the Wehrmacht. Exactly where the 2CV would have fit in on the list of potentially war-winning weapons like the V2 ballistic missile and Me 262 jet fighter is anyone's guess. Unlike the U.S.-which could start cranking out 1942/46 models as soon as the demand for B-17s waned-France had been the scene of some of the heaviest fighting on the Western Front during the war. The damage caused by the actual German invasion of 1940 paled in comparison to that caused by the Allied bombing campaign-which targeted French industries utilized by the Nazis-or the collateral damage caused by the 1944 liberation. By 1945, much of France, from Normandy to the Vosges Mountains to the Riviera to Alsace and Lorraine, lay in ruins. So it was not until 1948 that series production of the 2CV (literally "2 horse" for the French tax classification) got underway.

Think "tin snail"

Woefully underpowered with a 375-cc, 9-hp air-cooled flat twin, the 2CV did have some technically interesting features for its time, including four-wheel independent suspension, front-wheel drive, inboard front brakes, and a four-speed gearbox. The most powerful engine ever fitted to a 2CV was the "big-block" 602 cc, which made an earth-shaking 33 hp. While escargot slow (it is called the "tin snail"), any 2CV presents a unique driving experience. With plenty of ground clearance and very soft springing for traversing those aforementioned plowed fields, a 2CV rides like nothing else, but the push, pull, twist, out-of-the-dash shifter takes getting used to. About 40 mph is top speed for 375-cc models, 60 mph for the 425-cc. Most have been retrofitted with 602-cc motors. The 1980s "Charlestons" can cruise at 75 mph, as long as there are no hills. Cars from the 1950s can be recognized by "corrugated" hoods (very early ones have wipers driven by the speedometer cable); 1960 brought a smoother hood, with a third side window in about 1964. Very few 2CVs were sold new in North America. They were priced considerably higher than a VW Beetle and Citroën's spotty dealer network didn't help matters. Legal importation became impossible after the 1967 safety and emissions regulations. Nevertheless, quite a few later 2CVs found their way to the U.S. titled as 1967 or earlier. Post-1981 cars are easy to spot as they gained front disc brakes that year, simplifying maintenance. Special editions with two-tone paint schemes like the "Charleston" also date from the early 1980s and are most common here. The 2CV is particularly rust-prone, even the late Portuguese-built cars. The front axle-tube mounts, longitudinal shock mounts, and the gas tank area are logical spots to check first. On the body, floors, sills, windshield frames, rear panels, and fender edges are also potentially nasty, but any place is possible and once rust gets hold, it spreads easily through the thin-gauge steel. Replacement frames are usually galvanized and easy to spot. The good news is that parts are available and cheap; figure about $325 for fenders and $200 for doors, for example. Nobody does bodywork on such light metal.

Mechanically tougher than it looks

Mechanically, the 2CV is quite robust. Most will smoke a bit on start-up, especially when cold. Continued smoking means the rings are likely suspect. No 2CV cares for overheating, but with proper care and frequent oil changes, they can last 150,000 miles or more. A little bit of gearbox whine is not unusual, and first and third synchros are often weak. Later gearboxes are prone to an internal defect that can make it impossible to select a gear. An updated and improved selector ring will prevent this. Interiors are simple in the extreme (think deck chairs) and present no restoration problems. For that matter, with seven million produced from 1948 to 1990, when the last one rolled off the line in Portugal (French production ceased in 1988), parts really aren't a problem. In the U.S., French Parts Service of Normandy Park, Washington (, and Western Hemispheres in Sacramento, California (, can supply most needs. Original-sized Michelin tires, however, are getting expensive, prompting some owners to convert to later 15-inch wheels. Prices for ratty runners start at about $3,500, though ambitious owners often ask twice that much. Expect to pay about $10,000 for a non-rusty car with no needs. A variant, plastic-bodied Mehari Jeeps, are fragile by now, thanks to sun damage. Rare 4WD, twin-engined Saharas, which had standard 2CV coachwork (just 694 made) will cost you more than $20,000. They are also difficult to drive and impossible to find parts for. The average 2CV owner/collector isn't difficult to peg. French professors and general Francophiles seem to make up most of the market. It is certainly the aspirational car among Edith Piaf fans and lovers of French New Wave cinema. A 2CV truck or van can also make a dandy tax deduction for owners of patisseries and boulangeries. The famous Bistro 990 in Toronto has used one as a prop for many years, as have numerous other French restaurants. The 2CV, along with the Mini and the VW Beetle, was an icon of basic post-war European transportation. While you won't run into many people in the U.S. with 2CV stories to share, a tin snail is likely to attract more attention on the street than most expensive exotics.

Comments are closed.