Ihad a friend who was cursed with the nickname “Swamp Gas.” Folks called him that because “swamp gas was the only explanation for something that weird.”
Which brings me to the Citroën 2CV.
Yup, that odd little French car that also answers to “deux chevaux.”
From the land of stinky cheese, the 2CV had a long, quirky life, being built in France from 1948 until 1988, with a couple of encore years of production in Portugal from 1988 to 1990.
The numbers are pretty astonishing for a car that is used as a definition of “basic,” with nearly 3.8 million of the basic car. Another million-plus delivery vans and Meharis add to the total. There are plenty surviving, and they are in the bargain collectible sweet spot of under $20,000 — for the most part.
A little bit of history about a little car
The 2CV legend is that Pierre-Jules Boulanger, a vice president of Citroën, was trapped in a rural traffic jam in the 1930s — plodding horses and loaded market carts everywhere — when he thought something like this:
“There must be a way to build a car cheap enough for these mud-stacking peasants to purchase. It would be a vehicle suitable to take their pigs and chickens to market on terrible roads, as well as clear my bourgeois path back to Paris, tout de suite.”
Actually, the company did a market survey — duh.
What came out of the survey was a need to build a cheap, strong car that would carry four people plus 100 pounds of farm goods to market on bad or non-existent roads. It was designed to get 80 miles per gallon, and carry “eggs across a freshly ploughed field without breakage.”
The result was a light, slow, bare-bones car with long suspension travel. It premiered with a 375-cc air-cooled engine with 9 throbbing horsepower driving the front wheels.
Later models became nearly freeway-safe with a 29-horsepower, 602-cc engine.
While the 2CV sedan — and variants, such as the Charleston — account for most of the total production, there were also more than a million delivery vans, called Camionettes or fourgonnettes, and the Mehari (which is a French Mini Moke). Several versions used the 2CV mechanicals with different bodies, such as the Ami, Dyane and Acadiane.
Weird stuff sells
Prices for 2CVs are fairly stable at auction, with outliers such as the Sahara variant driving up the average.
The Sahara was a 4-wheel drive, twin-engine version, aimed at use in North Africa, but fewer than 700 were built. In addition to two engines, two gas tanks and so on, all your pedals did twice the work as well: twin clutches, twin gas pedals, and anyone who thinks it’s fun making sure two rudimentary powerplants are in synch probably also thinks escargot sounds somehow grander than garlic, butter and a squishy garden snail.
An unrestored Sahara sold in 2017 for $145,000, but don’t expect that number to repeat anytime soon.
Never a fancy car
The interior doesn’t do justice to the word “utilitarian.” Canvas seats stretch across a simple metal frame to hold your derrière, the shifter is a ball coming from the dash — which you shift in a horizontal plane — and instrumentation is minimal (speedo, petrol and maybe temperature).
On the plus side, the canvas top rolls back from the windshield all the way to the rear wheels, making it a lovely semi-convertible.
Sometimes called the “Tin Snail,” the 2CV was a design exercise in minimalism from start to finish. Citroën even created a special department during the prototype stage to weigh and test every component, lightening each piece where they could. The final car came in at around 1,300 pounds. Early cars used corrugated steel body panels for added strength without adding weight.
These cars look like rural garden sheds.
Entry-level fun and Gallic cool
The SCM Pocket Price Guide doesn’t even list the 2CV, but I think that’s just Francophobe silliness.
First, they are in the sweet spot of $10,000–$20,000 for frugal collectors (although the ultimate collector of French design, Peter Mullin, recently showed one).
Second, they are indisputably cool, in the same way Jean-Paul Belmondo is cool: quirky, not caring much what you think.
Third, they might be one of the few collectible cars that will be there for you in the Apocalypse. Think about it: no electronics to fry from the electromagnetic-pulse attack, basic mechanicals make repairs at least in the realm of the possible from your bunker, and they will negotiate debris-filled streets with aplomb.
Zombies would be a problem, though, as even the undead can break through the canvas top to get you — merde alors. ♦
(* Crazy small car!)