|Young French driver in her Deux Chevaux (2CV)|
Her nicknames range from affectionate (Deux chevaux; Deux pattes, Two Paws; Deuche; Dedeuche;) to dismissive and derogatory, especially when the car was first launched (Tin Snail; Umbrella on Wheels; Old Tin Can; Le Canard, the Ugly Duckling.)
No matter. 72 years after the first prototype was manufactured in France by Citroën; 21 years after the last model came out of a Portuguese production line, la 2 CV remains one of the most recognized, respected, revolutionary cars in the world. A French motoring icon.
|2CV “Charleston”: The first bi-colored model,
inspired by the Art Deco movement (1979-1981)
To me, and to many people the world over, la Deux Chevaux (2CV) is, quite simply, a happy car. Une voiture sympa (sympathique.) You know the type: You see one drive by (rarely, these days) and you start smiling, because you can’t help it. Come to think of it, English bulldogs do that for me as well. No obvious connection to la 2CV, but if you look closer, there are similarities. Neither of them (the dog or the old car) are known for their good looks. In French, both would be referred to as “rond” (round) because of their unusual shape. They are slow, but they do not care. They keep going and they will get there, you can be certain of it, because they are stronger than they look.
The Citroën Deux Chevaux (the 2CV, as it known internationally) was born in France a few years before WWII. Michelin, the French tyre manufacturer had just purchased Citroën, the car manufacturing company. In the 1930s, French population was mainly rural. Farmers, country doctors, rural clergy, and tradespeople could not afford to buy cars, but they needed to travel large distances to make a living. A survey conducted by Citroën revealed that there was a market for an economically-produced and affordable car. Specifications in an early design brief were, like the car they were going to generate, quite surprising. The document mentioned that the car should enable four peasants to drive 220 lb of farm goods to market at 37mph, in clogs, and across muddy unpaved roads if necessary. The roof had to be high enough, enabling driver and passengers to ride while wearing their Sunday hats to church! The car’s fuel consumption would average 90-95mpg. Above all, it could drive across a ploughed field without breaking the eggs it was carrying.
|The rustic 2CV was always at home in the French countryside|
An important part of the original specifications: The car had to stay within the two horsepower fiscal bracket to remain affordable. This explains the future name, “La Deux Chevaux” (literally two tax-horsepower.) The original engine itself had an eight horsepower capacity.
In the late 1930s, the first prototype was named “T.P.V.” (Toute Petite Voiture, or Very Small Car) and production started in absolute secrecy in a small town West of Paris. Citroën produced 250 units and planned to launch the car during the October 1939 Car Show in Paris, but History interfered.
|An early prototype boasts a minimalist look|
In September 1939, France declared war on Germany following the invasion of Poland by Hitler’s troops. World War II had started.
The Citroën management team involved in the project was determined to keep the new car away from the German government, and they did, an amazing feat since France was occupied for most of the war. The TPV construction line was requisitioned. Citroën asked that all prototypes be dismantled. Several survived (One model was tucked away in the Citroën office’s basement near the Paris Opéra house.) Others were hidden by rebellious Citroën workers in the French countryside, buried deep inside barns. Everyone involved claimed the cars had been lost, even after the war ended. Yet, three original prototypes were discovered in 1995 and had to be removed from a barn with special lifting equipment. The legend claims that the Germans were intent on getting their hands on the TPV throughout the war. At some point, they offered Citroën an opportunity to preview the German car that would become the “Volkswagen,” (the people’s car,) in exchange for the plans of the French car. To no avail.
|Three prototypes “dug out” of a barn in 1995|
Citroën secretly continued working on the TPV throughout the war and improvements were made. A second headlight was installed in 1942 (the car, with one original headlight, had been nicknamed: “The Cyclop”.)
After the Liberation, it took Citroën a few more years to finalize a version that could be introduced to the industry and the French public. The official launch date was the Paris Car Show in October 1948.
The public was intrigued and showed up en masse, but the professional press was understandably harsh. Journalists were unimpressed with the car’s minimalist look: the serrated hood that looked like a cheese grater; the manual starter; the drab grey color (the only color offered for the next few years;) the deceptively simple engineering (using a “lawn-mower engine,” held together by four screws;) open flap side windows; scrawny tires, a roll back canvas roof. With its mattress-like suspension and hammock seats, la 2CV looked like a “four-wheeled sofa covered by an umbrella.”
|Car Show 1948: The French President discovers the 2CV|
|One of the prototypes unveiled at the 1948 Car Show|
|The French welcome the 2CV|
|The 2 CV’s Spartan interior|
But the press was wrong. The 2CV became an instant hit and a great commercial success for Citroën in war-starved France where local populations needed an affordable and reliable vehicle to make a living. Within a few months, demand built up to such levels that production could not keep up. Soon, there was a 5-year waiting list to get a brand-new 2CV. Used models were even more expensive because they were available immediately. Production was upgraded from 4 cars a day in 1949 to 400 units per day in 1950!
|2CV production facility in Levallois-Perret, Paris|
|Production line – Citroën factory in the 1960s|
Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, the rustic 2CV took over the French countryside, a coveted and prized possession for rural populations. Durable, the 2CV proved almost indestructible. Slow, funny-looking, stripped to basics, it got you there, in a long bouncy ride (maximum speed was 40mph.)
|Standard blue model|
As the French economy recovered from the war and the country prospered, drivers started trading up. La Deuche became the family’s second car, or “la voiture de Madame” (Madam’s car) as it was known. From a utilitarian vehicle, the 2CV switched to the family’s “fun” car and was on its way to becoming a French icon. People rode the 2CV to picnics (the removable backseat meant one could enjoy lunch in style without getting wet.) Others got married in their beloved “Deuche.” To many, the 2CV was more than a car: it was a way of life, back in the days when people took the time to slow down, and to look around when they traveled.
|Book celebrating the 2CV’s 60th anniversary|
Some were so attached to their car it stayed in the family forever, the perfect hand-me down vehicle. Even though just five million 2CV were produced over the car’s long 42 year career, most 2CVs had several owners. Some say this led in part to the 2CV’s downfall. It was so economical and easy to maintain that it was never profitable enough. After all, the revolutionary car had been designed so owners could make most repairs themselves.
|Deux Chevaux en panne. Broken down 2CV (1964)|
Over the years, the original body design remained unchanged but technical improvements (and new, brighter colors,) were introduced. Thirty different models were launched, including the popular fourgonette (van) and the Sahara model, a 4×4 used in rallies around the world.
|The popular 2CV fourgonnette|
|Custom Sahara model during a 2007 French rally|
|A custom, amped-up Sahara model (with two engines!)
Paris-Dakar rally, 1980s
Sales peaked in 1966, then the 2CV’s slow decline began. The venerable car was too minimalist, too slow for France’s fast-growing post-industrial society. It came back in favor following the 1974 oil crisis, but soon after, its status changed forever: A former functional form of transport, it became a lifestyle statement, and as sales dwindled further, a prized item for collectors worldwide.
Popular culture helped ensure French (and foreign audiences) would remember the 2CV. Below, a compilation of famous scenes from the popular 1960s “Gendarme de St Tropez” movie series with Louis de Funès -another French icon!- Behold the amazing, indestructible 2CV in action!
In 1981, a customized Deuche made a noted appearance in “For your Eyes Only,” a James Bond movie starring Roger Moore and Carole Bouquet. A limited 500-unit series of the yellow Deuche was released that year, complete with a set of stickers imitating bullet holes.
|For your Eyes Only: La Deuche in action!|
|“My name is Bond, James Bond, and my other car is a Deuche!”|
|La Deuche arrives Place Vendôme, Paris, for the movie release|
Even the respected French high-fashion house Hermès was happy to celebrate the 2CV’s 60th anniversary at the Paris Car Show in 2008. Look at the luxury version of the rustic car. More photos and details here. Superbe!
|Deux Chevaux refitted by Hermès|
Citroën pulled the plug on the 2CV production in 1990. Fans were outraged. After all, hadn’t the company always been embarrassed by La Deuche’s simple image, a far cry from the high-tech, fast cars manufactured in the 1990s? As previously mentioned, the little car just was not profitable enough. To make things worse, it no longer met emission laws or safety regulations in other European countries. In short, the iconic car’s long career was coming to an end.
|So long, la Deuche!|
Fans need not have worried. La Deuche‘s glory days are not over. There are over 300 active clubs worldwide devoted to the 2CV. There are raids and rallies. Reunions. TV specials. Books and press articles. There are toys, and coveted memorabilia hard to find even on Ebay. No, La Deuche is not ready to say good-bye quite yet. She still rides (slowly) on the French country roads she once ruled. She still sleeps near the farms where a handful of visionary factory workers once hid her from the Occupant’s prying eyes. She still makes us all smile and wave back when we meet her, old and banged up, or beautifully restored by a collector, in small French towns. If nothing else, she remains a great conversation piece. I have never met a Deuche I did not like. My uncle, who passed recently, owned one. I am grateful to him for taking me along so I know what riding in a Deuche felt like.
|My uncle’s Deuche is long gone,
but I was thrilled to find this t-shirt at the Sarlat outdoor market last July
Beyond time, beyond fashion, La Deux Chevaux remains quintessentially French, like the Eiffel Tower, or le béret. She may not be the prettiest girl on the block, but she exudes Gallic charm and personality. No, La Deuche is not ready to say goodbye quite yet. Neither are we.
|2CV gathering, France|
|The list of All Things French…
starts with “une vieille Deuche” (an old 2CV)
More info about la Deux Chevaux:
The iconic French car has a huge following in Europe and other countries. Here is an article about a recent gathering of 6,000 2CV in France.
There are 300 2CV clubs worldwide. The 2CV Club of Great Britain is one of the best. They even have their own magazine!
My favorite documentary was produced by the BBC for the 2CV’s 60th anniversary. This short film includes cool footage of the original TPV prototype and many other more recent models.
The most complete website is in French. Great archive pictures, old ads on: “La 2CV: Une légende”
Finally, Restored 2CVs are available worldwide. I found this organization near Seattle. I have a big birthday coming up. What if??? Mmmmmm…
Or click a link below to read the next (or previous) post...allons-y !