In the annals of automotive history, there’s a place reserved for the cars that put entire nations on wheels; those great and cheap mass-market machines that came along at the right place and time to revolutionize the way millions of people lived and traveled. Americans have the Ford Model T, Germans have the Volkswagen Type I, the British have the Mini, the Italians have the Fiat 500, and the French have the Citröen 2CV. While all of these cars were revolutionary, none of them were quite as radical as the 2CV, the snail-shaped icon that helped the country recover from the horrors of World War II, and found over 5 million buyers in several variants during its incredible 42-year production run.
In the years following World War I, Citröen was one of the most successful automakers in France, with its name written in lights on the Eiffel Tower. But by 1934, the company was bankrupt, and taken over by its largest creditor, Michelin. But instead of treating the floundering company like a burden, Michelin had big plans for Citröen. Believing it had lost its way by moving away from affordable cars, the new owners felt that the company needed to build an affordable car that was within the reach of the rural, working-class French.
By 1936, the Toute Petite Voiture, or “Very Small Car” project was underway, carried out in utter secrecy at Michelin’s facilities, and from the beginning, the objectives were very clear, and very daunting. The TPV was to be an incredibly simple (management called it “an umbrella on wheels”), light weight car that could seat four, carry 110 pounds of farm goods to market at 50 kilometers per hour, go 100 kilometers on three liters of gas (or 78 miles per gallon), and be built to handle the largely dirt roads of the French countryside. In a story that became part of the car’s legend, the engineers were told it needed to have a ride smooth enough that it could carry fresh eggs across a plowed field without breaking any.
By 1939, the TPV had accomplished all of its goals, and was set for production. It was as utilitarian as French law allowed, with its snail-shaped body made out of aluminum and canvas roof, the car was light but its corrugated body panels added strength. Seats were canvas hammocks that hung from the roof of the car, and it only had one headlight, which was the minimum allowed under the law. Set to be unveiled at the Paris Motor Show, Citröen built over 300 TPVs (including prototypes) before France declared war on Germany, and production was scuttled. In the months leading up to the German invasion, Citröen’s engineers realized the military potential for their rugged little cars, and set about hiding as much of the project as possible. What couldn’t be stashed away in barns, caves, and cellars across the country was destroyed before it could fall into the hands of the Nazis.
As the war raged on, Citröen’s designers, under the orders of company president Pierre-Jules Boulanger, worked on the car in secret, revising the car’s engineering without drawing any attention from the Nazis. The powertrain was carefully refined, as the engine became air-cooled, and the transmission became a then-novel four-speed gearbox.
After five long years of fighting, France was even less mobile than it was before the war, with less than 10% of the country’s cars surviving. While the country struggled to rebuild, Citröen put all of its might into updating the TPV. The aluminum body was replaced by cheaper steel, a second headlight was added, and with its new powertrain, the car was renamed the 2CV, or deux chevaux-vapeur (“two steam horses”, for its two cylinder engine), and was introduced to the French public at the Paris Salon on October 7, 1948. For a country ready to get back on the road, it was exactly what the French public needed.
In 1948, the 2CV created a sensation in France. It was front wheel drive, had a four-wheel independent suspension, and despite terrifying amounts of body roll, had a remarkably soft ride. With its nine horsepower 375 cubic centimeter two-cylinder engine, the car practically crawled along, but its thin steel panels and tiny brakes ensured that driving at any speed was an adventure.
The public responded to the slow little car just like Citröen hoped it would, buying them by the millions. By 1949, there was a three-year waiting list for the cars. In the early 50s, the company introduced a work van and pickup truck versions, which proved to be incredibly rugged with their bolt-on body panels and air cooled engine. In 1960, it introduced the Sahara, a four-wheel drive version of the 2CV designed for the French military, oil companies, and the North African market. Since Citröen didn’t have a four-wheel drive system, it simply added a separate engine to power the rear wheels.
As it entered the 1960s, cars like the Volkswagen, Mini, Fiat 500, and Renault 4 began to make to make the car seem old. Using the 2CV platform, Citröen introduced the avant-garde Ami in 1961, the modernized Dyane in 1967, the plastic bodied Jeep-like Mehari in 1968 and the Acadiane work van in 1977. But by the ’80s, the 2CV had been around long enough to be considered a national treasure in France. As airbags, digital dashboards, fuel injection, and anti-lock brakes became commonplace in European cars, the 2CV’s 1930s-era styling and mechanical simplicity had taken on a certain old-world elegance that couldn’t be had with other car in the world. Production ended in Portugal in 1990, after 3.8 million 2CVs had been built. With all the variants built on its versatile platform combined, the total rose to over 8.5 million cars.
Today, the Citröen 2CV is a source of French pride. It’s rugged and utilitarian, yet beautiful and refined. Like the Volkswagen, it’s beloved by millions, and many survive as pampered classics. Few 2CVs made it to the U.S. during its lifespan, but today there are several companies who specialize in importing and restoring the French icons. It may not have had the wide-spread appeal as the Volkswagen, but Citröen’s 2CV is just is iconic, and even more advanced.