The 2CV (deux chevaux - literally "two
horses", from the tax horsepower rating) was a popular French
car made by Citroen. 3,872,583 2CV limousines and even more
derivatives were produced from 1948 to 1990.
Pierre Boulanger's early 1930s design brief - said by some to be
astonishingly radical for the time - was for a low-priced,
rugged 'umbrella on four wheels' that would enable two peasants
to drive 100 kg of farm goods to market at 60 km/h, in clogs and
across muddy unpaved roads if necessary. It would use no more
than 3 litres of gasoline to travel 100 km. Most famously, it
would be able to drive across a ploughed field without breaking
the eggs it was carrying. Boulanger later also had the roof
raised to allow him to drive while wearing a hat. By 1939 the
TPV (Toute Petite Voiture - "Very Small Car") was deemed ready
and several prototypes had been built.
During the German occupation of France during World War II,
Michelin and Citroen managers decided to hide the TPV project to
Germany fearing some military application. Several TPVs where
buried at secret locations, one was disguised as a pickup, the
others were destroyed, and Boulanger had the next six years to
think about more improvements. Until 1994, when three TPVs where
discovered in a barn, it was believed that only two prototypes
had survived. As of 2003, five TPVs are known.
In fact the project was so well hidden that the all the
prototypes were considered as lost after the War. It took 3
years for CitroŽn to rework the TPV and the car was nicknamed "Toujours
Pas Vue" (still not seen) by the press.
Citroen finally unveiled the car at the Paris Salon in 1948. It
was laughed at by the journalists, probably because Citroen had
launched the car without any press advertising. Boris Vian
qualified the car as an "aberration roulante" (rolling
aberration). Some think that history has confirmed that the car
was not only charming, but a revolution in consumer
The body was constructed of a dual H-frame chassis, an
airplane-style tube framework, and a very thin steel shell. It
was powered by a flat-twin air-cooled engine designed by Walter
Becchia, with a nod to the classic 'boxer' BMW motorcycle
engine. (The flat-2 engine and thin steel body make a peculiar
noise that can't be compared to anything, except maybe a Piper
J-3 at start up.) Front-wheel drive made the car easy and safe to
drive. Large inboard hydraulic brakes ensured that brake failure
on one side left steering and braking largely unaffected. The
swinging arm, fore-aft linked suspension system was lighter and
more responsive than existing spring or leaf designs, enabling
the 2CV to indeed be driven at speed over a ploughed field. The
canvas roof could be rolled completely open. The seats were
hammocks suspended from the roof by wires. The car had one rear
light, one stop lamp and was available only in grey. Within
months of it going on sale there was a three-year waiting list.
The engine was a 375cc developing only 9bhp on the earliest
model, which was notoriously underpowered. A 425cc engine was
introduced in 1955. A 602cc giving 28bhp at 7000rpm was
introduced in 1968. With the 602cc engine the tax classification
of the car changed it became in fact a 3CV, but the commercial
name remained unchanged. Production of the 425cc 2CV was
continued under the name 2CV 4 while the 602cc took the name 2CV
6. The 602cc engine evolved to 33bhp in 1970; this was the most
powerful engine fitted to the 2CV. A new 602cc giving only 29bhp
at a slower 5750rpm was introduced in 1979. Despite being less
powerful, this engine was more efficient, allowing lower fuel
consumption and better top speed.
With the evolution of the engine the last 2CV's had a a good
power-to-weight ratio giving rather good acceleration for such
an economical car but top-speed remained limited due to obsolete
aerodynamics. Despite its evolution, the 2CV never lost its
reputation of being a "rolling snail", as the car's reliability
and ease of repair meant that a lot of underpowered very old
models were still running in the 1970's.
A 425cc 2CV driven by Jacques Seguela and Jean-Claude Baudot was
the first French car to make a round-the-world voyage in 1958.
The 2CV made several appearance in Louis de Funes' movies. In
"Le Corniaud" opening scene a 2CV driven by Bourvil is totally
destroyed in a collision with a Rolls-Royce driven by Louis de
In 1981, a 2CV fitted with the engine from a Citroen GS starred
in the James Bond movie For Your Eyes Only. Citroen issued a
special series of "2CV James Bond" models fitted with the
standard flat-2 engine, painted in yellow with 007 on the front
doors and fake bullet holes.
The 2CV makes also a short appearance in Apocalypse Now. During
the famous scene of the attack by the Air Cavalry to the strains
of Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries a 2CV is rocketed while
crossing a bridge.
Popular French nicknames were "Deuche" and "Dedeuche". The Dutch
were the first to call it "de lelijke eend", the ugly duck. In
Germany it is called "die lahme Ente", the lame duck. An English
nickname is the Tin Snail.
The 2CV was produced for 42 years, the model finally succumbing
to customer demands for speed, comfort and safety, all areas
(apart from ride comfort) in which it had fallen significantly
behind more modern cars. Style alone no longer justified its
retention in the Citroen range. The 2CV has earned a unique
place in motoring history: considered by some to be the most
radical production car design ever.