When an astute Frenchman named Pierre Boulanger wrote the design brief for what would become one of the world’s most iconic cars, the requirements were simple: It had to carry two people and a 110-pound sack of potatoes at a speed of 30 mph, all while achieving 90 mpg. It also had to be able to comfortably traverse dirt roads and rutted farmland.
Lumpy fields, a sack of spuds, and fuel economy: not exactly the stuff of legend. And yet, Boulanger’s 1936 idea would result in one of the most beloved and long-running designs in automotive history. The car that made its public debut twelve years later would go on to put postwar France on wheels. It would also become one of the most recognizable vehicular shapes on the planet.
Fittingly, the Citroën 2CV’s technical life began at the hands of a legend. Bringing Boulanger’s vehicle concept to reality fell to the hands of Citroën’s chief engineer, André Lefebvre, a forty-two-year-old former aircraft engineer. Lefebvre was a bona fide genius – a onetime grand prix driver and protégé of aeronautical and racing-car pioneer Gabriel Voisin, he was also the visionary behind Citroën’s revolutionary front-wheel-drive Traction Avant.
Unlike the futuristic, hydraulically suspended Citroën DS sedan (also a Lefebvre brainchild), the 2CV focused on doing more with less: even its name was simple, taken from the French tax category (2CV) into which the car was designed to fit. And while practicality and ingenuity were Citroën hallmarks, Boulanger also specified that the 2CV be cheap. As a result, it ended up with a spec sheet at once thick and thin: a curb weight of less than 1200 pounds; an air-cooled, horizontally opposed two-cylinder engine of just 375-cc displacement; front-wheel drive; independent suspension, rack-and-pinion steering, and almost no creature comforts.
The 2CV’s glory lay in its packaging – inboard front brakes (drums at first; discs later), a roll-back fabric roof, and an elegant use of interior space – but the car’s true brilliance was found in its suspension.
A single coil spring lived on each side of the 2CV’s floor, each one coupled to two friction and two tuned-mass dampers; there was also a leading/trailing arm setup front and rear. There were no antiroll bars or traditional dampers (although the latter did arrive eventually), and remarkably, both steering geometry and wheelbase varied significantly with load for increased stability. The 2CV thus was immensely comfortable, dirt simple, and nearly fail-safe. Its engine followed the same logic; it was built to such tight tolerances that no gaskets were used, oil leaks were rare, and longevity approached the infinite.
At first glance, the 2CV comes across as laughably absurd. It’s like something out of a French mime film or Mr. Peepers Goes to Paris, a relic from an alternate universe where wine is a staple and Jerry Lewis albums rule. Our test car, a 1967 2CV updated with mid-’80s bodywork and underpinnings, sports the last and most powerful of the 2CV’s engines: a 602-cc twin that produces 29 hp.
On paper, the latest and greatest version of Lefebvre’s tin snail looks like little more than a cheeky lawn tractor. Statistics can be deceptive, though. A few miles behind the wheel of a 2CV is nothing short of eye-opening: spanking the Gallic flyweight down the road is a lesson in glorious minimalism, and it’s like learning to drive all over again. The shift lever for the four-speed manual, an eight-ball on an L-shaped stick, is placed on the dash in order to aid legroom. The steering is almost painfully heavy, and like some primitive form of stability control, it gets bicep-bustingly heavier the harder you corner. There are two throttle settings: Hold Steady and Please Can We Maybe Go Faster, both dependent on headwinds and whether you can catch a draft off a passing semi. Passing occurs only downhill. Body roll is mirror-scrapingly enormous (roundabouts will have your passengers screaming); ride comfort is roly-poly. And everything you do in the 2CV – everything – has to be planned in advance, lest traffic swallow you whole.
When legislation changes brought an end to 2CV production in 1990, it was hailed as the end of an era. France, people said, had finally entered the modern age, shedding its last tie to an odd and often quirky vehicular past. That may very well be the case. But, as with most things, “modern” doesn’t always mean “better.” In a world full of four-wheeled sameness, we’ll take potatoes and Jerry Lewis any day.
1949-1990 (U.S. imports ended in 1967)
Because every drive becomes an adventure, and because the 2CV is a flat-out riot on modern roads. It’s like a more civilized, slightly slower , and you really can trundle across a lumpy field in remarkable comfort (we tried it). The 2CV is a lesson in French genius.
Thanks to Greg Long of Charlottesville, Virginia, for the loan of his 1967 Citroën 2CV.