LIKE the Volkswagen Beetle in Germany, the humble but radical Citroen 2CV is the car responsible for putting France on wheels after World War II.
The 2CV (or "deux chevaux" literally "two horsepower") was designed in 1936 by Michelin, which had earlier taken over a bankrupt Citroen, as a low-cost economical and utilitarian vehicle within the reach of the rural, working-class French.
The design objectives were clear. The car had to be very simple, light weight, seat four, carry 50 kilos of farm goods to market at 50 kilometers per hour, go 100 kilometers on three liters of gas, and be built to handle the largely dirt roads of the French countryside.
Allegedly, the engineers were told it needed to have a ride smooth enough to carry fresh eggs across a plowed field without breaking any.
The engineers certainly succeeded. The car was incredibly utilitarian with its canvas roll-back sun roof running from the windshield to the rear bumper, canvas hammock seats and one headlight. The aluminum body was light, but its corrugated body panels added strength.
Numerous prototypes were built prior to the 1939 Paris Auto Show, but World War II intervened and all but four of them were scrapped to avoid having them fall in German hands.
In 1947 the 2CV was eventually launched. Production started in 1949. The car created a sensation in France. It was front wheel drive, had four-wheel independent suspension and a remarkably soft ride. It was available in only one color, an aluminum grey, but the public bought them by the millions and soon there was a three-year waiting list.
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.
Over the years, the 2CV underwent numerous refinements. It began life with a 375cc 2 cylinder air-cooled engine, which increased to 425cc in 1954. The year 1957 saw the introduction of a metal trunk lid. A wider choice of colors was added in 1959, and it received a third side window in 1965. Power increased over the years to 425 cc 12hp, then 435 cc 18hp and finally a 602 cc version 29hp.
The plucky little 2CV even joined the ranks of Aston Martin and Lotus as a James Bond car. In the 1981 movie “For your Eyes Only,” Roger Moore (aka James Bond) made a dramatic escape down a Spanish hillside pursued by hired assassins, at the wheel of a bright yellow 2CV.
To coincide with the film's release, a special-edition model was finished in the same yellow paint scheme and featured 007 logos on the doors and trunk lid, plus a smattering of stick-on bullet holes. They are now highly prized among 2CV enthusiasts.
I owned one of these remarkable cars in London in the late 60s to early 70s. It was a wonderful contraption and I drove it thousands of miles throughout the UK and France. It was fun to drive and it never let me down once.
Sadly, production of the 2VC ended in Portugal in 1990. With all the variants built on its versatile platform combined, more than 8.5 million of these legendary ugly ducklings were built.