Citroën presented the iconic 2CV sixty-four years ago at the Paris Motor Show. The car’s roots go back even further than that: the project began in about 1935 when the car was called the TPV, an acronym which stood for Très Petite Voiture (very small car). Its development was nearly complete and 250 pre-series examples were built but production came to a screeching halt with the outbreak of World War II. Most of the pre-series examples were destroyed, though three of them were hidden in the attic of a barn and found in the middle of the 1990s.
When it made its debut the 2CV generated a rather negative response. It didn’t look like anything else on the road at the time and was dubbed the “ugly duckling”, among other similar nicknames. The press questioned what purpose a car with a 375cc flat-twin engine could serve and most laughed when they took a peak inside and saw how basic everything was.
When journalists took a spin in the 2CV for the first time they started using kinder words to describe the car. As spartan as everything was inside, the 2CV was actually a very comfortable car to drive thanks in part to an unconventional but brilliant independent suspension design that used horizontal coil springs. The air-cooled flat-twin was bolted to a four-speed manual transmission in a time when most other French manufacturers were still fitting three-speed units in their economy cars. Another novel concept for the era was that the aforementioned four-speed spun the front wheels.
The tide soon turned in its favor and in 1949, the waiting list for a 2CV was several years long. It was not a car for everyone, but for those whose needs it suited it marked a great step forward. Its low price meant that almost everyone could afford one and it was a true people’s car in this manner. Much like the Fiat 600 and the Volkswagen Type 1, the 2CV provided a basic, point A to point B form of transportation in an era where cars were all but an everyday commodity. For the first time French families from the working class could leave the city on their own for the weekend or for vacation. The car also served as an efficient way to move about the countryside for farmers, doctors, and all walks of life in between.
The launch of a commercial version of the 2CV called the AU (and later the AZU) and the fact that the car had no direct French rivals helped its success grow exponentially over the course of the 1950s.
Renault took the first stab at the 2CV when they launched the 3 and the 4 in 1961. The 3 was aimed squarely at the 2CV while the 4 was better equipped, more powerful and generally more upscale. Citroën was scared at first and they even threatened to sue Renault, claiming that their rival had copied several aspects of the 2CV’s design.
For a multitude of reasons the Renault 3 was an phenomenal fiasco and it was given the axe in 1962 after just over 2,500 of them were built. The end of the 3 took a big weight off of Citroën’s shoulders. As for the 4, in 1961 Citroën launched the Ami 6 which used a 2CV chassis, a more powerful 602cc flat twin, a more modern body and a more comfortable (some will even argue luxurious) interior. The 4 was a huge success but the Ami 6 beat it and became the best-selling car in France for a significant part of the 1960s.
The 2CV was slightly redesigned in the early 1960s and finally got doors that opened in the proper way as opposed to the old-fashioned suicide doors. A panoply of new models made their appearance, including a top-of-the-line AZAM model. In 1969 the 2CV lineup was split in two: the 2CV 4, powered by a 435cc flat-twin, and the 2CV 6, fitted with a larger 602cc unit.
The 1973 Oil Crisis was almost welcomed by companies selling cars with small-displacement engines and gave the 2CV what would perhaps be remembered as its final significant boost in sales.
In 1979 the 2CV 4 was phased out and subsequent 2CVs were only available with the larger, freeway-capable 602cc.
A year prior to that the 2CV celebrated its 30th birthday but all was not well under the surface. With the exception of minor aesthetic changes the car’s basic design was generally seen as outdated and many wondered just what it was still doing in production. Sure, people bought them, but every year more and more buyers switched to more modern compact cars like the Renault 5 and the Peugeot 104. Even in Citroën’s own lineup the 2CV had weathered decades of competition from the Ami 6, the Ami 8, the Visa, the LN/LNA and the Dyane.
Throughout the 1980s Citroën launched a series of special editions to keep the 2CV’s head above the water, including the Charleston in 1980, the 007 in 1981, the France 3 in 1983, the Dolly in 1985, the Cocorico in 1986 and the Perrier in 1988. These were finished in specific paint jobs and often limited in number, increasing their desirability.
The last 2CV rolled off of the Mangualde, Portugal assembly line on July 27th, 1990, at precisely 4:30pm. It was a gray and black Charleston model that was sold to the factory’s director. Citroën could have kept the 2CV in production for a couple more years and perhaps whipped up another special edition but they chose to quit while they were ahead. Looking back over twenty years later, they made the right choice: the onslaught of new regulations that the EU passed in 1992 would have killed the 2CV like they did away the Renault 4. The laws made catalytic converters mandatory and banned dash-mounted shifters on the grounds that they were dangerous.
All photos copyright Ran When Parked 2008-2012.