During the mid-1930s, market research conducted by Citroën, the ever-innovative French automaker, revealed a great deal of interest in a small utilitarian car, especially among France’s rural population. In response to this perceived need, Citroën’s vice-president Pierre Boulanger ordered the development of a car that met all of the following criteria:
1. Cheap to operate
2. Easy to repair
3. Able to seat four adults in comfort
4. Able to carry a barrel of wine or a large sack of potatoes
5. Able to carry a basket of eggs across a plowed field without breaking them
Development of the new car was delayed for many years by the German occupation of France during World War II, which forced Citroën’s engineers to work on it in secret. But the firm’s efforts paid off in 1948 when it introduced an odd-looking, albeit technologically advanced utilitarian car that became a much-beloved French motoring icon: the Citroën 2CV, also popularly known as the Deux Chevaux.
Designed with the needs of French rural dwellers in mind, the 2CV is arguably one of the most ingenious cars ever conceived. It featured a design that was advanced, yet the same time, amazingly simple and practical. The 2CV was tiny, riding on a 94.4-inch wheel base. It employed a front-engine and front-wheel drive layout, a setup Citroën successfully used on its famed Traction Avant. Initially, power was provided by an air-cooled flat-2 engine, which displaced a mere 375 cubic centimeters (22.9 cubic inches) and developed 9 horsepower. The engine was mated to an advanced four-speed manual transmission. The 2CV was also equipped with a sophisticated 4-wheel independent suspension system, which employed a leading arm on the front and a trailing arm on the rear.
The 2CV’s body and interior were equally advanced, yet simple and practical. The body shell was bulbous and odd (and some argued ugly) looking, but it featured easily removable bolt-on fenders and a detachable hood and doors that slid off their hinges. The car’s interior was remarkably roomy, able to seat four adults in reasonable comfort. The 2CV’s cargo space could easily be increased by removing the rear seats and rolling back the canvas sun-roof.
In terms of performance, the 2CV proved very well-suited for its time. In its initial form, the 2CV had a top speed of only 37-40 miles per hour. But it was very economical to run, being notably easy to repair and capable of gas mileage in excess of 35 miles per gallon. The car’s combination of front-wheel drive gave it excellent handling and impressive off-road capability, which allowed it to safely negotiate rough roads characteristic of post-war France and also permitted it to be driven in farmers’ fields. The 2CV was also renowned for its comfortable ride and its ability to carry fragile cargo without damaging it.
Over the course of its extraordinarily long production life (1948-1990) the Citroën 2CV became a French motoring icon. It was regarded very fondly by the French motoring public for its quirky looks, and was also much appreciated for its role in helping France recover from the devastation of World War II. The 2CV received a number of upgrades over the years, most notably in the form of larger engines and suspension improvements, but its basic design and concept remained unchanged.
The last Citroën 2CV rolled off the assembly line in 1990. More than 5 million Citroën 2CVs were built.
La 2 CV Citroën, Citroën: Trade Catalogs: Specific Models, 2CV, 1948-1970, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.
The 2 CV Citroen, Citroën: Trade Catalogs: Specific Models, 2CV, 1948-1970, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.
Covello, Mike, Standard Catalog of Imported Cars, 1946-2002; Iola, Wisconsin: Krause Publications, 2002, p. 185-194.
freedom in 2cv, Citroën: Trade Catalogs: Specific Models, 2CV, 1948-1970, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.
Georgano, Nick, ed. The Beaulieu Encyclopedia of the Automobile Volume 1: A-L; Norwich, England: The Stationery Office, 2000, p. 298-304.
Kenton Jaehnig is the Project Archivist for the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection at Hagley Museum and Library.