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Tribute to the 2CV

Nothing looks more French than an iconic deux chevaux parked in a quaint village street in country France. The story behind the Citroën 2CV, or the tin snail as it is sometimes called, is even more intriguing.

In 1936, France had a very large rural population who could not afford cars and Pierre-Jules Boulanger, the vice-president of Citroën and chief of the Engineering and Design department had a vision to change this. He wanted to design a low-priced, rugged "umbrella on four wheels" to carry two farmers, along with 50kg. of potatoes or a small barrel of wine at a maximum speed of 60 km/hr. It must travel in good comfort over rough rural roads. Economy was to be a priority - less than 3 litres of petrol was to be used to travel 100 km, and the car must cost less than one third of current models.

Specifically targeting farmers taking goods to market, Pierre-Jules had one final demand for his design team. Amazingly, the car had to be able to drive across a ploughed field while carrying eggs, without breaking them.

The TPV (Toute Petite Voiture—"Very Small Car") as it was first called, was to be developed in strict secrecy. Pierre-Jules was obsessed with reducing the weight of the TPV to targets that his engineers thought were impossible. He set up a separate department to weigh every component and then redesign it, to lighten it while still doing its job. Even the seats of this super lightweight design car were redesigned and became hammocks hung from the roof by wires. Pierre-Jules Boulanger test drove the new creation and later had the roof raised to allow him to drive while wearing a hat.

By 1939 the TPV was ready and a pilot run of 250 cars were produced. Brochures were printed and preparations were made to present the car, now branded as the Citroën 2CV (meaning two horse power), at the forthcoming Paris Motor Show in October 1939. However, in September 1939, the government declared war on Germany and the motor show was cancelled. The launch of the 2CV was abandoned.

Citroën managers decided to hide the TPV project from the Nazis, fearing some of their innovations could have military application. Several TPVs were buried at secret locations; one was disguised as a pickup, the others were destroyed, and the design team had the next six years to think about further improvements.

Until 1994, when three TPVs were discovered in a barn, it was believed that only two of these early prototypes had survived.

It took three years from 1945 for Citroën to rework the TPV into its third incarnation, resulting in the car being nicknamed by the press as the "Toujours Pas Vue" (Still Not Seen).

Citroën finally unveiled the car at the Paris Salon in October 1948. You could have your 2CV in any colour, as long as it was grey. The car became the butt of jokes by French comedians and was heavily criticised by the motoring press including one motoring journalist who asked “Does it come with a can opener?” However, the public thought differently and Citroën was flooded with orders.

The 2CV was a great commercial success: within months of it going on sale, there was a three-year waiting list, which soon increased to five years. At the time, a second-hand 2CV was more expensive than a new one because the buyer did not have to wait.

When asked about the 2CVs performance and acceleration, many owners said it went "from 0 to 60 in one day". Others jokingly said they "had to make an appointment to merge onto an interstate highway system”. The original 1948 model that produced only 9 hp had a 0 to 40 time of 42.4 seconds and a top speed of just 64 km/h.

The little car that had taken so long to be developed rapidly became part of the fabric of French life.

During it’s 42 year lifetime, over 3.8million were produced, plus an extra 1.2million Fourgonnettes which were small 2CV delivery vans.

There were many variations including vans, luxury models, some that even went faster than 100 km/h, and one that appeared in a James Bond movie. Ultimately the demands for cleaner engines and better safety caught up with the 2CV and spelt its demise.

However it is still held fondly in the hearts of the French, and indeed by many around the world who see a simplicity and beauty in its minimalist design.