Albert Einstein wasn’t thinking of the Citroën 2CV when he came up with the theory of relativity. But he may as well have, because here we have a car that challenges our traditional notions of time and speed as linear, measurable constructs.
In the 2CV, time is elastic. So is speed itself – the 2CV is one of the slowest cars ever built. And yet I found it strangely appealing – a result that led me to reexamine the very foundation of my automotive faith. Like most car buffs, I had always regarded speed and power as required elements, yet here was a likeable car that lacked both.
To understand the Citroën 2CV, you need to drive it in a French-speaking country. Fortunately, my first 2CV experience was in Belgium, and the second was in France itself, spiritual home of the 2CV. With this car, all conventional performance measures went out the window – the 2CV was incapable of breaking the speed limit, and testing the zero to 100 km per hour time called for a calendar instead of a stopwatch.
I could see that the 2CV would have to be considered on its own deeply eccentric terms. The body was a flimsy steel shape that reminded me of an escargot shell, and the engine produced only 12 horsepower, a figure that most North Americans would consider inadequate for a ride-on lawn mower.
When I pressed the 2CV’s throttle, a soft thrumming emanated from beneath the thin steel hood, as if the power plant consisted of a box filled with gently sedated doves. Setting off, I realized that my entire time in the 2CV would be spent with the gas pedal pinned to the floor.
This was a car like no other. It tipped and leaned on its long, soft suspension like a tall, skinny drunk navigating a dance floor, and the acceleration was so leisurely that time seemed to shift and expand. The shifter jutted out of the dash like a flimsy umbrella handle. The entire car seemed to be made of corrugated roofing material, with flip-out windows that looked like they’d been borrowed from a cut-rate house trailer.
But never mind all that. It was springtime in Paris, and I was at the wheel of a rolling baguette – the 2CV felt like it should come standard with a bottle of wine, a beret and a wicker picnic basket. My companion for this ride was a 24-year-old United Airline flight attendant (I was still in my late teens.) And she loved the 2CV. The canvas sunroof was open, and Paris sunlight sparkled through her beautifully-cut hair.
Behind the wheel, I was coming to terms with new driving paradigm. There was no power to speak of, and the 2CV felt like it was suspended on rubber bands (a technical analysis would later show that this observation was not far off the mark.) The car’s acceleration was little better than a tectonic plate. On the upside, the 2CV glided over cobblestones like a hovercraft.
And here was the true genius of the 2CV. The car was designed in France in the period leading up to World War Two, using a set of performance mandates that no Detroit executive could have imagined: the 2CV had to carry two peasant farmers and 100 kilos of farm goods to market at 60 kilometres per hour along roads ripped apart by artillery shells and steel tank tracks. It had to achieve fuel efficiency of three litres per 100 kilometres (78 miles per gallon) and be capable of traversing a plowed field while carrying a load of eggs (needless to say, they couldn’t be broken.) And it had to be cheap.
It proved to be a brilliant formula. The car stayed in production for 48 years (1942-1990) and nearly four million were sold. (In Europe, the 2CV is still omnipresent.) My test drives showed me the car’s odd brilliance. The low powered engine used little fuel, and limited the car’s top speed – considering the amount of crash protection available from the flimsy steel body, this seemed like a good idea.
Everything in the car was minimal. It was light, simple and easy to repair. You could probably build ten of them with the same amount of materials that goes into a single SUV. It struck me as Gallic descendant of Henry Ford’s Model T. Like the T, the 2CV has a utilitarian beauty that always outlasts stylistic conceit.
Most North Americans laugh at the 2CV. They shouldn’t. L.J.K. Setright, (one of my favourite car writers ever) once described the 2CV as “the most intelligent application of minimalism ever to succeed as a car.” I’d agree with that.
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