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the green highway

I spend time driving and evaluating the latest in practical, lightweight, fuel-efficient cars for The Green Highway column. Last week, I drove, for the first time, in one that meets the requirements beautifully. It went into production in 1948.

How on Earth have I missed the Deux Chevaux?

This is the ugly duckling by Citroen that has sold about four million copies around the world. If you've been in Paris recently, you've seen fleets of restored Deux Chevaux painted in bright colours driving stylish tourists around the sights. The Deux Chevaux is fashionable again.

Citroen began developing the Peoples' Car of France in the late 1930s under the code TPV – Toute Petite Voiture: in other words, Very Small Car. The Nazi occupation of France killed the project until after the war and production started eventually in 1948. What an ingenious little car.

This is minimalism on four wheels and all about simplicity, practicality and low cost. The tiny engine is a two-cylinder, air-cooled. The transmission is four-speed, very rare in its day, that changes gears by a strange push, pull, twist handle. The suspension is utterly unique and would require paragraphs to describe, but evidently the design requirement was to allow a farmer to drive across fields on the way to market without breaking any eggs.

I could never figure out the name. Two horses? I have learned that it relates to tax horsepower. In those days, the lower the horsepower the cheaper your licence plates and this one was a two, at or near the bottom of the scale. Fuel economy? Less than 3 litres/100km, which is much better than your hybrid.

The French have always argued that the Deux Chevaux was superior to the Volkswagen Beetle. Well, stripped to the basics, the Deux Chevaux cost about half as much as the Bug. And some of the Deux Chevaux cost-cutting measures became beloved for their quirkiness. Example: the windshield wipers were powered by a cable connected to the transmission, which also ran through the speedometer. The wipers' speed depended on the car's speed, which meant they stopped when the car stopped. However, there was a handle so you could operate the wipers manually.

Deux Chevaux are a cult item now as the very last was built in 1990. If you want a fully restored one, expect to pay up to $25,000. Try to find a later-year model. The original produced just 9 hp and had a top speed of 64 km/h (40 mph) The later models with a slightly larger two-cylinder engine might eventually hit 115 km/h (70 mph). Enthusiasts say they merge on to highways "by appointment."

My test drive was an unexpected pleasure. I can see why collectors are after this car. It's agile because it is so light; the empty car weighs in at only 600 kilograms. The seats are like pillows and the unique suspension is incredibly soft. Clearly, it is not up to modern safety standards; however, the front of the chassis was designed to fold up in a collision – and that was before the term crumple zone existed.

The anachronistic styling has made the Deux Chevaux a retro hit with the trendy set. Convertible top, four doors, an unmistakable icon. But the engineering that went into this car is something that I have only recently come to appreciate. And two horses? Two cylinders? There are already three-cylinder engines coming on to the market from Ford – surely the modern two-cylinder can't be far behind.

So here's this week's car for the Green Highway – from 1948.