A car of unmatched utilitarian brilliance, the Citroen 2CV ‘Tin Snail’ is worthy of a place in any collection
There can be no doubt the 2CV is an icon, for until the Austin Allegro stepped up to the plate, never had a car been more widely ridiculed. For ‘Austin Allegro’ American readers may substitute ‘AMC Pacer’, ‘Ford Edsel’ or ‘Chevrolet Corvair’.
When the ‘Tin Snail’ debuted at the Paris Motor Show in 1948, a French newspaper called it ‘this small abortion in metallic grey’ and a British car magazine condemned it as ‘the work of a designer who has kissed the lash of austerity with almost masochistic fervor’. Of course they missed the point, for this pared-to-the-bone contraption was really a car ahead of its time and the market. The problem was just that hippies, vegetarians and hallucinogenic drugs hadn’t yet been invented.
That’s enough counterfactual history, though. In reality the 2CV was a masterful execution of one of the most extraordinary design briefs ever. On a trip to the country in 1935, Citroën MD Pierre-Jules Boulanger conceived a car to woo farmers away from the horse and cart. It would weigh no more than 300kg, he decided, and be capable of carrying four people, or two plus 50kg of potatoes, while returning 56mpg. The suspension should cope with the roughest terrain and be supple enough to allow the car to transport a basket of eggs across a ploughed field without breaking a single shell.
The Deux Chevaux, so named for its tax rating, was at once primitive, versatile, sophisticated and revolutionary. With its roll-back roof and removable hammock seats it could be loaded to the gunnels; clever all-independent interconnected suspension gave it an amazing loping ride with prodigious grip despite lairy body roll; it was front-wheel drive; the fuel gauge was a calibrated stick; and it was slow.
In its first iteration, in fact, it managed just 43mph, but the 9bhp 375cc flat-twin – an air-cooled, all-alloy unit designed by former Talbot-Lago engineer Walter Becchia – was designed to take all manner of abuse and would rev flat-out all day. In 1954 the engine grew to 425cc, then in 1970 to 435cc (2CV4) and 602cc (2CV6). Older readers may remember the 2CV6 ads which ran: ‘0-60mph – yes.’
But back in 1949, when deliveries in post-war austerity France began, the low-cost 2CV hit the mark, and there was a two-year waiting list well into the 1950s. By the end of production in 1990 over five million 2CVs had been built – not just in France but in Chile, Argentina, Portugal and the UK.
The 2CV has always divided opinion. In 1953 while one British mag, The Motor, sneered that it had ‘almost every virtue except speed, silence and good looks’, Autocar praised the ‘extraordinary ingenuity of this design, which is undoubtedly the most original since the Model T Ford’. In a later re-appraisal, insightful commentator LJK Setright gave it the accolade ‘the most intelligent application of minimalism ever to succeed as a car.’
Today there are few classics that are as easy and cheap to own and maintain. And now that the only people resembling hippies are all retired hedge fund managers, the stigma attached to this magnificent people’s car has at last lifted. The 2CV is a genuine icon, the ultimate in less-is-more motoring.
UK LAUNCH If you were British you’d have had to have been some kind of maniac Francophile to have bought a 2CV, for when right-hand-drive production started in Slough in 1953, the 2CV was priced at £565. Sure, that was less than a tenth of the price of a coachbuilt Rolls-Royce, but way more than a Ford Popular, which at £390 was the cheapest domestic offering. The Spartan 2CV was also nearly £100 more than an Austin A30, and £4 more costly than a Morris Minor saloon.
1970s When the 2CV returned to the UK market in 1974 in 602cc form it was more competitively priced at £899 – less than a Hillman Imp; on a par with the Fiat 850; but £50 more than the base Mini 850 and Fiat 126. Certainly better value, and even more so compared with a Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow at £14,000.
TODAY At run-out in 1990 the 2CV cost £4166, a sum that today buys a decent but not perfect 602cc 1970s or 1980s example. Recently at auction, £7150 bought a 1986 2CV6 Special that had been fully restored on a new galvanised chassis. You can also buy an effectively new and totally rebuilt 2CV from 2CV City for £12,000. One exceptional case was £14,560 at auction for a 1991-registered 2CV Charleston with 166km. Rarer earlier ripple-bonnet cars are effectively artefacts and can command higher prices – for example, the restored 1952 325cc 2CV that made £14,268 at auction in 2014. Even at the higher end these are not ‘icon’ prices, and even better news is that the running and ownership costs are among the lowest of any classic.