By on July 1, 2009

It was our first drive on the French autoroute. The highway, heretofore flat, began to climb, all but imperceptibly. Imperceptibly that is, except to the drivers of the Deux Chevaux, cars that look like old Beetles made of corrugated barn roofing. Suddenly, the Deux Chevaux were moving en masse into the far right lane, putt-putting ever more loudly as they struggled vainly to maintain momentum. “Ooooh!” exclaimed Miriam, my two and a half year old sister. “Dudebos fall out!”

To a kid whose automotive ideal was the ’64 Impala Super Sport, the Deux Chevaux was a piece of crap. Two cylinders, seats of canvas slung over pipes, weights for shocks. The Deuches leaned in corners like sail boats tacking in the wind. Danielle, our landlady’s young adult daughter, claimed to have seen one roll thrice while rounding the Arc de Triomphe. My American friends and I, all seventh graders at the Lycee de Sevres, would grab the rear bumpers and bounce Deux Chevaux. My baby sister’s tongue may have been all thumbs, but she was already acquiring skill in the art of the tease. She dubbed me “Dagy Dudebo.”

Little did I know that the Deux Chevaux was an engineering marvel that had done for France what the Model T did for America, and an icon whose obituary would grace the front page of the New York Times on March 9, 1988, after 40 years and nearly 4 million vehicles, or that the Deuche would become a cult object. Every summer, a drove of Deux Chevaux congregates in Saratoga Springs.

Recently, I spotted a Deuche plying Massachusetts Avenue in Lexington, Massachusetts. I spun a U-eee, and followed it home. It’s a ’75, which photographer Jon Chomitz has owned for the last ten years. This car’s Belgian manufacture accounts for the plush furniture—real seat cushions!—but for the most part, the car is the square root of basic.

Each of this 1,200 pound Deuche’s 28 horses pulls 42.8 lbs, less than a pound more than a ’65 Beetle with a bad case of the slows that I drove for TTAC last fall. In my imagination, 2CVs are doomed to struggle in perpetuity against the laws of physics, like some automotive Sisyphus. But the 2CV amazed me with its pep—perhaps partly because Chomitz had advised me to maintain around 4,000 RPM, but more so because this thing was a big step up from the 425 cc Deuches of my year in France. The Dudebos must have stopped falling out after they introduced the 602 cc power plant in 1968. Compared to the Old Beetle, this one felt almost athletic climbing Lexington’s Six Moon Hill.

[Digression for local car color: Moon Hill, a residential community designed by The Architect’s Collaborative, associates of Walter Gropius, in the late ’40s, was named for the six Moon automobiles found in a barn on the property around that time.]

Nonetheless, the overriding strategy for driving a Deux Chevaux is to maintain your momentum, Chomitz advised. I did that—unfortunately without interruption as I approached the curve on Philip Road. It was tighter than I had anticipated, and though I steered hard, at maybe 25 mph the stubborn little Deuche refused to respond in kind. Fortunately, the oncoming lane was empty.

While the Duck—a term of affection for Deuches in much of Europe—is the antithesis of American land barges, it has their floaty, boaty feel, even over washboard surfaces. Still, it does an admirable job of holding the road over said surfaces. This has to do with exceptionally low unsprung weight, and some clever connections between front and rear suspension, which, when a front wheel hits a bump, cause the same-side rear suspension to elongate, or vice versa, maintaining the car’s level position. Had I been unable to see the dirt road, I would barely have known that the pavement had ended. The car felt as if it might float gently into the air.

The simplicity that I had scorned in my youth is one of the Deux Chevaux’s signal virtues. “Most parts are designed to function with the simplest, most spare design,” says Chomitz. For example, the engine is air cooled, the cooling fan and dynamo are integral with the one-piece crankshaft, rendering drive belts unnecessary, and the 2CV pioneered the distributorless ignition system. The Deuche cheats Murphy’s Law.

Quality is equally important. “What other car engine could run at 5,000 RPM all day in 1948,” says Chomitz. “The engine internals were built to a much higher precision than any other car of the day so they could get the most out of it. This was unheard of in a cheap car.” Amazingly, the 28 horsepower is rated at 7,000 RPM.

From Philip Road, we breezed towards Lexington Center and the Battle Green, along paths once trodden by Paul Revere and George Washington. The people waved to us along the route: Chomitz obviously gets around in this thing. Nicholas Joseph Cugnot, the Frenchman who invented the automobile in 1769, and Andre Citroën, founder of the eponymous company, would have been proud.

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44 Comments on “Review: 1975 Citroen 2CV...”


  • avatar
    carguy

    Awesome – my mom had one of these. It had wooden floorboards which leaked and your feet would get wet when going through puddles. This was our family car in the early 70s and, with 4 kids, that was quite a tight fit.

  • avatar
    findude

    Nice article, these are fun cars. It’s interesting that the rhetoric surrounding the Tata Nano in India is very similar to that of the 2CV, VW Beetle, and the Model T. It’s all about getting a first car to the masses.

  • avatar
    Fritz

    My Mom and Dad had a Deux Chevaux when they lived in France after the War. They drove it to the 55 Le Mans where they escaped death by 5 minutes walking through the crowd that was shortly to be mowed down by parts from a Mercedes, the team my Dad was rooting for. Had to walk back when the French ordered everyone to stay. Grim!!!!!

    Few things my Dad told me about the car. My Mom put her hand through the door by accident :). It was mostly fabric and frame. You had to get everyone to lean when you took a corner. And I thought he said it was a 2 stroke, but perhaps I misremember.

  • avatar

    Awesome looking car!! The plain looking modern versions in the movie “Ronin” might hope for the flair of that crazy thing!

  • avatar
    paris-dakar

    Awesome piece of engineering. I love Citroens. If I were rich, I’d have a 2CV, a DS and a SM. Display them like they were art.

  • avatar
    johnny ro

    I love these things.

    I read somewhere it was designed to carry two farmers and one pig to market, and ride OK over farm rows in the field hence the roomy interior and long travel suspension.

    4 stroke. They hit 75 in theory.

    There is a US club out there, and you can buy them freshened and nice. Last I looked it was about $15,000 for a really nice one.

  • avatar
    Dimwit

    Those rectangular lights look just… weird. I wonder why the change.

  • avatar
    ZCD2.7T

    LOVE those things.

    My host family for my 6 months in France while I was in college had one, along with a Citroen BX “Break” (wagon). They let me drive either one whenever I needed, which wasn’t often. I’ll never forget our trip from Caen to the D-Day beaches in the 2CV – 75 mph in theory is absolutely correct. More like 55 mph into any kind of headwind or up any slight grade! Still the ride was amazing, particularly for such a light vehicle, and it made one comfortable, meaning you didn’t curse MUCH while searching for the gears with that horizontal gear lever.

    A local Bistro’s owner displays his “Charleston” version proudly in front of his establishment on warm summer weekend evenings. Adds a certain “je ne sais quoi”…

  • avatar
    willbodine

    Wow, that was a trip down memory lane. During my junior year at the University of Grenoble, I bought a 64 2 CV from a German senior for $600. That summer I had worked at a bike shop and the mechanic there helped me swap the very tired original engine with one from a Dyane which was a bit larger. The old one would not go over 100 kph, but the souped up one probably hit 120. I learned a lot about driving from that car. Especially, planning every move well in advance. Drove all over Europe in a year and sold it when I left to an English student for $600.

  • avatar
    kurtamaxxguy

    Nice article and one that helps set TTAC apart from the crowd :-)

    The CV sounds like a cleverly engineered inexpensive car. The Nano also appears to have some unique engineering, given its low cost.

    GM and other USA car makers will hopefully get the message and figure out how to do the same.

  • avatar
    Nicodemus

    Interesting you raise the point about someone rolling one round the arc de triomphe. Their non-rollability is legendary…

    http://www.fresh-buzz.com/2008/02/16/how-to-roll-a-citroen-2cv

  • avatar
    dhathewa

    These were extremely popular in Iran, in the late ’70’s, including a “Gian Mahari” model, which was sort of Jeep-like.

    I once passed one on the freeway, on my moped (well, I was pedalling, too, which gave me a real edge in power over the Deux Chevaux).

    I’m fairly certain, and David Holzman may confirm, that the horizontal rod sticking out of the dash (interior shot), in the foreground, curving up to end in a ball, is the gearshift. If I understand correctly, this is actually linked to a standard H-pattern gearbox, ahead of the firewall. Until you realize what’s going on, watching someone operate the gears is somewhat mystifying.

    If I remember correctly, twist counter-clockwise and push is reverse. Pull straight back is first. Twist clockwise and push is 2nd. Straight back is third.

    I’ve ridden in these and in more than a few Beetles. The Beetles seemed much safer.

  • avatar
    Johnnyangel

    I owned a right-hand drive one of these when I lived in Britain in the 80s and it was the best car I’ll ever have by far, far more characterful (it was basically a family member) and even useful than a Beetle. The 602cc engine could just about maintain 70 on the level if the driver was very determined. (If you know how to make progress in one of these cars, you know how to do it in anything.)

    Something not often noted about these cars is that the engine had a relatively heavy flywheel. If you revved it up at idle and took off you could pretty much beat any car away from the lights from 0 to, er, about 5 miles per hour.

    dhathewa’s recollection of the gearshift pattern is correct except that he neglected to mention that fourth was found by twisting clockwise to move the shifter out of the 2-3 plane, then pushing forward. As some contemporary reviewers commented, the shift pattern was really one of the most practical ever once you were familiar with the car. Being able to switch between first and reverse so easily was perfect for parking, while the quick 2-3 shift was equally ideal for around-town driving.

  • avatar
    Martin Schwoerer

    Very fine review, Dave.

    The driving experience in a 2CV is so different, so special, that (if I remember it correctly), CAR Magazine put it on its list of vehicles “you must have driven before you die”. And I agree with them.

    There are two reasons however why I wouldn’t want to own one. Firstly, Billy Joel has a 2CV. Secondly, the 2CV is too slow for modern conditions, unless you stick to back roads. Now that trucks are so much faster than they were in the 1970s, you can’t be crawling up hilly freeways at 48mph — you’d be a real nuisance.

  • avatar
    Ronman

    I love this car, a friend had a Charleston edition, we went everywhere in this thing. once on a camping trip to a mountain at over 2400m in altitude, with 3 people on board and a golden retriever, the Deuche would die on us all of a sudden with no power from the bi-cylindrical mill. we would pull over, the engine still turning, but no power even when the accelerator was held flat. so we shut it off, scratching our head of what might be the problem, it couldnt be the gearbox, it had been recently replaced. so we waited, and then when the engine cooled down it cae to life, and again when it got hot, it would putter, so we’d wait again for it to cool down. we finished the trip came back down the mountain, and the car could still be running today if it werent for an SUV driver that crashed it when it was parked. the front left wheel assembly and fender were flattened, nothing happened to the SUV.
    i had been on the market for a deuche, but changed my mind when i saw how fragile and dangerous it was. especially in Lebanese Traffic.

    but the upside of the car was, as my friend experienced many time, he would forget to go by a gas station and would run out of gas. he kept 1 liter in the trunk as reserve, would drive him to a station every time he was caught out by his memory….

    but it was comfortable….

  • avatar
    toyotaspy

    These things are raced in Britain.
    The standard mod is to remove the rear fenders and dial in huge negative camber. They still fall over somtimes though.

  • avatar
    rpn453

    Nicodemus : Interesting you raise the point about someone rolling one round the arc de triomphe. Their non-rollability is legendary…

    If that was an unrollable car, I’d hate to see what an easily rollable car was like in those days! In university, I used to occasionally get some speed backing up, turn sharply while gunning it, and throw it in D while spinning a 180 in the ’87 Grand Am. I never imagined you could possibly roll any car doing something like that, though I doubt I’d have been willing to try it with a van or SUV.

  • avatar
    Mirko Reinhardt

    @toyotaspy

    …and from what I hear they can finish a 24-hour endurance race in exactly the same time as a Ferrari!

  • avatar
    shaker

    ‘In 1975, the 2CV was equipped with rectangular headlights, which decreased the COD by .002…

    This resulted in an increase in top speed from 72 to 72.5 MPH, and a corresponding increase in fuel efficiency.’

    /joke

    I see a very ‘frog-like’ face with those headlights; the car needs to be green.

  • avatar
    Greg Locock

    The inertial dampers were rather neat. Rather than tying the shocks for the rear suspension to the body, the shock absorber terminated in a freely suspended mass. So the resonant behaviour of the rear wheels was suppressed, without transmitting any force to the body.

    Roughly the same principle was recently used, and banned, in Formula 1.

  • avatar
    paris-dakar

    These were extremely popular in Iran, in the late ’70’s, including a “Gian Mahari” model, which was sort of Jeep-like.

    Heston drove a Mehari in ‘Omega Man’.

  • avatar

    I remember these cars from Europe. They must be a blast to drive. Thanks for the review.

  • avatar
    Jesse

    Pretty sure I saw this car in Somerville, MA the other day.

    I waved (in approval) like crazy from my 245DL.

  • avatar
    AKM

    Good to see that car in TTAC! My dad collects the little buggers, and probably has 5 or 6 of them, including one modified for Sahara raids, with turbocharger(!), roll cage, reinforced shocks, that looks almost mean.
    Drove them many times, and boy are they fun.

  • avatar
    Samir

    Obligatory James Bond in 2CV video:

    Great review.

  • avatar
    chuckR

    Mr. Holtzman

    Where is your Gauloise and beret?

    I remember seeing one of these tarted up in a champagne and brown paint scheme with gold pin-striping. Considerable dissonance between the paint job and the underlying vehicle.

  • avatar
    Dynamic88

    I’ve always wanted one of these. Maybe someday.

    Nicely written article – thank you.

  • avatar

    If I understand correctly, this is actually linked to a standard H-pattern gearbox, ahead of the firewall. Until you realize what’s going on, watching someone operate the gears is somewhat mystifying.

    exactly. I spent 44 years mystified about the gear shift until I drove this.

    Regarding the rollability–or lack thereof–that someone mentioned, Danielle, the source on that, may have simply been trying to impress us. Which is why I quoted her rather than stating that it had happened. At the time, though, it resonated with me.

  • avatar
    Martin Schwoerer

    Oh by the way, as a member of Facebook’s “Brown Car Appreciation Society”, I guess I must post a link to pix of the “Hermes 2CV” that was shown last autumn in Paris. Gorgeous hand-stitched leather interior and all…

    http://www.autoblog.com/2008/10/04/paris-2008-citroen-2cv-by-hermes/

  • avatar

    chuckR :
    Mr. Holtzman
    Where is your Gauloise and beret?

    For years my older brother wore the beret. He also took his junior year of college in Paris at Science Po. I never wore the beret. I do have a Gauloise ash tray decorating my living room.

    btw, H-o-l-(no “t”, just coffee please)-z-m-a-n

  • avatar
    NickR

    was named for the six Moon automobiles found in a barn on the property around that time

    Actually, I want to hear that story.

    This story lost me when I realized that at no time was an elegantly dressed French woman going to appear.

    Can’t help but ask…how does the heating compare to the Beetle?

  • avatar
    dhathewa

    Greg Locock: “The inertial dampers were rather neat.”

    Yes. They would be. They went out of style until 2400 or so, when they were used in the Federation Starship, “Voyager.” Consult any Trekkie for details. :-)

    Johnnyangel: “dhathewa’s recollection of the gearshift pattern is correct except that he neglected to mention that fourth was found by twisting clockwise to move the shifter out of the 2-3 plane, then pushing forward.”

    It had a fourth gear? I never drove one, myself, and I don’t think we ever got going fast enough in one to justify the use of fourth gear. Nor would I want to go that fast in one.

    After a few minutes in Tehran traffic in a Deux Chevaux (I think the local name was Gian, it has been a long time), one longed for the solidity and security of the Paykhan (a Hillman Hunter).

    Johnnyangel: “Something not often noted about these cars is that the engine had a relatively heavy flywheel. If you revved it up at idle and took off you could pretty much beat any car away from the lights from 0 to, er, about 5 miles per hour.”

    Which is pretty much ideal performance for the maneuver I know as “The Jersey Turn,” which was also extremely popular in Iran. And in Beantown, unless things have changed a lot since I left. Maybe this explains the popularity of the car in Tehran and also why one still exists in Massachusetts.

  • avatar
    fredtal

    My elementary school science teacher had one of these. Mr Stuzman. Of course we called it the Stuzmobile.

  • avatar
    joeaverage

    My buddy had one when we were stationed in Italy. I got to drive it several times. What a hoot! It had alot of miles on it but was still very reliable and troublefree. The 2CV and the Fiat 500 were both cars that made my visiting mother and father re-evaluate how primitive my 1965 Beetle is (brought it back with me). Not a very manly term but I ADORE the simplicity of the Fiat 500, 2CV and Beetles and their cousins. They were lightweight cars that just got a man and his family where they needed to go with a minimum of fuss. Don’t need a long list of power features and 300 horsepower to drive 5 miles!

    To really understand these cars a person has to consider them in their historical and and geographical context. You might, but I couldn’t until I lived there for three years. Plenty of slow traffic in the early 90s. Plenty of narrow roads. Plenty of cobblestone streets. Plenty of trips a person needed to make around town that did not require a very complex cars. In fact those cars would still be very useful had we not graduated to SUVs, pickup trucks with 300+ horsepower, and luxury sedans capable of 0-60 in 5 seconds and 150+ mph top speeds. American roads are in a perpetual “arms race” rendering last decade’s cars too slow and inept for the modern roads. I don’t need that much power, speed or luxury. Don’t want it either. I want a/c and heat and a manual tranny. The radio is optional too.

    Traffic evolved here making these simplistic cars obsolete. In way I think that is a shame.

    They seem so slow and so dangerous until my mind wanders back to those narrow city streets and those slow speeds where a person wasn’t really endangered by riding in cars like that.

    I remember leaning on the 2CV while we were visiting one afternoon and noting how much the body panels flexed. I began walking around the car noting how flimsy everything seemed yet the car itself seemed very strong at speed on ROUGH roads. My Beetle’s hood is the same way. Thin and flimsy when it is open. Pretty stiff closed.

    I miss Italy. The cities were full of cars like the 500, the Beetle and 2CV and the dozens of 60s/70s/80s vintage European compacts and microcars. However the highways big and small were dominated by powerful touring and sports sedans, wagons and convertibles with unlimited speeds. In the city the slow cars dominated most of the time and few of those slowpokes ventured out to the Autostrada so their low power engines were seldom and isssue.

    Here in America we tend to buy all purpose vehicles as if we fully expect to go crosscountry on short notice.

    If I ever welcomed $10 per gallon gasoline in America it would be because perhaps we’d slow down a little.

  • avatar
    7

    Some other things about the 2cv:

    – It’s a convertible – well kind of: it has a canvas top that you can fold to enjoy the sun and… water as it had some leakage problems
    – It takes two minutes to take the seat off, so you can have a confortable dîner sur l’herbe
    – It has the worst steering i’ve ever encountered on a car. You do feel like a trucker driving one
    – Every year some fanatics gather in Francorchamps to have a 24hr race.
    – There’s even a 4×4 version – with two engines: one in the front, one in the back

    It’s a pity Citroen is unable to make cars that smart anymore (blame it on Peugeot)

  • avatar
    Wheely

    Couple more features:

    No rolldown windows, but the bottom half is hinged, “folds up” and attaches to the top of the door. Or, you can kind of let them flap in the breeze.

    The ventilation system consists of a hatch that opens/closes below the windshield. Some mesh protects the driver from debris that may otherwise just fly into the car.

    It’s a 2 cylinder boxer, four stroke, but no distributor. The sparkplugs fire twice as much as needed…

    You can adjust the headlights from inside the car.

    In typical Citroen fashion, the wheels are attached with three nuts each, because more isn’t needed.

    Some models had a cool one spoke steering wheel.

    People actually towed small trailers with it. Certainly no fishing boats or anything like that, but still, makes you wonder about current “needs”.

  • avatar
    KixStart

    Great review!

    The 42lbs/hp ratio is pretty close to that of two cars I’ve owned. A VW EuroVan (109hp, just over two tons) and an ’82 Cavalier, 68hp when new (allegedly) and about 2600lbs. Certain situations were challenging. The EuroVan could not manage certain uphill interstate sections at reasonable speeds.

    Of course, the passenger load in the 2CV changes the lbs/hp ratio dramatically. A jockey piloting the thing around is going to have a radically different experience than a family of four average-sized people. Make that, “a family of four average-sized occasionally panic-stricken people.”

  • avatar
    jose carlos

    Nice article about one of the great cars. My dad had one in the sixties and they can still be found around though in very small numbers. Sometimes I am tempted into buying one but my mind prevents me to do so. I think the last ones were built here in Portugal in the late eighties and they went back to the round headlights which in my opinion fit better the car. A few years ago I was stunned to find a 2CV in Athens, GA. I never though they would make their way to the USA. Despite its simplicity it was a very well engineered car: very reliable with a great traction in snow and ice. It was truly unstoppable. In the late eighties there as 3 series program in the UK television (not sure the channel) named ‘a car for Africa’. The idea was to make an affordable car able to cope with very difficult terrain (dirt roads at the best). And the end result was basically a 2CV layout, transmission and suspension with a GS (1200 cc flat four) engine. 3 cars were built and driven from the Artic circle to the equator through sand, mud, rain forests, steep climbs… I still remember many details from the journey but I share just one: somewhere in the African jungle a Land Rover was stuck in the mud. The folks used their “2CV” to pull the Defender from that spot. Very embarrassing. If I correctly recall the 3 cars made the entire journey though a few repairs were needed along the way, including one gear box. Remember they were coping with at least twice the number of horses they were designed for. Have a great 4th of July.

  • avatar

    Jose Carlos,

    That’s right, the last 2CVs were built in Portugal, I think until 1990. Then there was another obit in the New York Times. I’d love to see “a car for Africa” . There are a fair number of 2CVs in the US, and there is a parts supplier in Seattle. There may have been about 40 or 50 at the big event in Saratoga Springs that I attended two years ago, and my rough guess is that there might be another 150-200 in the US.

  • avatar
    T2

    Here’s some British advertising copy at the time with mock irreverence.

    NO WONDER IT’S SO RELIABLE
    …….THERE’S NOTHING TO GO WRONG

    Look what you get with the Citroën 2CV…

    A complete set of wheels, one on each corner, for perfect mobility.

    A peppy little engine tucked away up front that not only starts with the turn of a key but stops in exactly the same manner.

    Completely transparent windows for superb all round visibility.

    A totally automated braking system, simply activated by depressing a pedal with the foot.

    An automatic sunshine roof, you can automatically roll it back when the sun comes out.

    Integral Central Locking System — You can reach all the doors from the driver’s seat.

    Many more features too numerous to mention.

    In fact everything a driver needs to get him reliably and comfortably from A to B.

    There have been references to the ‘wasted spark’ system used here as if it’s unique to this vehicle. It should be pointed out that this also happens to be the industry standard for inline fours and V6’s today. It has been seen even on the Corvette’s V8 engine.

    The 2CV has the further simple advantage with just two cylinders, mounted in the horizontally opposed arrangement, to not be needing a camshaft sensor since there will be an ignition per 360 degrees of engine rotation.
    It would be interesting if other posters can share details of ‘tuned” versions of these engines that they may know.

  • avatar
    jose carlos

    Dear David Holzman,
    You may find further information on the ‘car for Africa’ project if you google something like
    “arctic circle to equator in a 2cv”. Actually it was the ‘Africar’.

  • avatar
    findude

    Very late addition to this thread, but check out the short documentary film at http://www.documentary-film.net/search/watch-now.php?&ref=75

    Some of these cars are a long, if much transformed, afterlife. . . .

  • avatar

    Really great article David. One feature not mentioned, at least on the Dyan, is that the tire iron was not only used to change a tire but fit through the front grill so that you could hand crank the engine! I drove a Dyan when I lived in Italy for a bit over a year. We once had six adults in that car and drove it up and down the hills of Tuscany. Very s l o w l y. The car also had inboard disc brakes which only lasted about 10k kilometers before they wore out. It was the most fun car I’ve ever owned.

    Oded Kishony

  • avatar

    Two weeks ago a somewhat rusty yellow 2CV was parked behind my hotel in Puerto Varas, Chile.
    The origin of the model name two horses is the taxable horsepower by a complex French rating system of levying after WWII.


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