The Citroën 2CV (French: “deux chevaux” i.e. “deux chevaux-vapeur” (lit. “two steam horses”), “two tax horsepower“) is a front-engine, front wheel drive, air-cooledeconomy car introduced at the 1948 Paris Mondial de l’Automobile and manufactured by Citroën for model years 1948–1990.
Conceived by Citroën Vice-President Pierre Boulanger to help motorize the large number of farmers still using horses and carts in 1930s France, the 2CV is noted for its minimalist combination of innovative engineering and utilitarian, straightforward metal bodywork — initially corrugated for added strength without added weight. The 2CV featured a low purchase cost; simplicity of overall maintenance; an easily serviced air-cooled engine (originally offering 9 hp); low fuel consumption; and an extremely long travel suspension offering a soft ride, light off-road capability, high ground clearance, and height adjustability via lengthening/shortening of tie rods. Often called “an umbrella on wheels”, the bodywork featured a distinctive and prominent full-width, canvas, roll-back sunroof, which accommodated oversized loads and until 1955 reached almost to the car’s rear bumper, covering its trunk.
Manufactured in France between 1948 and 1989 (and its final two years in Portugal 1989–1990), over 3.8 million 2CVs were produced, along with over 1.2 million small 2CV-based delivery vans known as Fourgonnettes. Citroën ultimately offered a number of mechanically identical variants including the Ami (over 1.8 million); the Dyane (over 1.4 million); the Acadiane (over 250,000); and the Mehari (over 140,000). In total, Citroën manufactured over 8.8 million “A Series” cars, as 2CV variants are known.
A 1953 technical review in Autocar described “the extraordinary ingenuity of this design, which is undoubtedly the most original since the Model T Ford“. In 2011,The Globe and Mail called it a “car like no other”.Noted automotive author L. J. K. Setright described the 2CV as “the most intelligent application of minimalism ever to succeed as a car”, calling it a car of “remorseless rationality”.
The 2CV belongs to a short list of vehicles introduced in the middle of the 20th century that remained relevant and competitive for many decades, such as the Jeep, Land Rover Series, Fiat 500, Mini and Volkswagen Beetle.
In 1934 family-owned Michelin, as the largest creditor, took over the bankrupt Citroën company. As far back as 1922, when they first conducted market research, they had been interested in expanding the market for economy cars (and tyres) in France, in the same way that the Ford Model T had done in the United States. The new president of Citroën, Pierre Michelin, had even gone as far as to build a scale model of what he had in mind at Michelin before the takeover of Citroën.Citroën had stopped producing the economy cars that established the company after the First World War by the mid-1920s, when they moved to using Budd-type pressed steel bodies.Michelin believed that decision was a contributor to the later bankruptcy. The new management ordered a fresh and detailed market research survey that was conducted by Jacques Duclos. At that time, France had a very large rural population which could not yet afford automobiles. The results of the survey were used by Citroën to prepare a design brief for a low-priced, rugged “umbrella on four wheels” that would enable four small farmers / peasants to drive 50 kg (110 lb) of farm goods to market at 50 km/h (31 mph), in clogs and across muddy unpaved roads if necessary. The car would use no more than 3 L of gasoline to travel 100 km (78 mpg). Most famous, was the design brief requirement be able to drive across a ploughed field while carrying eggs, that the envisaged smallholder customer would be taking to market, without breaking them.
In 1936, Pierre-Jules Boulanger, the vice-president of Citroën and chief of the Engineering and Design department, set the brief to his design team at the Bureau d’études. The TPV (Toute Petite Voiture — “Very Small Car”) was to be developed at Michelin facilities at Clermont-Ferrand and at Citroën in Paris in strict secrecy, by the design team who had created the Traction Avant. Boulanger hand picked engineers added to the team, and preferred engineers who had qualified through night school courses, over university trained ones. He believed they were better engineers because of greater practical experience. Boulanger was closely involved with all decisions relating to the TPV, he was obsessed with reducing the weight of the TPV to targets that his engineers thought were impossible. He set up a department that had the job of weighing every component and then redesigning it, to lighten it while still doing its job. He later had the roof raised to allow him to drive while wearing a hat.
Boulanger placed engineer André Lefèbvre in charge of the TPV project. Lefèbvre had designed and raced Grand Prix cars, his own speciality was chassis design and he was particularly interested in maintaining contact between tyres and the road surface. In an era of poor damping, beam axles and leaf springs this gave his cars vastly superior grip and handling to most other cars.
The very first prototypes were bare chassis, with rudimentary controls, seating and roof, that required test drivers to wear the leather flying suits that were used in contemporary open biplanes. By the end of 1937 20 TPV experimental prototypes had been built and tested. The prototypes only had a single headlight because that was all that was required by French law.
At the end of 1937 Pierre Michelin was killed in a car crash. Boulanger became president of Citroën and Lefèbvre, responsible for engineering and design, though he was not head of the department, he was more like a minister without portfolio; he did not have an official title.
By 1939 the TPV was deemed ready, after 47 technically different and progressively improved experimental prototypes had been built and rigorously tested. Those prototypes made use of aluminium and magnesium parts and had water-cooled flat twin engines with front-wheel drive. The seats were hammocks hung from the roof by wires. The suspension system used front leading arms and rear trailing arms, connected to eight torsion bars mounted beneath the rear seat: a bar for the front axle, one for the rear axle, an intermediate bar for each side, and an overload bar for each side. The front axle was connected to its torsion bars by cable. The overload bar only came into play when the car had three people on board, two in the front and one in the rear, to take account of the extra load of the fourth passenger and fifty kilograms of luggage.
It was designed by Alphonse Forceau. This suspension system did not make it into the delayed and redesigned production car.
During the summer of 1939 a pilot run of 250 cars was produced and on 28 August 1939 the car finally received French market homologation.
Brochures were printed and preparations were made to present the car, now branded as the Citroën 2CV rather than as the Citroën TPV, at the forthcoming Paris Motor Show in October 1939.
However, in September 1939 the government declared war on Germany, following that country’s invasion of Poland. It would be another eight months before the Germans invaded France, but an atmosphere of impending disaster appeared much sooner and with less than a month’s notice the 1939 motor show was cancelled, and the launch of the 2CV was abandoned.
During the German occupation of France in World War II Boulanger refused to collaborate personally with German authorities and organized and encouraged sabotage against production for the German war effort, to the point where the Gestapo listed him as an important “enemy of the Reich”.
Boulanger was under constant threat of arrest and deportation to Germany. Michelin, which was Citroën’s main shareholder, and Citroën managers decided to hide the TPV project from the Nazis, fearing some military application. Several TPVs were buried at secret locations; one was disguised as a pickup, the others were destroyed, and Boulanger 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 prototypes had survived. As of 2003, five TPVs are known. For a long time, it was believed that the project was so well hidden that all the prototypes had been lost at the end of the war. It seems that none of the hidden TPVs were lost after the war, but in the 1950s an internal memo ordered them to be scrapped. The surviving TPVs were, in fact, hidden from the top management by some workers who were sensitive to their historical value.
By 1941, after an increase in aluminium prices of forty percent, an internal report at Citroën showed that producing the TPV post-war would not be economically viable, given the projected further increasing cost of aluminium
Boulanger decided to redesign the car to use mostly steel with flat panels, instead of aluminium.
The French motor industry before the war believed that aluminium would become cheaper, and become the standard material for car manufacture.
The Nazis had attempted to loot Citroën’s press tools; this was frustrated, after Boulanger got the French Resistance to re-label the rail cars containing them in the Paris marshalling yard. They ended up all over Europe, and Citroën was by no means sure they would all be returned after the war.
After the liberation, Citroën, along with all the other major French car makers, evaluated and were offered the rights to the air-cooled AFG (Aluminium Français Grégoire) prototype, by Jean-Albert Grégoire, who was unaware of the secret TPV project.It emerged in 1946 as the aluminium Panhard Dyna X.
In the Spring of 1944 Boulanger made the decision to abandon the water-cooled two-cylinder engine that had been developed for the car and installed in the 1939 versions. Walter Becchia was now briefed to design an air-cooled unit, still of two cylinders, and still of 375cc.
Becchia was also supposed to design a three-speed gearbox, but managed to design a four-speed for the same space at little extra cost.
At this time French small cars like the Renault Juvaquatre and Peugeot 202 almost invariably featured three-speed transmissions. Even Citroën’s own mid-size Traction Avant only had a three-speed gearbox. But the 1936 Italian Fiat 500 “Topolino” “people’s car” did have a four speed gearbox. Boulanger was displeased when he found out that his instructions had not been followed. Becchia persuaded him that the 4th gear was actually an overdrive, this is why on the early cars the gear change was marked “S” for “surmultiplié” The increased number of gear ratios also helped with the performance penalty caused by the extra weight of switching from light alloys to steel for the body and chassis. Other changes included seats with tubular steel frames with rubber band springing (pictured here), and a restyling of the body by the ItalianFlaminio Bertoni. Also, in 1944 the first studies of the Citroën hydro-pneumatic suspension were conducted using the TPV/2CV.
It took three years from 1945 for Citroën to rework the TPV into what was its third incarnation, resulting in the car being nicknamed the “Toujours Pas Vue” (Still Not Seen) by the press. The development and production, of what was to become the 2CV was also delayed by the incoming 1944 Socialist French government, after the liberation by the Allies from the Germans. The five-year “Plan Pons” to rationalise car production and husband scarce resources, named after economist and former French motor industry executive Paul-Marie Pons, only allowed Citroën the upper middle range of the car market, with the Traction Avant. The French government allocated the economy car market, US Marshall Plan aid, US production equipment and supplies of steel, to newly nationalised Renault to produce their Renault 4CV.
The “Plan Pons” came to an end in 1949.
Postwar French roads were very different from pre-war ones. Horse-drawn vehicles had re-appeared in large numbers. The few internal combustion engined vehicles present, often ran on town gas stored in gasbags on roofs or wood/charcoal gas from gasifiers on trailers.
Only one hundred thousand of the two million pre-war cars were still on the road.
These were known as “Les années grises” or “the grey years” in France.