The Citroën 2CV is a story of competence, fantasy, pragmatism and modernity – it was simply the car the people needed that did not exist.
Typically French by its quirky design, the 2CV was even affectionately nicknamed the ‘tin can’ or ‘duck’ by its growing devotees and quickly becoming an integral part of society; now one of the most recognisable icons of automotive history.
It was 30 years ago on July 27 when the final Citroën 2CV left the production line ending the success story in Mangualde, Portugal, which began at the Paris Motor Show in 1948. The 2CV was enormously versatile and the perfect solution to a whole range of automotive dynamics from adventurous trips to shopping in Paris.
The car people needed but didn’t exist
In 1936, Michelin, then also a shareholder in Citroën, launched a survey on people’s car needs. Never before has a survey of this topic been carried out anywhere in the world. The result was that the car that people needed, quite simply, did not yet exist.
French engineer, Pierre-Jules Boulanger was hired by the Michelin brothers to run Citroën after the death of its founder, André Citroën, took a short vacation to return to the Auvergne countryside, where he was born, to analyse the results of this survey. But in fact, Boulanger didn’t even look at the papers – it was all there, right before his eyes. Millions of people didn’t have the financial capacity to buy a car and worse still in much of the region there were simply no roads.
From here, “Pére Boule” (“Pai Boule”), as Boulanger was known to his colleagues, took one of his notebooks and wrote that the car that was to go into production would have to fulfil the following requirements saying “a reclining chair under an umbrella, capable of carrying two farmers, fifty kilos of potatoes or a barrel of wine” and who should also “be able to carry a basket of eggs across the field without breaking any”.
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Designed especially for domestic use, the Citroën 2CV bucked the luxury trend and was a relatively inexpensive car with a host of innovative features. So delightful was the ‘duck’ or ‘upside-down umbrella’, it was selling quicker than baguettes in Paris with more than 5.1 million vehicles (including panel vans) sold by 1990.
Simplicity included seats, although being very comfortable, were suspended by elastic straps within a light steel alloy structure, front windows were designed to allow the driver’s arm to be easily positioned outside the vehicle to indicate their intended path. At the time, the Highway Code did not require direction change indicators, and even after the 2CV adopted them, the windows continued to be horizontally divided into two sections, opening upwards.
Citroën was unable to keep up with the huge demand and adopted a ‘pecking order’ relative to those who most needy and had no financial means to purchase another car; followed by doctors and priests from rural areas, bakers, teachers, and so on, until reaching customers who saw the “tin snail” as a vehicle just for the city or perhaps just a second usable car.
Over five million units were produced, including derivative versions, many of which are still in circulation today. The 2CV is designed to last, be easily repaired, consume little and meet the specific needs of its users.