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by Jay Traugott
Sure, it was ugly and the butt of countless jokes, but the Citroen 2CV was built for more than 40 years and was beloved by its French countrymen.
Last week came some disturbing news: The mayor of Paris wants to ban the use of cars more than 17 years old in his city. That's right, the French capital could soon one day no longer have classic Citroens, Peugeots and Renaults winding their way through the city's zigzag and windy streets. But it gets worse. The mayor also wants to outlaw trucks and buses more than 18 years old and even motor bikes made before 2004. No, this isn't a bad dream, but modern French politics. Let's hope this proposed legislation stays in Paris only.
Despite that city's attempt to cut emissions by some 30 percent by the year 2015, classic French cars like the Citroen 2CV will still remain a staple amongst countless French citizens (outside of Paris, of course) and other residents of Europe. For many, the 2CV is the quintessential Franco car for the masses and, despite its rather unusual styling, it's gone on to become an icon. First unveiled at the Paris Motor Show in 1948, the 2CV was designed from the get-go to be the French equivalent to the VW Beetle. You know, a peoples' car without the dark Nazi past.
Also like the Beetle and other famous originals like the Jeep, Land Rover, Mini and the Fiat 500, the Citroen 2CV was sold for decades and actually remained competitive during most of that time. So how exactly did an oddly-shaped people mover with quirky styling (the Dutch nicknamed it the "Ugly Duckling") and a near complete lack of aerodynamics survive for so long? Simple, it more than met the needs of a society who valued uniqueness in basic transportation. However, it also proved to be quite durable and reliable, partly thanks to its four-wheel independent suspension.
From 1958-1959, two daring young French adventurers journeyed from Paris to South Africa and then by boat to Rio de Janeiro where they continued to travel north through South America and eventually made their way to the US - all while driving a 2CV. As one can expect, the 2CV was not especially powerful, but it got the job done. The original 2CV had just 9 horsepower and a 0 to 40 mph time of 42.4 seconds (seriously). This air-cooled, four stroke 375 cc motor was rumored to be based off a BMW motorcycle engine design, but by the mid-fifties output was upgraded to a whopping 28 hp.
These power improvements continued throughout the sixties but even by the late eighties, it still only produced around 35 hp. There's a reason why it never caught on with Germans and their beloved Autobahn. And because it was French, Americans simply didn't like it period, declaring it the "flying rag top". Heck, even the English referred to it as the "flying dustbin". All funny names aside, the 2CV had and still has a cult following. The engine was mated to a four-speed manual transmission which remained in place until the car went out of production in 1990. During its lifetime, the 2CV was exported mainly to European countries (hence the nicknames).
But for a short time in the Fifties it was sold in the US, but was actually an embarrassment for Citroen because it wanted to be known as a premium brand while trying to sell the larger DS. American importers simply didn't know how to market the 2CV. Still, there hasn't been anything quite like it with its tube framework, thin steel body and flap-up windows. This 1961 example that was recently up for sale on eBay is probably one of the finest 2CVs you can find today. Recently restored, no detail was left untouched and its refinished upholstery, aircraft style seats and rubber floor mats are all in show car condition.
It drives perfectly and regularly gathers attention wherever it goes - mainly because there are so few in the US where this one is based. Painted in Bamboo Green with a black interior complete with a pullback sun roof, it has just 5,589 miles on the odometer and recently sold for $22,000. Slow? Yes, owners jokingly said it went "from 0 to 60 in one day". Just plain weird? Without question, but that's what makes it a true icon.