Through motoring history there have been a fair number of automakers who have created true legends. When it comes to affordable compact models, the list gets shorter. Their popularity and simplicity meant that the average person could afford one and keep it on the road for many years.
The Model T is the first example, opening driving up to the masses well over a century ago. More recent cars like the VW Beetle, Fiat 500, Austin Mini, Hindustan Ambassador and Trabant 501 offered, at different times and in different regions of the world, the chance for people to get mobile and enjoy the pleasure of motoring. Nowadays we view these vehicles with nostalgic glasses, so it's hard to guess what people thought of them when they were new. I suspect their compact size and simple nature offered real appeal, and their ease of repair and maintenance certainly made them even more desireable.
In France, few cars marked the history of the automobile as much as the Citroen 2CV. Designed to open up driving to rural populations, the 2CV took its name from the term '2 cheveaux', meaning '2 horsepower', the 2-horsepower tax bracket for automobiles. In development by Citroen since before the Second World War, existence of the 2CV was hidden from the Germans until after the war, and it was finally released in 1948. The unmistakable Citroen would be produced more or less in its same form for 42 years, and eventually 3.8 million would roll off the assembly lines.
A few changes to the air-cooled engine, front and rear lights, wipers, and brakes were made over the years, but the basics never evolved. The first models had center-hinged 'suicide' doors, making them extremely sought-after, but those models are getting very hard to find. Many variants, including a proper 2-door convertible, the Acadiane 'utilitaire' van, the slightly more modern-bodied Dyane, and the roofless beach buggy Méhari would appear, but it's the 2CV that remains the most legendary and celebrated.
This lovely grey example belongs to a family I know. The father Gérard, who owned a 2CV many years back, had always dreamed of restoring one, and picked this one up several years ago as a family project. With his two brothers (one a mechanic and one an automotive painter, conveniently!) and his sons, my friends Franck and Stèphane, they set out to restore their 1970 'Deudeuche' (the loving nickname of the 2CV). The goal was never to create a show car, but instead do a clean restoration that would give the car many more years on the road. Apparently Gérard wanted to have a car to enjoy in the summer with the top down to putt-putt around with his wife, which is about the best reason I can think for restoring an old jewel like this!
The absolute simplicity of the 2CV makes it an easy restoration project. Even today all of the major parts are easy to find. The doors, hood and trunk can be slid off their hinges and removed in just a few seconds. The front and rear fenders are held on with a couple bolts and hooks. The engine and transmission can be removed in a very short time, and be lifted out by one person. As a matter of fact, it's common practice at fairs and car rallys for teams to race to completely disassemble a 2CV and see who is first to reassemble and start their car!
With alot of elbow grease and some new parts (such as the removeable canvas top), they were able to get this Citroen back into roadworthy shape over the course of a year. All that's left is some interior work to repair the old seat fabrics and recover the door panels, and find a few pieces of exterior trim that aren't readily available.
The day I went to see it we tried to start it but there was a problem with the engine. It hadn't run in a while and the battery was a little low, so Franck told me he'll let me know when it's running again so we can take it for a drive. Several years back a friend, who had restored a gorgeous 'Cocoricco' version, let me take his for a drive, and let me tell you: it's a riot! The incredible body lean is disconcerting at first, but once you have it figured out, you can push it into corners hard and have a laugh as it works to straighten itself out thanks to a simple yet ingenious suspension system that uses the movement of the front wheels to 'prepare' the rears for a bump.
The 2CV was ready last spring for its inaugural roadtest, and Gérard got to take it for a spin with one of his brothers. Franck even showed me a video of his dad and uncle testing out the brakes! Unfortunately that would be the only time Gérard got to enjoy the fruits of his labour, having lost his battle with an illness shortly after. Still, it was such a pleasure to see this fantastic throwback to a simpler automotive time, and realise how much energy and passion had gone into this restauration. I'll consider myself priviledged to try it out next spring.
This is what an automotive project like this is all about. Working with family and friends and enjoying bringing a car back to life. I'm glad Franck shared this story with me, and I'm happy to share it with you. It also has me convinced that someday I need to pick up a Citroen 2CV of my own...