If all the post-war solutions to affordable, working-man’s transportation, the Citroen 2 CV (known as the Deux Chevaux) is perhaps the most charismatic. Looking like something that might have been invented in a shade-tree mechanic’s garage outside of Paris, the 2 CV is a rare sight on this side of the Atlantic. But in France — and throughout Europe and across the globe — the 2 CV became an automotive icon, selling nearly 4 million examples over its lengthy, 52-year production run.
The 2CV arrived when France was pulling itself back together following World War II, when it desperately needed a car to help put the nation back on the road to prosperity. Because much of France’s working class at the time relied on agriculture for their livelihoods, the 2CV was built to traverse the type of uneven terrain found in the country’s rural farming communities. It also needed to be practical enough to haul goods to and from the market and fit a small family. Most of all, it had to be reliable and inexpensive.
The original 2CV design called for a complex suspension setup that utilized no fewer than eight torsion bars but was later simplified to a set of leading arms up front and trailing arms in the rear that are damped and interconnected via a series of springs. The end result was a very plush ride that met one of the 2CV’s more interesting engineering goals: to cross a plowed field with a basket of eggs fully intact. Of course, the consequence of this is copious body roll—so much so that you can rock a stationary 2CV dramatically from side to side shoving it with just your hands.
This 1990 Citroën 2CV6 Special is the most basic trim from the very last year of production and was built in Portugal. (French 2CV production ended two years prior.) The “6” designates the larger 602-cc engine. The car is owned by Peter Mullin, who you could say has a thing for French automobiles: He owns more than 200 of them. Many of these cars rotate through exhibits at his Mullin Automotive Museum in Oxnard, California, which he founded in 2006. Among the cars on display at the museum are exceedingly rare Bugattis, one-off coach-built Delahayes, and Talbot-Lagos worth many multiples of the average American home. What is it about the lowly 2CV that attracts Mullin?
“They went from being a farmer’s car that took eggs to market all the way to being a cult car where people were absolutely, passionately in love with the Deux Chevaux,” Mullin says.
Mullin was nice enough to allow us a brief drive in his immaculate Deux Chevaux prior to its display at the museum in a Citroën-centric exhibit. It was an experience we won’t soon forget. Climbing into the 2CV, the lightweight doors open and close more like a cabinet. The cabin is airy and quite spacious, an effect that’s amplified when the canvas roof is rolled back. The windows open simply by swinging the lower half out and clipping it to the top of the frame. (Wind-up windows were seen as needlessly complex in 1948 and were not added over the next half-century.) It’s all oddly reminiscent of a roofless garden shed on wheels.
A turn of the key and the little 29-hp, 602-cc, flat-two mill coughs to life. On the road, there’s a light touch to all controls as if just a breath were needed to work the steering, clutch, and brakes. Even the thin, plastic steering wheel flexes in your hand if you push too hard. There’s no denying the 2CV is a car built on something of a budget. The shift action is perhaps the most unconventional aspect of piloting a Deux Chevaux. Shifting happens on a horizontal plane, and you pull the lever towards you and to the left for first gear, then forward and to the right for second, straight back for third, etc. It soon becomes second nature.
The Deux Chevaux seems happiest when cruising between 60 and 80 kph (roughly between 37 and 50 mph) as indicated on the small, rectangular speedometer ahead of the driver. The fuel gauge is the only other instrument besides the odometer—the one on this car registered about 10,000 kilometres. In truth, the 2 CV feels like it’ll go a little faster, but without a tachometer to dictate redline, 80 kph feels like more than enough. As cars begin to stack up behind us, only a few drivers seem irritated; the Citroen’s looks charm and disarm most of them. We’ve got the top rolled back now—a job that takes undoing a few clips and about 60 seconds. With the wind tugging at our hair and the sun streaming in, it isn’t hard to imagine that if everyone drove 2CVs, the world would be a far happier place.
We pull off California’s Pacific Coast Highway so our photographer can snap a few shots, and a middle-aged German tourist approaches me. “A Deux Chevaux?” he asks. “Is the gear change still like this?” He makes a push-pull motion with his hand to illustrate. It turns out our new friend drove a 2 CV while living in France for a few years in his 20 s. There’s a twinkle in his eye, and he spends several minutes taking the car in and snapping a few photos. He seems reluctant to leave, but the rest of his group insists. The 2 CV is an indelible part of his lifetime. And after just 30 minutes or so behind the wheel, it’s become an indelible part of ours.