On July 27, 1990, the very last Citroën 2CV rolled off the Portuguese production line in Mangualde. From 1948 to 1990 more than 3.8 million of the air-cooled front-engine, front-wheel-drive economy car were produced.
Michelin and Citroën
During the 1930s, Michelin took over the Citroën company and the new management ordered a new market survey. It was found that France had a large rural population not able to afford cars. Therefore, a design for a low-priced ‘umbrella on wheels’ was created. It would enable four people to be transported along with 50kg of farm goods and if necessary, across muddy and unpaved roads. One design requirement was that the customer be able to drive eggs across a freshly ploughed field without breaking them. After the design was sent to the engineering department, the ‘Toute Petite Voiture’ was supposed to be developed at Michelin facilities in Paris.
Prototyping the 2CV
André Lefèbvre, who had designed and raced Grand Prix cars, was put in charge of the TPV. The first prototypes were bare chassis with rudimentary controls, seating and roof. By the end of 1937, 20 TPV experimental prototypes had been built and tested. The prototypes had only one headlight, all that was required by French law at the time. In 1939, the TPV was deemed ready, after 47 technically different and incrementally improved experimental prototypes had been built and tested. The prototypes used 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. 250 cars were produced in 1939 as a pilot run and in August, the car received approval for the French market. It was named Citroën 2CV, at the forthcoming Paris Motor Show in October 1939.
World War 2
Unfortunately, after France declared war on Germany in September 1939, the launch of the 2CV was abandoned. When Germany was occupied by France, Boulanger refused to collaborate with the German government wherefore he was listed as an “enemy of the Reich” by the Gestapo. Michelin then decided to hide the 2CV project from the Nazis, fearing some military application as in the case of the future Volkswagen Beetle, manufactured during the war as the military Kübelwagen. Several of the prototypes were buried at secret locations, some were destroyed.
Restyling by Flaminio Bertoni
Through the years, the aluminum prices increased and an internal report at Citroën showed that producing the TPV post-war would not be economically viable anymore. Boulanger decided to redesign the car to use mostly steel with flat panels, instead of aluminium. In 1944, Boulanger made the decision to abandon the water-cooled two-cylinder engine 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 375 cc. He also managed to design a four-speed gearbox, instead of the expected three-speed. Other changes included seats with tubular steel frames with rubber band springing and a restyling of the body by the Italian Flaminio Bertoni.
Does it come with a can opener?”
On October 7, 1948, Citroën finally unveiled the car at the Paris Salon. The Citroën 2CV type A had a canvas roof that could be rolled completely open, it had one stoplight and was available in grey only. The first delivered versions drove 65 km/h at top speed. Unfortunately, the motoring press highly criticised the vehicle saying “Does it come with a can opener?” for instance. Still, Citroën was flooded with customer orders at the show. The car had a great impact on the lives of the low-income segment of the population in France and it became a commercial success. Within a few months there was a three to five year waiting list on the car and buying a second-hand 2CV was more expensive than a new one because the buyer did not have to wait. By 1952, production had reached more than 21,000 with export markets earning foreign currency taking precedence.
Becoming a Legend
The Citroën 2CV was manufactured in France from 1948 to 1988 and in Portugal for two more years. During that time, more than 3.8 million were sold and Citroën ultimately offered several mechanically identical variants including the Ami, the Dyane, the Acadiane, and the Mehari. In total, Citroën manufactured almost 9 million 2CVs and variants. The purchase price of the 2CV was always very low. In West Germany during the 1960s, for example, it cost about half as much as a Volkswagen Beetle. In 1953, technical review in Autocar described “the extraordinary ingenuity of this design, which is undoubtedly the most original since the Model T Ford“.
References and Further Reading:
-  Citroën 2CV info webpage
-  Citroën 2CV at Hagerty
-  Citroën 2CV at History.com
-  The Volkswagen Beetle – It’s Ugly But It Gets You There, SciHi Blog
-  Henry Ford and the Ford Motor Company, SciHi Blog
-  Citroën 2CV at Wikidata