The Ugly Duckling

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This is a 1979 Citroën 2CV 6 Spécial. During my time in Europe, I didn’t go to France. I just never made it. I had been to Paris when I was twelve, and the northern bits of the country a few years later, but recently? Non. Which is why this picture, the car of the French people, the quintessential voiture, was taken in Amsterdam. Which is near France. Like, if the Netherlands were Maine, France would be New York state. There’s just a bit of Belgium in the way. Practically the same place, really. Europe is tiny.

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I’m kidding, of course. The Netherlands is distinctly its own, chock full of delicious people and delightful waffles (wait, reverse that). What about the car though? Well, the 2CV was originally conceived in 1936 as a basic mode of transportation for rural, farming types, much like the Beetle was for Germany, the 500 was for Italy, the Mini was for Britain, and so on and so forth. 250 prototypes of the “Deux Chevaux” were produced for various types of testing before it was to be unveiled at the 1939 Paris Salon de l’Automobile. The problem was, no one showed up to the 1939 Paris Salon de l’Automobile, because of a small European conflict known as World War II.

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When Hitler swept into France, work at the Citroën factory appeared to carry on as normal, but a few clever Frenchmen had the forethought to hide away some of the key 2CV prototypes that they had worked so hard on. After the war, those surviving Citroën engineers dug up enough of their buried creation to put some finishing touches on it and unveil it to the public, belatedly but proudly, in 1948. Now, despite its heroic story, one would think that a car designed ten years before it was unveiled would prove a passingly interesting newspaper story and nothing more, with buyers opting instead for something newer or better. But no. The little Citroën was so popular that when it was first released, the company couldn’t keep up with demand, and had to give priority treatment to veterans, doctors, and farmers. The 2CV went on to sell just under 4 million units before it’s production came to a close in 1990. Oh, and those hidden prototypes are still being found today in barns and various other hidey-holes all over France.

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It certainly wasn’t fast. The engine in this 2CV is a 602cc flat-twin developing a healthy 28 horsepower. Reports put the top speed of early cars around 40 miles per hour. But that was never the point. Too often people equate “fast cars” with “good cars.” The 2CV is talented in other, more thoughtful ways. Both rows of seats (hammocks, really) could be removed for picnicking. The heater was just two pipes running off the cylinder barrels with flaps that can be opened or closed for regulation. Too hot? There was another flap, just below the windshield. Or, of course, you could just roll back the fabric roof. It had fascinating soft suspension, which was there because one of the original design requirements of the 2CV was that it had to be able to drive across a rough field with a basket of eggs in it without breaking any of them. This particular car is a 2CV 6 Spécial, which denoted the bigger, 602cc engine and a few more interior luxuries.

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The Citroën 2CV is a car that requires care and attention, much like a fine wine. With such a small amount of horsepower, it struggles up hills, and never really accumulates enough speed for any sort of passing maneuver. And on top of that, the Renault 4 stole the 2CV’s crown as the car of the French people. But the 2CV is charming nonetheless. Brutal simplicity is the name of the game here. You’re always concentrating when you’re piloting a 2CV, there’s always something of the driving experience to be adjusted or monitored. I think that’s a good thing: it keeps the driver engaged, it keeps them busy, which is kind of the point of owning one of these things, if I’m honest. I have no factual backing for this (there’s a new one), but I’d be willing to bet that there have been no traffic accidents having to do with texting and driving in a 2CV. So what if it’s slow? Leave earlier, take your time, enjoy the sun on your head and the air in your lungs. That’s what makes the 2CV special- sorry, Spécial. It makes you appreciative of all the simple joys in life by taking away the distractions, the fluff. Enjoy today, everyone. Au revior.

Additional Thoughts:

  • “Deux Chevaux” means “two horses” for all you non-Francophiles out there, and the car was named such because it was an indication of the original horsepower rating for the production 2CV, measured in steam horsepower.
  • The Dutch nickname (because, you know, Amsterdam) for the 2CV was “het lelijke eendje,” or “The Ugly Duckling”
  • The mismatched front fenders on this car are hilarious, that should be a feature on more cars.
  • During its prototype phase, the 2CV was codenamed the TPV, or “Tres Petite Voiture.”
  • In Germany, a new 2CV cost about half of what a Beetle was worth.
  • You want to watch a car chase? Yeah, let’s watch a car chase. Here’s one, fittingly, with a 2CV 6.
  • I’ve just realized this is our first French car on Forgotten Metal! How exciting.
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5 thoughts on “The Ugly Duckling

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