Some things could only come from France. The bidet, for example. The guillotine. And Gerard Depardieu, the actor who has admitted to drinking more than a dozen bottles of wine per day. Then there's the Citroen 2CV, one of the slowest, coolest cars of all time. It is Gallic culture distilled – not so much a car as a baguette with a windshield and headlights. Think of it as a sidewalk café on wheels. The 2CV has been called the French Model T and a wheeled umbrella. Both terms fit.
I first encountered the 2CV back in the 1970s, when my family moved from the Ottawa suburbs to Brussels, Belgium. In Brussels, I entered a new universe. Behind me was the North American world of muscle cars and concrete office buildings. In Belgium, the cathedrals dated back to the 14th century, the roads were paved with hand-laid cobblestones, and the cars were tiny contraptions.
The 2CV was everywhere. At first, I couldn't believe it was a real car. Its shifter jutted out of the dash like a flimsy parasol handle, and the body looked as if it had been formed from corrugated tin roofing panels. For a teenage boy raised in the world of Camaros, Mustangs and drag-strip Barracudas, it was hard to believe that you could actually drive a car that had less than 20 horsepower.
But the 2CV had a charm that went beyond road tests and lap times. Its soft suspension, originally designed for the ruined roads of Second World War Europe, gave a featherbed ride and made every corner an adventure. I drove a 2CV to Paris, and never forgot the trip. The engine thrummed softly beneath the hood, like a flock of doves trapped in a wooden box. The windows flipped up on simple hinges, like the glass in a 1950s Florida motel. I loved it. In this car I encountered a new automotive reality defined by minimalism, engineering flair and an abiding humanity – this was a car for everyman.
In the years since that journey, I have driven almost every car imaginable, from humble economy machines to $2.5-million exotics. The 2CV remains one of my favourites. As I've learned, there's more to life than speed and power. In the 2CV, you are permanently consigned to the slow lane. Each freeway merge is an act of faith and skill. There's something to be said for that.
Like a fine French wine, the 2CV has a long and special history. It was originally conceived in the early 1930s by Citroen vice-president Pierre Boulanger, who saw it as a way of motorizing the peasant farmers of Europe – most of them still dependent on the horse and buggy.
Like Henry Ford's Model T, the design focused on simplicity, ruggedness and low cost. In 1934, the Michelin tire company became a majority shareholder in Citroen, largely because it saw car manufacturing as a way to increase tire sales. By 1938, Citroen had built 20 prototypes of its new car and was ready to go into production.
Then the Second World War got in the way. During the German occupation of France, Michelin loaded the tooling for the 2CV into railroad cars and sent them to the far corners of Europe to keep them out of Nazi hands. Boulanger refused to collaborate with German authorities, and organized sabotage efforts against the Nazis. The Gestapo listed him as an "enemy of the Reich."
When the war ended, the 2CV found its niche. The long-travel suspension, originally created to carry farmers and produce across plowed fields, was perfect for roads destroyed by metal tank tracks, and the 2CV's low price helped put Europe on wheels, just as its creator had hoped.
By the time I moved to Europe in the early seventies, the 2CV had been in production for nearly two and a half decades. The last one rolled off the line in 1990. To the casual observer, the final 2CV of 1990 was almost identical to the 1937 prototype.
It's not easy making a design that survives the passing years. Most cars are consigned to history's stylistic scrap heap in short order, along with the earth shoe, parachute pants and neon spandex. Not the 2CV. It belongs to a short list of vehicles that survived through multiple generations: the Jeep, the Fiat 500, the Land Rover and VW's immortal Beetle.
Enduring automotive style is never based on the whims of a designer. Instead, it is always rooted in physics and economics. American architect Louis Sullivan, who became famous for coining the phrase "form follows function," put it this way: "Whether it be the sweeping eagle in his flight, or the open apple blossom, the toiling work horse, the blithe swan, the branching oak, the winding stream at its base, the drifting clouds, over all the coursing sun, form ever follows function, and this is the law."
Sullivan wasn't thinking of the Citroen 2CV. But he could have been.