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Oddball's Autos: CitroŽn 2CV

June 1, 2001, by Bill Cawthon

Able to maneuver across plowed fields without breaking an egg. Big enough to carry a hundred pounds of potatoes. Tall enough for the owner and his passengers to wear their hats to church on Sunday. And weird enough to have been designed by aliens. These all describe the 2CV, one of CitroŽn's most enduring automotive creations. Fans in Europe and America still prize the ungainly-looking automobile in spite of, or perhaps because of, its offbeat appearance and mechanical quirks.

In sharp contrast to his earlier successes, Andrť CitroŽn had not planned his finances well and the Depression caught him with insufficient resources. In the early 1930's CitroŽn's creditors convinced the Michelin Brothers to take over the company.

Pierre Boulanger was one of the engineers Michelin selected to run CitroŽn. He quickly perceived the need for a small car for the average Frenchman. In 1936, the year after Andrť CitroŽn's death, Boulanger drafted a design specification that became the basis for the 2CV. Working with Andrť Lefebvre, designer of CitroŽn's revolutionary Traction Avant, Boulanger produced the first prototype in 1937. At the time, it was called the "Tout Petite Voiture," or "very small car." By 1939, several more prototypes had been built and tested and a launch was planned for the following year. However, the outbreak of war meant the end of civilian automobile production so the TPV was put on hold.

It is believed that some work on the TPV was secretly carried out during the German occupation. In any event, work resumed quickly after the war's end and in 1948 the new CitroŽn 2CV was introduced at the 35th Salon d'Automobile.

Reaction was decidedly mixed. At the time, the company's logo featured a swan and one reporter joked the CitroŽn swan had given birth to an ugly ducking. That nickname was just the first of many.

Despite the opinions of the rest of the world, the French public embraced the Ugly Duckling and by the time it went on sale in 1949, there was a substantial waiting list. CitroŽn restricted early sales to doctors and farmers, those it felt most needed the car. In order to maximize production, the 2CV was only available in gray. Other colors, lots of them, came later.

The 2CV remained in production more than 40 years, resisting all attempts to replace it. Although the appearance went largely unchanged, there were numerous improvements, including a more powerful engine, electric windshield wipers and replacing the canvas trunk cover with a metal lid. The last 2CV ever produced was a gray-and-black Charleston built in Portugal in 1990. French production had ended a few year earlier.

CitroŽn sold the 2CV in the United States for several years beginning in the early 1960s. The response of American carbuyers was underwhelming. In an era dominated by increasingly larger and more powerful automobiles, the Tin Snail was tiny and could barely exceed a residential speed limit. According to one source, when CitroŽn ended importation of the 2CV, the company destroyed the remaining inventory rather than incur the expense of shipping them back to France.

There are several models of the 2CV available to the collector. Probably the most widely available in North America are those made by Herpa and Wiking. All of their models are of 2CVs produced between 1974 and 1981, when CitroŽn built them with rectangular headlights. Popular demand forced CitroŽn to return to round headlights in 1981. As Ernst van Altena noted in his book "The Ugly Duckling," ducks don't have square eyes.

One of the most notable Herpa models is the 020817 Charleston. With its distinctive two-tone paint schemes, the Charleston was an upscale version of the 2CV6. The 2CV6 has the larger 602cc engine which propelled the Charleston to real highway speeds. Originally introduced for the Ami and Dyane, the 602cc engine became a 2CV option in 1970 and standard equipment in 1979.

The Charleston was introduced in 1980, long after CitroŽn had given up on the American market, but it is one of the most popular CitroŽns among American fans. Using a loophole in the government regulations that govern imported automobiles, gray market companies brought in a number of Charlestons and other 2CV6 models. And they are still bringing them in. CitroŽn Concours of America estimates there are somewhere between 800 and 1,000 2CV Charlestons buzzing around America today and perhaps that many more 2CVs of other varying types.

Another model offered by Herpa is the 022798 2CV SPOT. The SPOT was the first factory special edition of the 2CV4. SPOT stands for "Special Peinture Orange Tťnťrť" and it had an orange and white exterior, orange interior and upholstery and an orange-and-white striped sunblind. Only 1800 were built, all in April, 1976.

Herpa's third model, No. 020824, is a standard 2CV with an open folding top. Both of Wiking's models are based on the standard 2CV6, with no fancy paint schemes. The main difference between the two is the 809 03 20 has a closed top, the 809 04 20 has an open top. I say the Wiking is a 2CV6 because the time period they claim for their model begins after the introduction of the 602cc engine and ends after it became standard equipment. The Herpa models present something of a conundrum as all Charlestons were 2CV6s and all SPOTs were 2CV4s. The third model could be either as the rectangular headlamp period covered both.

I want to thank Garrett Rea for his help. Garrett is a fellow 1:87 model fan and expert on French cars. Another great source of information has been Will Rolt, an English 2CV fan (and owner). I highly recommend Will's Tin Snail web site:

Oddball's Autos has a Herpa 2CV6 Charleston, a Wiking 2CV6, a Wiking ID-19 and a Busch DS-19 in the inventory. The ID-19 and DS-19 are fascinating cars, especially the legendary DS-19 "Goddess," and Busch makes an excellent model, but that's a subject for another time.

- Bill Cawthon

Bill Cawthon is an award-winning modeller and collector. His primary modeling interests are model railroading and vehicle models in 1:87 and 1:160 scales. He has written numerous articles for regional and division NMRA publications and is a contributor to the newsletter of the 1-87 Vehicle Club. He follows both the automobile industry and the European scale vehicle industry.

In real life, Bill is a full-time marketing and public relations consultant for the high-tech industry. He lives in Houston, Texas with his wife and four children.

Bill writes bi-weekly for Promotex Online. To learn more about him, click here.


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