It may be 18 years since the 2CV went out of production, but its charm has never gone out of fashion.
‘Umbrella on wheels’
In 1948, when the Deux Chevaux first appeared at the Paris car show, it was hard for motoring enthusiasts to get excited about this odd-looking little car. It had one headlight, no starter motor and even its own designer, Pierre Jules Boulanger, admitted it looked like an umbrella on wheels.
It was originally destined as a cheap country round-around for farmers, designed to be able to carry four people (or sheep) and a basket of eggs across a ploughed field without breaking any shells… or indeed bones. But its cheapness meant that the low-income segment of the French population could afford one, and soon there was a waiting list of five years.
Economical on fuel, cheap to repair with an almost indestructible air-cooled engine and with a comically soft suspension that made it springy enough to bump along off road, the 2CV was the perfect family holiday car. Its removable back seats handily doubled up as a picnic bench.
‘Symbol of France’
These days it is fairly rare to see this most quintessentially French vehicle trundling along the roads. But in Paris, a fleet of 2CVs offers sightseeing trips to tourists.
Florent Dargnies, who runs such tours, says the Deux Chevaux is the epitome of Gallic charm. “The 2CV is a symbol of France, I mean like the Eiffel Tower or the French baguette,” Mr Dargnies says.
“When you are in a 2CV you escape. It is an experience in itself. It’s an adventure, and you feel like you’re in a cosy cocoon.”
France celebrated the 60th anniversary of the 2CV in 2008 with a special exhibition of the car at the Cite des Sciences et de L’industrie in Paris. The fascinating display took the visitor through the birth of the Deux Chevaux, with one of the five remaining examples of an abandoned early production run from 1939, and followed the car through its numerous renaissances and modifications.
Only five million 2CV cars were ever sold, but no-one knows how many people were 2CV owners – the little car was so tough that it rarely needed repairs and was the perfect hand-me-down vehicle.
Perhaps, its indestructibility was its downfall – a car which never needed spare parts was not going to make big profits for manufacturers. Its lack of vroom also became a bit of problem in the modern age of speed.
The standing 2CV joke was that it managed to do 0 to 60km/h (37mph) in one day.
I remember driving with my French friend Francoise in our university holidays in Devon – her 2CV happily took us to the beach but – at the first sign of a hill – I had to get out and help push her up.
The Deux Chevaux is often unfairly accused, however, of earning its name because it only had a two-horse power capacity – in fact it had an eight-chevaux capacity and its name refers to the very low tax category into which it fell.
Mr Audran will not hear a word said against his favourite French car. He has been all over Europe in his various 2CVs, and this summer is off to attend a 2CV convention in Italy.
What other car, he asks me, can do 40 miles (64km) to the gallon, has a soft top and never suffers from electrical faults?
His friend, he boasts, has even carried his donkey in his 2CV with its head sticking out of the roof. Jeremy Clarkson may laugh (he wrote it off as a “weedy, useless little engine”) but the truth is that the humble Deux Chevaux – designed to replace the horse and cart for farmers – revolutionised the French motor industry.
This article was first published on the BBC News website, Saturday 16 August 2008.