Pierre-Jules Boulanger conceived of the TPV (toute petite voiture = small little car) shortly after he came to Citroën in 1935. His vision for the vehicle was to motorize rural French farmers who were still largely using horses and carts at the time.
In 1939, he successfully launched 250 prototypes just before France declared war on Germany on August 28 that year. Since production lines were immediately rededicated for military efforts, it wasn’t until 1948 that the formal introduction of the 2CV occurred at the Paris Auto Show.
The design team included Flaminio Bertoni, whose automobile designs of the time were likened by many to sculpture. He was an art lover who admired Michelangelo’s and da Vinci’s work, and he was both and artist and sculpter in his own right too. Bertoni joined Citroën in 1932 and personally designed the look of the TPV / 2CV.
2CV quite literally means two steam horses (“deux chevaux-vapeur”). It had an easily serviced 375cc air cooled engine, low fuel consumption and a very smooth ride, even on unpaved roads. The light off-road capability and the very flexible suspension system were said to be capable of crossing a plowed field with a basket of eggs in the trunk without any breaking. Another unique feature was the full width rollback canvas sunroof which would accommodate oversized loads.
When WWII broke out, Citroën didn’t want the concept car to fall into the hands of Nazis so several were buried at secret locations, one was disguised as a pickup and the rest were destroyed. In fact it was believed that only two original prototypes survived and were found again until three more were discovered in a barn in 1994.
Lightweight aluminum body work (corrugated to increase strength whilst keeping it as thin as possible) was used in the initial prototypes, but after the War aluminium prices skyrocketed and Citroën had to resort back to thin steel bolted to the dual H-frame chassis and aircraft-style tube framework.
In 1953, an Autocar technical review named 2CV to be the most original design for a car since the Ford Model T. Since Michelin owned Citroën, it also took the opportunity to roll out its new radial tire which became commercialized with the introduction of the 2CV.
2CV was popular and had staying power. Between 1948 and 1990 over 3.8 million 2CVs were produced along with over 1.2 million small 2CV delivery vans (Fourgonnettes). Shortly after the 1948 introduction, the orders started flooding right in. Slow initial production capacity meant that within months there was a three-year waiting list which went up to five years eventually. In 1951 production was ramped up to 100 cars a week to meet demand.
Throughout the rollout, Boulanger decreed that ‘priority is given to those who have to travel by car because of their work, and for whom ordinary cars are too expensive to buy’ meaning doctors, vets and small farmers’ cars were fast-tracked.
Alas, I think this beautiful car has all the charm of its historic roots. Its sleek design is timeless, which probably has something to do with why it was in manufacturing production for over 42 years.
Our photograph of the timeless two-tone Vieux 2CV has a dreamy quality to it as a result of using soft focus and black and white.