The Way to Rusty Death

The 2CV and French Drivers

Why is the unsafe, unreliable and environmentally unfriendly Citroën 2CV held in such esteem by the French? Is it because they are such bad drivers they are not qualified to notice?

The 2CV (deux chevaux – literally "two horses", from the French tax horsepower rating, cheval vapeur) is the most popular French car made. Over forty years of production, it became as much a national icon as Edith Piaf. Like her, it was small, noisy and prone to breakdown. 

The car was conceived in the early 1930s by Pierre Boulanger, then head of Citroën, as a low-priced, rugged “umbrella on wheels” that would let two French peasants in clogs drive 50 kilos of potatoes to market at 30 kilometres an hour on unpaved roads and use no more than three litres of petrol per 100 kilometres. Boulanger also insisted that the roof be raised to allow him to drive while wearing a hat. 

Development was delayed by the Second World War, While Renault, the other giant French car manufacturer, eagerly put its plants in France at the service of the Third Reich (and, as a result, got itself confiscated by the state after the war), Citroën hid its five 2CV prototypes from the Germans by burying them in pits of pig manure. 

Finally dug up and hosed down, the bug-eyed, hump-backed car was unveiled at the 1948 Paris Auto Salon to ridicule by the press (one chippy reporter asking “Does it come with a can opener?”). The joke was on them since Citroën sold five million of the 2CV and its variants until production stopped in 1990.

The French are proud of this accomplishment but the truth of the 2CV’s success is best summed up by journalist Jonathan Fenby: “it was not just plug ugly, it was dirt cheap”. After the war, the European economy was in chaos and petrol was rationed. In France, the 2CV was the only car the majority of the population could afford, and, thanks to generous state subsidy, “cost not much more than a box of cigars” (according to Mechanics Illustrated in 1965). 

Mechanically, it was not as advanced as the VW Beetle with its air-cooled, flat-four, rear-mounted engine which sold 21 million worldwide. By comparison, the 2CV’s first engine was a notoriously underpowered 375 cc design that its creator, Walter Becchia, had copied from a BMW boxer motorcycle. 

Within months of its launch, there was a three-year waiting list not because it was very popular but because the Paris factory could only make four a day (in the same year, Chrysler’s Warren Avenue plant was churning out 750 cars every week).

Even today, the 2CV is held in peculiar affection, and not just by bearded geography teachers and anti-nuclear protesters who seem to make up its core market. In 2002, L'Automobile, the highly respected French motoring magazine voted it “Car of the Century”, praising “its safety, reliability and environmental friendliness”. In reality, the 2CV was none of these things.

Safety. Much is made of the car’s lightweight structure (the first models weighed only 600 pounds, less than half a Model T Ford) as its prime safety feature. On impact with heavier vehicles, the 2CV should simply be pushed away. In 1976, crash tests conducted by German car magazine Auto Motor und Sport showed that in most head-on collisions the car’s hood compresses, protecting the passenger cabin. However, the 2CV’s unique fixed steering column also pushes towards the driver with the risk of impaling him like a bug. In side-on impacts (the most common sort of impact), the flimsy 2CV fared worse. The US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration gave the 2CV a one star rating for side-impact protection (ie a driver and passengers had a 26% chance or greater of requiring hospitalisation after a side-impact). 

Reliability. The most impressive legend of the 2CV is its reliability. Impressive, because it wasn’t. While competitors cars like the Mini and the VW Beetle are rated by Top Gear magazine as requiring repairs only every 100,000 miles, something goes wrong with the 2CV every 20,000 miles with the most serious problems due to rust. 2CVsRus, a specialist US dealer in the make, has to warn potential customers: “The frame gets its strength from the structure of folded sheet metal. The rust always starts from the inside. Once rust holes appear on the outside, the frame is unsafe to use! Remember: The frame is the backbone of the car. When this part is rusted away, you are an endangered species driving this car!” Corrosion is a problem because of the recurrent strike action at Citroën’s strike-prone Paris plant which led to slapdash finishing on its production line (during the 80s, an embarrassed Citroën offered a free goodwill rust-proofing to all existing customers). 

Environmentally Friendly. The popular image of the 2CV chugging through the French countryside, driven by a friendly farmer carrying a bale of hay to his sheep, has contributed to the idea of the 2CV as an environmentally clean car. In fact, a modern Sports Utility Vehicle is cleaner to the environment than a 2CV. While the 600cc engines of the later models still managed 56 miles to the gallon, their exhausts emit a 300% higher hydrocarbon output than a SUV. The “ugly duckling” was designed before the days of emission regulations. 

How could even the French fall so deeply in love with such a deeply flawed car? Perhaps, being the most dangerous drivers in Europe, they are not qualified to notice.

France has the highest number of annual automobile deaths in the European Union, around 8000 every year. A succession of governments have launched campaigns to cut the number in half (which would then just about fall to the current figure of UK fatalities). In 1987, a French government minister revealed the official attitude as supine and indifferent: “We mustn’t annoy the French with speed limits and seat belts”. 

But in 2002, the the prime minister, Pierre Raffarin, announced yet another initiative to curb his nation’s speed-junky drivers. It involved installing automatic cameras on all the autoroutes, satellite monitoring for arrested speeders and the implementation of a new “highway patrol”. 

“Road safety must become a national priority. It will demand a massive collective effort on the part of the French people, but also a proper sense of personal responsibility", said the minister of the interior, Nicholas Sarkozy. "Speeding and drunk-driving are crimes like any others, we cannot say it loudly enough". Sarko’s ‘get-tough-on speeding’ campaign lost a little impetus when he himself was pulled over for travelling 60 kmh over the speed limit in his government limousine while on the way to the 2006 Tour De France.

Nearly 60% of traffic fines in France are never paid. In a recent survey, most drivers insisted the country's generally excellent roads were "the most important cause" of traffic accidents in France, rather than speeding or alcohol. 

In 2005, after the failure of the “Yes” campaign to win the referendum on the European Constitution, President Chirac dismissed Raffarin and the campaign faded with him. The automatic cameras were challenged in the courts by civil liberties groups, the satellite monitoring was deemed too expensive by the justice ministry and the interior ministry quashed the idea of the highway patrols which did not want another police force it did not control.


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