1950s Citroen 2CV, Wikimedia

When simple design becomes trendsetting

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Automotive design takes many forms and is a fickle business, with last year's great thing quickly becoming this years butt of the joke. One example from 64 years ago highlights how a simple focus on one goal can be trendsetting and result in one of the most long-lived and highest-production vehicles of all time.

In 1948, at the Paris Salon show, the automotive world was thrown on its ear as what was to become one of the world's most iconic, best-selling, and longest-running production cars was debuted. At the time, of course, no one knew any of this and just saw a really odd, aesthetically questionable car being unveiled at a car show by a company that had just gone through the financial equivalent of the death and rebirth of today's Detroit giants after the bailouts.

That car was a design aimed at one very specific goal and it made that goal so well that it brought innovations that changed automotive for decades to come. It's goal was not to be pretty, nor to be fast, nor powerful, or even luxurious. Those are common goals for auto design and common goals rarely produce uncommon results. Instead, the singular goal that the newly-hatched Citroën had for its new design was this: get French farmers to finally give up their horse and buggies and buy a car instead.

Laughable? Maybe today it seems so, but in post-war France, there were still more horses and carts than cars and trucks on the roads. It was the equivalent of getting Americans today to give up gasoline cars in favor of more efficient, but higher-cost diesel alternatives. Culturally and economically, it was a hard sell. Turns out, the only mistake that Citroën made was in assuming that horse-and-buggy farmers were their target market. Their real market was the whole of Europe, because by the time it ended production in 1990, the 2CV had become the best-selling car with the longest production run ever to be seen.

The 2CV had a total production of just about 4 million cars (including its 1.24 million Fourgonnettes delivery an offshoot) and spawned spinoffs that were mechanically the same vehicle that had another 3.6 million units between them. Over 8.7 million total 2CV's were made with many still on the road today, especially in its home country of France. These numbers don't include its 1985 revival edition, the Dolly.

Yet anyone looking at the car would think "Wow.. what an ugly contraption."


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I highly recommend everyone to drive at least once a Deux Cheveaux. It's an experience! No roll bars, and once you've successfully negotiated the dosage of accelerator and bouncing of the car, it stabilizes into a fun drive. They used to have contests to see who could overturn one. It has no torsion bars! It's practically impossible, save for running it down a hill at top speed and doing the sharpest turn you can manage... and even then, it was a very difficult matter. The car is hailed as running forever as long as you have a screwdriver, pliers and ropes. In fact is was clipped together! There was even a Doctor who manage to fit an engine on the back of one making it a 4x4. It's sad and normal to see how cars have changed. While security has improved, I welcome better brakes and better tires. I'm not crazy about the added weight, muffled feel and lack of feedback that have made cars a convenience that remove you from the fact you are driving a multi-ton iron on wheels contraption. What ever happened to the original Civic that got close to 54mpg compared to the new hybrid that does less? Maybe I'm just getting older :)
I personally miss the days of the land yacht. I'm a big station wagon guy and also a fan of big do-it-all machines like the pre-90's Unimog. Which is one of the reasons I like the 2. Even with that tiny little engine, the car was so light and soft that it could go just about anywhere and do almost anything - albeit not on the Autobahn. The skinny tires on this car were amazingly grippy, I'm told, but most of the surviving 2CV's have had larger wheels put on them to fit more modern tires. I actually stood up with my head out of the roof and steered while standing on the throttle in one of these. And you're right, you'll never flip one over without a jack.