4 February 2014

The big story of a tiny little car

As Vice President, Collection & Research, at the Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation in the capital city of Ottawa, Claude Faubert is in regular contact with one of the country's most important assortment of historic vehicles. That's because in his day-to-day job, he is involved in the development and preservation of a collection and archives that comprise 160 rare vintage cars, trucks and motorcycles; 15,000 automotive documents; and 8,000 period ads.
But for the last 40 years, the man harbored a secret wish: to have an antique automobile of his own. Which sounds totally understandable, of course, particularly when you're surrounded by so many tantalizing examples in the workplace — a situation reminiscent, it seems, of the proverbial cobbler's child. During those four decades of discreet coveting, Claude's affection was squarely directed at one and only one model: the quirky-looking Citroën 2CV, which had stolen his heart long ago in France. Eventually, his wish became known by family members, including sons Patrick and Jean-Pascal, as he would often spend time researching, or searching for, the object of desire while gathering miniature replicas of it — solace in small packages.

The 2-Chevaux (pronounced: duh shuvo) is one of those amazing French inventions that, from 1948 to 1990, captured the imagination of buyers the world over. As the story goes, the Michelin family corporation had taken over the bankrupt Citroën group in the mid-’30s. With Pierre Michelin at the helm, right-hand man Pierre-Jules Boulanger was tasked with creating the cheapest and most dependable car ever built, an idea that had been germinating in his mind for many years. Drawing on the expertise of colleagues André Lefebvre and Flaminio Bertoni (yes, him), he saw to it that various prototypes were assembled in complete secrecy.

This unique vehicle had to carry four passengers, plus 110 pounds of potatoes, at 40 mph, over a distance of 60 miles, on 3 liters of gas (roughly 80 mpg). A farmer should be able to drive it with cloggs on and enough headroom ought to be provided for his straw hat. It was crucial that the car's suspension allow the driver to bring a basket of eggs in the trunk across a plowed field with none showing cracks upon arrival.

The TPV (Toute Petite Voiture or “tiny little car”) was to be readied for the Paris Motor Show of October 1939. Unfortunately, with WWII breaking out a month earlier, things came to a grinding halt. The plans and prototypes were later requisitioned by the occupying Nazis. But Boulanger, now company CEO after the tragic car accident death of Pierre Michelin in 1937, held firm. He even made sure that any existing specimen got buried away or destroyed altogether. The TPV finally made its public debut at the 1948 Paris Motor Show to widespread criticism by the press, much of it derisive. “Does it come with a can opener?” a journalist asked.

But frugality had become the “in” thing and the people prevailed, flocking in droves around this singular new design. The 2CV became such hot property that it could take more than five years to receive one on order, unless you were a doctor, parish priest or farmer. A used model was more expensive than buying new, just because you would get it faster. Merely 100,000 of the 2 million French pre-war cars remained on the road, so Citroën's timing was perfect to push the cheapest ($650) and most dependable car on the planet to a rural audience, one of its main niche markets.

The 2CV's body hardly changed much over time, except for subtle trim modifications and updates on the engine, transmission and brakes. The car sold extensively in Europe, Africa, South America and the Middle East, while featuring in some 35 movies and on 18 postage stamps. Few if any automobiles can claim such fame. Yet, none endured so many nasty nicknames wherever it went, including: “the ugly duckling,” “snail,” “frog,” “tin can” or “flying rag top” in the U.S. Despite an international current of mockery, the tiny little car just kept on growing, as numerous models got developed by the manufacturer. Among them: utilitarians such as the Sahara and Fourgonnette van; the colorful Charleston and Dolly; and various more “luxurious” editions of the AZ line.

Which brings us back to the incredible story of Claude's all-original 1966 2CV AZAM, seen here in Etna Gray. Unbeknownst to him, his boys decided in spring 2013 to do something extra special for their dad's upcoming 65th birthday and offer him his dream car as a post-retirement project. After months of unsuccessful searching/researching, they decided to phone their uncle Jeff, an English teacher living in Saint-Etienne (France) for advice. Answer from across the pond: “I happen to have one, right here, right now.” Strange, the two boys thought. As it turns out, their uncle, acting on behalf of a friend, had shaken hands on a 2CV deal from a local collector — that very same day! Except Jeff was suddenly stuck with the car when said friend informed him he had just bought one, literally hours before. All agreed this astounding twist of fate proved impeccably fortuitous, though bizarre in the extreme. It was then a matter of having the vehicle shipped all the way from south eastern France via the Port of Rotterdam, to that of Montreal, and onto home base in Ottawa.

So last November, Claude was literally thunderstruck when he opened his garage door one morning to find the tiny little car just sitting there, staring at him. Thanks to the resourcefulness and generosity of his loving sons, the cobbler's child finally has shoes of his own, rubber soles and all, to indulge his long-neglected passion. Which gives new meaning to the old idiom “where the rubber meets the road” for the most grateful of dads who can now cruise along in a French icon that continues to defy fashion, culture and time.

19 Reader Comments

  • 1
    Reed San Diego February 5, 2014 at 18:48
    Great story. I too longed for a 2CV for decades and finally found one in 2011. A rebuilt engine and transmission later, it is my daily commuter car (a rag-top is easy to do in SoCal). I have never worked on a car so simple yet so cleverly designed.
  • 2
    thomas freund mendocino, ca February 12, 2014 at 13:29
    i was lucky to obtain one in baltimore thanks to m. fournet 30 years ago and have it as daily driver for my 87 year old bones. finally replaced tires and windshield wiper blades 3 years ago.
  • 3
    Peter Berkeley February 12, 2014 at 13:33
    Neat article, thank you. I have one small correction referring to the designer. I'm not sure what "Yes, him" means but Flaminio Bertoni, the designer of the Traction Avant, 2CV, DS, and Ami6 frequently gets confused with Nuccio Bertone. Both were Italian but only one worked for Citroen. (Though the XM,which arrived much, much later was designed by Bertone.) Details can be found here, http://designmuseum.org/design/flaminio-bertoni and here, http://www.automotivehalloffame.org/inductee/nuccio-bertone/725/
  • 4
    Julian Marsh UK February 12, 2014 at 13:35
    Great article although never heard about the clogs before. They tended to be worn by Dutch and Belgian countryfolk. And the nicknames were affectionate rather than nasty. If you want to know more about these fantastic cars go to http://www.citroenet.org.uk/passenger-cars/michelin/2cv/2cv-index.html
  • 5
    Chris Pittsburgh February 12, 2014 at 14:22
    I have a 1963 2CV that I owned when I lived in France and brought it home with me in 1995. There is nothing like the sound of a 2CV whether you or inside it or watching it go by. People stop, smile and wave when you drive by. It has a pretty amazing affect on people. It is hilarious to drive too! So underpowered, slow and bouncy but yet what a joy to drive!
  • 6
    RIck Medford, Oregon February 12, 2014 at 15:28
    When I was stationed in Orleans France from 1965-67, these little cars were all over the place. We GIs marveled at how hard they could be driven without tipping over! Ugly as sin, but reliable as ever, the French loved them. Nice to see one find such a good home.
  • 7
    R Cameron London Canada February 12, 2014 at 15:49
    The best engineering results in the simplest products - the 2CV, the BMW Boxer, the original Mini among others come to mind.
  • 8
    Bernard Siegal Dallas, Texas February 12, 2014 at 17:33
    Well written and researched article. Amazing how my 1985 2CV is almost identical except for the bumpers and trim on the outside. It is a nice day in Dallas, I just had to give my 2cv a hug.
  • 9
    Richard Bonfond United States February 12, 2014 at 20:03
    Great story and how nice of Claude's sons. I grew up with the make and still drive one today, have had many 2CV but currently in a DS... There is nothing like them... Superb!
  • 10
    Ann Walnut Creek, CA February 13, 2014 at 00:11
    I picked up a 2CV in Paris in 1966 and toured continental Europe for nearly 3 months. One memorable experience was a very steep mountain pass in Italy in which the 2CV absolutely could not make it. Reliable car except for that experience. Good to hear that this car is sought after by some. This story was heartwarming.
  • 11
    Bruce O. United States February 14, 2014 at 16:30
    I spent two years in France between '72 and '74. I got to ride in a couple of 2CVs. The streets were full of them in all variants. I can't get that sound out of my head! Two cylinders boxing each other. Aaaarrgh! It's driving me crazy. R. Cameron: Lotus Seven?
  • 12
    Greg D Bismarck ND February 15, 2014 at 00:02
    Don't forget the GI term "cigarette roller"....... :) My wife (Alsatian by birth, French by nationality) tells me the footwear of choice in rural Alsace was wooden shoes (clogs)! In our regular trips back, we have noted a continuing increased resurgence in roadworthy examples - dusted off and used again!
  • 13
    Frank S. Charlotte, N.C. February 17, 2014 at 12:50
    I'll always remember this car because it was in one of my very favorite movies...Richard Dreyfuss drove one in "American Graffiti".
  • 14
    Jason Texas February 19, 2014 at 20:34
    I owned a 2cv (duck) while living in germany. Next to an E-type, it was the best crumpet catcher known to man! We loved using the lug wrench to start the little 2 cylinder at parties as a joke. Watching the girls handle the bent stick shift gear lever coming out of the dash was a sight you'd never soon forget.
  • 15
    Carl "Erbie" Erb Monroeville, PA February 22, 2014 at 22:54
    What a great story!!! I can not possibly imagine the joy in Claud's heart when he opened his garage door!!! I have such joy because I am the proud owner of a 15CV Traction Avant just like the one I owned over 50 years ago while a U.S. Soldier stationed in France. I long to own another Citroen and the 2CV might just win out over a "DS" series
  • 16
    Diane Tennessee April 27, 2014 at 00:22
    We had a 2cv in the late 60s when our children were small. Sometimes I'd drive on the interstate, top speed 67 mph on a downhill grade. The truck drivers would honk and wave (and laugh). Occasionally, I see one now in Germany and I always wish it were mine.
  • 17
    Alain Mouellic New westminster May 16, 2014 at 21:49
    Great article. I am myself the owner of a 1981 2CV
  • 18
    Jim LaFortune antioch, IL December 28, 2014 at 00:28
    got our "Duck" from M. fornet 31 years ago. Picked up in Baltimore also. Couldn't have had a nicer, cleaner transaction. Michelle was in Baltimore and cleared the car through customs & picked us up at the airport. We spent several days around the area before proceeding home to Illinois. Car is our favorite smiles per mile vehicle. We have a 56 Porsche Speedster & it doesn't get half the attention as "Patito".
  • 19
    Carlos S. S. Plainfield NJ November 1, 2016 at 20:43
    Very good article.I have own Dolly for almost seven years. Many times I heard a "what a happy car!" comment. Its design and technology should be curriculum at every Engineering School. I also own a quite rare Porsche 911, but no one ever stop to ask "What car is THAT? So cute"...

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