Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territories – Hundreds of miles north of the Arctic Circle, in the dead of winter, travellers are few but well-prepared. They drive heavy trucks, laden with supplies and cold-weather gear. You might see some peripatetic Germans in a Unimog, or perhaps a Ford SuperDuty with a camper on the back. A bright-red French car with a face like a happy snail gives you pause.
Finding a 1985 Citroën 2CV in the Arctic is like happening upon a beret-wearing polar walking upright with a bundle of baguettes. It's as absurd as a Magritte painting, and gets even weirder when you see the Chinese script on the side. And the Union Jack. Is that a child's car seat, too?
This is no ordinary French people's car; it’s been the Luo family's home for two years. Having left the United Kingdom in April of 2017, it has driven down through Croatia, up to the Baltics, through Finland, Slovakia, Russia, Mongolia, China, then shipped to the U.S. and driven up through Canada, over to Alaska, and back through the Northwest Territories and into the Arctic. At time of writing, it is somewhere in Utah, headed inland and then southwards on the way down towards Argentina.
Chang Luo, his wife Jie Ding, and little Yuding (aged four) are sturdy and experienced roadtrippers. While living in China, Chang and Jie drove their Citroën C5 from Shanghai to Tibet and back, a 10,000-mile experience he describes as “not very long.” He is an engineer by trade, later moving to the UK to work for Delphi and working specifically on the design of electronic control modules in automotive applications.
“The 2CV doesn't really have any electronic components,” he points out, “I don't know if it's like taking a break from work, I just find it really charming. I bought it in December of 2014, and we used it as a daily driver in the UK.”
Produced for a staggering 42 years, not counting the early prototypes, the 2CV is both enduring and endearing. There is genius in its simplicity, delightful weirdness, and it is immediately recognizable. Rather famously, it was built to ferry four people and 110 pounds of farm goods to market, while being capable of crossing a plowed field at a decent clip while carrying a basket of eggs—without breaking any.
Counting the fourgonnette delivery vans, some five million 2CVs were produced in total. Add in the mechanically similar Ami, Dyane, Acadiane, and Mehari, and you've got nearly nine million of these French oddballs roaming the planet.
No vehicle more emblematic of France. The prototype TPVs were successfully hidden from the invading German army in WWII, and three were forgotten in a barn until 1994. 2CVs appeared in film and popular culture, from Tintin to James Bond. One showed up in a Douglas Adams novel, where it was referred to as “the alleged car.”
The 2CV has a following nearly everywhere. Chang expresses his surprise at finding Citroën clubs in the farthest-flung corners of the world, and his gratitude at how welcoming they all are.
“The fans were a major part of the trip,” he says, “I would say the highlight. They hosted us, everywhere from Eastern Europe, Russia, and now in Seattle,” he says. “I was also surprised how many ordinary people know the 2CV, even though Citroen hasn't been in North America since 1974. Everywhere we went, even in the arctic, people would come up and say, 'Deux chevaux! Deux chevaux! Can I take a picture with your car?'”
After arriving in North America, the Luo family realized that the Mackenzie ferry crossing (gateway to the Dempster Highway and thus the Arctic) wouldn't be open in November. Undeterred, they travelled up anyway, and spent a week or so traipsing around Alaska and the rest of the region. The little 2CV shrugged off the elements, its cookie-cutter tires biting deep into the snow. The family didn't even need an auxiliary heater.
Chang further reports that his 2CV has been near-flawless for the 25,000 miles conquered so far. A side-of-the-road plastic fan blade replacement and a box bracket repair in Mongolia are so far the only fixes necessary.
As they travel, Jie Ding has been blogging about their experience for Chinese websites and forums. The work goes towards raising funds to educate disabled children in rural China. By the end of their two years, they hope to have covered some 50,000 miles.
“I don't think I will stop there,” Chang says, when asked about his future plans. When he returns to the UK, it'll be back to work at the office, but the wanderlust remains.
“Perhaps next,” he says slowly, “We can can go and discover Africa.”