Against All Oddities: Mantras for a 33-hp commuter car

Just breathe. Merge lane ahead. Matthew Anderson

Matthew Anderson is an American engineer who relocated to Germany a few years ago for work. He’s back now, but his baffling pursuit of unexceptional and oddball cars continues. We don’t ask him too many follow-up questions.

My daily driver at the moment has less output than a top-of-the-line zero turn lawnmower. Let me tell you, 33 horsepower requires a different kind of driving attitude. For one, I find myself praying more often. Not to any deity in particular as much as the universe at large. Certain mantras tame the fear of getting squeezed out of merge lanes, and they seem to help defrost the windshield faster. Or am I just imagining things?

I never intended to use my 1972 Citroën Ami 8 this way. The newest and most comfortable car in my stable is a 2003 Ford Taurus SES. Plans to get my wife’s Studebaker road-ready went awry, so she’s commandeered the Ford for the foreseeable future. After determining that neither my Moskvich nor my Wohnmobil were, uh, optimal commuter vehicles, my options dwindled.

Slow but therapeutic, the Ami ekes 33-cheveaux out of 602 cubic centimeters. Over the years it’s carried me 15,000 miles at a pace that demands zen-like patience. Here’s what I’ve learned driving it to and from work this spring:

1972 citroen ami 8 rust
A portrait of the Ami showcasing its most weather-tight quarter. Matthew Anderson

Go placidly amid the mayhem

Each morning and evening, I commute either 25 or 38 miles each way, depending on which office I need to visit. This amounts to roughly 45 minutes or so of underpowered Citroën boxer thrumming. Its rhythmic resonances are loud but oddly calming. The motor is ambivalent to your inputs, it just presses on like an ocean current, doing what it can.

1972 citroen ami 8 windshield
BE the defrost. Matthew Anderson

Driving this particular Ami feels like piloting a motorcycle from inside an enclosed sidecar. With no real heat or defrost functionality, there are considerable smells, tingling extremities, and a keen awareness of weather conditions. Despite that, the interior is comfortable even when wind gusts threaten to send me across lanes and subtract from my top speed. The interior is open and airy, the seats well worn. Imagine dozing off in a recliner while looking out a single-pane glass window at the tornado going on outside. The cockpit of an Ami is something like that.

1972 citroen ami 8 seats
I promise, this is more comfortable than it looks. Matthew Anderson

Mind the gap

On my commute, I’ve noticed that the Broad Street ramp in my town of Statesville, North Carolina has a particularly tight radius. So much so that the Ami cannot safely slingshot me into the traffic stream of angry Chargers and zig-zagging straight-piped Silverados. The laid merge lane is over one full quarter mile long, but it’s all uphill, and thus too risky.

I usually head one exit down to a short-yet-level area that lets me build velocity to an acceptable level before attempting a merge onto the main road. Even that feels like a 50/50 dance with death, most of the time. How fast do I want to take this corner? How aggressively do I want to cut off this Chevy Equinox? How alive do I want to arrive at work? When I’m lucky, I do my best to cut off the lightest possible vehicle with the friendliest-looking occupants. Then I wave apologetically. Désolé pour mon Ami, mes amis!

Comparison is the thief of joy

Standstill takeoffs are not among the Ami’s strengths. I am but a speck at spotlights, and a speck I remain when the light turns green. Now awash in ever-growing crossovers, modern American motorists have purged from memory the existence of small, underpowered vehicles. The notion of one with an unsynchronized, manually crunched first gear is basically incomprehensible to them.

It’s like standing in front of the sliding doors at a midnight Black Friday sale for a hotly anticipated gaming console. Then, precisely at the moment when the doors slide open, you drop your phone. There’s no chance of making it to the register first, so you pretty much just let the crowd pass and try not to get trampled. 

Fuel economy, on the other hand, I will gladly brag about. I get FIFTY—as in five-zero—miles per precious gallon. Come at me, ye Raptors, and humble thyself before such efficiency!

Celebrate the wins

Maintenance is a good opportunity for a pat on one’s own back and good prep for the next outing. Basking in the success of a roadside repair is just as therapeutic as the journey itself, but, I generally advise preempting such disasters by partaking in regular preventative maintenance. This being a trusty 2CV-based vehicle, one doesn’t really need to worry about extensive wrenching hours. Take brake pads for example: What might be an hour or so in an American car is only about 9 minutes per side, even if you’re new to inboard Citroën brake service. All it takes is a long, dirty slotted screwdriver and decent vision (so wear eye protection!). Pro tip: An Ami oil change requires a special filter that’s actually easier to find if you tell the auto parts store that it’s for a Simca 1204. With regards to oil spend, 2 quarts just about does it. 

1972 citroen ami hood pop
So fast there was barely time for a photo. Matthew Anderson

Let’s not forget that good deals are worth cheering for, too. Parts are readily available online for downright cheap prices; for about $400 I was able to get replacement door cards, an emergency brake handle, a fuel pump, brake pads, and a few other bits-n-bobs. And … there is no cooling system to explode in traffic! Air-cooled for the win!

1972 citroen ami brake pads
I guess the fourth pad will reappear next time? Matthew Anderson

All is as it should be

My cat sits next to the Ami when it’s stashed in the barn, so I can only assume he approves of it. Still, I think the Citroën is better suited as a weekend classic than a commuter classic. My first commute in my newly imported Carina GT reminded me what a joy 20 valves, four throttle bodies, and functional heat can bring. The Citroën possesses more of that special je-ne-sais-quoi, but I think I’ll savor it more if I don’t have to hastily aim the car at a morning meeting in a 36-degree rainstorm.

Merci, mon Ami.

Matthew Anderson

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    While I do admire the more eccentric of the collectors, highway capable has always been a requirement

    That 90 on that speedo… is that mph or kph?

    Shockingly it’s in mph. I can’t say I’ve used all of it…just all but the last 4mph down a really long hill on 77.

    33 hp? A veritable powerhouse! My commuter–and over the road car (100,000 plus miles, 22 states, through the Rockies plus a round trip to Mexico City) in a 28 hp Renault 4CV.

    Amazing car! I literally laughed out loud when I read your Black Friday/Stop light drag analogy. I thought my 100 hp Speedster replica was slow off the line; but it’s utterly blistering by comparison to your 2CV. Much respect for braving the commute in the slow lane!

    Glad you enjoyed it! A Speedster rep is in the same speed category as a Hellcat in comparison to the Ami.

    Thrilling acceleration! You will be thrilled to achieve any speed! It’s interesting but I want to live.

    As someone who drove a 948 Bugeye Sprite on the freeway in California to and from many distant rallies, I will say “Amen!” to your behind-the-wheel prayer.

    The 70 hp plant in my Pontiac LeMans originally required 15.1 seconds to 60 with the 3 speed auto. I am curious how this car compares.

    Oooof, that’s slow. But I’m thinking the Ami is something around 27 seconds. Good for you for having one of those cars. They’re super cool in my opinion. Hatch or sedan?

    Hey my Smart Fortwo holds three and a half quarts of engine oil and I can change it with the wheels on the ground if I want to.

    Your on ramp adventure seems thrilling. Just about as thrilling as the time I mistakenly took an on ramp for I 80 in New Jersey in my 1957 Isetta 300. Man semis look tall when your driving an Isetta.

    I can’t even imagine what an interstate in an Isetta would feel like. Is probably have panic attack and call roadside assistance.

    I first saw Amis nearly 60 years ago, living in Paris for the year when I was in the Sixieme. I was 12, and I thought they were really dorky. I never imagined that driving them vicariously could be so much fun. Now I know! I may have to email your story to my older brother. He’s not a car guy, but he’ll probably appreciate it.

    Do you ever bring this to the Citroen Rendezvous near Saratoga Springs in New York?

    Please send it to him! I’m always interested to hear when non-car people enjoy this series. I haven’t been to the Rendezvous but one day I’d really love to get up there, maybe do a wine tour through the finger lakes too.

    Interestingly, this was posted the same week I took my Citroen 2CV6 on a roughly 250 mile round trip for a week-long work meeting (appropriately enough) in Paris……Tennessee.

    Despite terrible 20-30 mph headwinds on the trip to Paris and heavy rain on the way home to the opposite side of Nashvegas, the trip was mostly enjoyable and further proved my theory that late 2CVs and their derivatives are in “the sweet spot” of practical basic motoring.

    You wouldn’t want to be much slower or faster, the disc brakes are more than adequate, tiny “only on or off” windshield wipers, and the 125 profile Michelin Xs are quiet and smooth and surprisingly don’t seem susceptible to hydroplaning (can’t say the same about XASs on a previous DS21).

    Sure, synchromesh on the “twist left as you pull out” first would be nice, along with a bit more waterproofing, but I never felt I NEEDED anything more option or tech-wise (ABS, power steering…heck, even a blower fan) on the trip.

    Enjoy your Ami 8 (I learned to drive stick on an Ami 6 decades ago). Every commuter or at least every gear-head should commute for a while in a minimalist vehicle. It reminds you how much cars have progressed, yet on reflection, you wonder if all that “progression” is actually required?

    I really wonder that as well. How many features do we really need? Could we skip every advancement other than heated seats? Great story and I totally agree – everyone should try rudimentary transportation at least for a few weeks to keep us centered.

    Bless you for educating an increasingly boring public that taking a few extra seconds to smell the roses might actually slow the rat race but increase the point of our existence!
    I myself drive a Sprite and a 1939 Dodge truck and I count each trip that gets me home as a win. It’s funny how most of the newer “modern marvels” are painted black white or gray,(boring) but the older gems are pretty and scream out “I’m not going along with the disconnect program”, where paying attention could actually be a life or death choice.
    It’s nice to count each hill climbed as a minor victory!!

    I’m with you. A slow car in a loud color is ideal. By the way, my dad’s first car was a ’39 Dodge pickup. Good choice.

    The joy of a slow car driven at it’s limits can not be underestimated. Hoping into my Triumph Spitfire the top is lower than most truck tires, the speed is leisurely at best, but the pleasure/fear in piloting a street legal go-cart top down is so rewarding. In 2001 I used my Spitfire for a year on a 40 minute daily commute through the foothills of California. The commute became a series of experiences that I will never forget. Drive on and cherish the slow go moments!

    I commuted the 15 or 17 miles to work several times in my 20 HP Goggomobil TS400 Coupe, but was careful to stay off the 4-lane roads. It was almost always fun, if slow — an adventure that my “big car” (a Toyota Corolla) never equalled. Roadside repairs were a (usually quick) triumph each time, and maintenance was dead simple: “no water pump, no oil pump, no fuel pump” was my boast to the skeptics.

    You’re making me feel as though the 66 Amazon wagon i daily drive is now grossly overpowered!
    Slow car fast >> Fast car slow

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