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Citroen Celebrates 60 Years of the 'Tin Snail'

April 15th, 2008

Citroen is celebrating the 60th birthday of one of the world’s most influential small cars, the Citroen 2CV which was not just a spectacular success its own right, but which also set the layout for generations of small cars to follow – monocoque construction, front-engined, front wheel drive, a light use of materials and fuel and excellent space utilisation – unlike other small cars of the same era.


Although production of the Citroen 2CV, nicknamed the ‘Tin Snail’ because of its distinctive shape, has long since ceased, its spirit lives on the Citroen C-Cactus, the concept car shown last year designed to set new standards for low fuel consumption, minimal use of materials, but still comfortable, spacious and flexible.


Equally, the Citroen 2CV, along with the Citroen DS and Citroen Traction Avant, are seen as quintessentially French cars, as much a part of French culture and the world wide image of France as the Eiffel Tower, the baguette and now French street scene is complete without at least one of these distinctive and unique cars!


Citroen’s celebrations are centred on display at the Paris Museum of Science and Industry the venue was chosen deliberately because although the display is a nostalgia-tinted homage to the good old ‘Tin Snail’ is firmly focused on the car’s innovative spirit. Innovation is inscribed in Citroën’s DNA, as illustrated by the recent C-Cactus concept car, which will be joining the 2CV at the exhibition.


The 2CV and C-Cactus represent two different eras with different social, economic and environmental issues. But they were inspired by the same concern: how to do more with less.


In both cases Citroën responded to this question by using fewer parts, reducing the weight and the price of the vehicle and cutting fuel consumption. By doing so, Citroen was able to produce a vehicle accessible to the greatest number of owners while scoring high marks on quality, styling and travelling comfort.


But while the design brief for the 2CV called for “a car able to cross a ploughed field with a basket of eggs on the seat without breaking any of them”, C-Cactus was designed to consume the least fuel possible while respecting the environment.


The rise of the mass car ownership in France, as with the rest of Europe, in the mid-1930s made the time ripe for a “vehicle for the people”. Designers in engineering offices across the continent were working on a light and economical model that would be cheaper than the other cars of the period.


At Citroën, Pierre Boulanger was working on a project called TPV (for “Très Petite Voiture” or very small car). Citroen wanted to develop a car that was economical to manufacture, use and maintain – and sold at unrivalled low prices. The idea was to offer customers automotive essentials: four seats, a top speed of 50 kmh, 100 km on 5 litres of petrol, and low production and maintenance costs. Fiat had just launched its 500 Topolino. So Citroën had to work fast.


The vehicle was homologated by the French government vehicle testing service on 23 August 1939 under the 2CV A name. But the advent of World War II just several days later, on 3 September, put the car’s future on hold. The 2CV A was hidden away during the war, especially from the prying eyes of the Germans, who were developing their own “people’s car”, the Volkswagen Beetle.


The original production 2CV A was so well hidden, in fact, that it was only rediscovered by chance in 1968, when work was being done at Citroën’s La Ferté Vidame test track. The car they found was a real production model, not a prototype. Out of the 100 models that went into pre-war production, only four are left today, including another one found buried under a tree. All of them are conserved in Citroën’s collection, one of which is on show at the exhibition.


The public, meanwhile, had to wait another ten years for the 2CV. Citroën finally pulled off the wraps at the 1948 Paris Motor Show. The delay mainly resulted from the war and the subsequent shortage in raw materials, but also from obsolescent post-war machinery and the system of government planning that ascribed a specific vehicle category to each manufacturer. So 1948 was the real kick-off year for the 2CV. And despite the mockery of journalists, who found its performance and finish wanting, the post-war public couldn’t get enough of this economical vehicle – to the point that waiting lists were as long as five years.


Citroën released the 2CV van (AU) in 1951, which arguably was the precursor for all of today’s car-derived vans, epitomised by the Citroen Berlingo. In 1956 the 2CV AZL debuted, a luxury version with a wide, rectangular rear window and canvas roof. The range-topping 2CV AZAM launched in 1966 offered even more luxury. The offering was further broadened in 1970 with the 2CV4 and 2CV6, with top speeds above 100 km/h.


Citroën went on to organise several 2CV rally raids, including the famous Paris-Kabul event. In 1981, it launched the Charleston, the best known of all the “starlets” and still perhaps the best remembered 2CV model, along with the high performance version that featured in a James Bond film with Bond evading his pursuers thanks to the little Citroen. But in the end, regulatory constraints, anti-pollution standards and crash-testing tolled the bell for the 2CV. Production in France ended in February 1989 and at 4 pm on 27 July 1990, the last new 2CV rolled off the production line, at the Mangualde plant in Portugal. A total 5,114,959 2CVs were produced worldwide.


Today, the entire Citroën range is informed by this tradition of innovation,  from the C1 to the C6, via the recent C-Crosser, C4 Picasso and C5 – is the richest and most modern in Citroën’s history. Rich, for the way it responds to increasingly diverse customer requirements. And modern, for its ability to adapt to the latest automotive trends, particularly in terms of safety and the environment.


Citroën is one of today’s most environmental carmakers thanks to its ambitious policy in this area. In Europe, one out of every four Citroën vehicles sold emits 120 g/km of CO2 or less, and half emit 140 g/km or less. Citroën also leads the market – for the fifth consecutive year – in terms of average CO2 emissions.

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