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A taste of the future, in a car from the past

The last time I travelled in a Citroen 2CV, it was right at the beginning of my driving career. I was seventeen, and the venue was a stubble field in a nearby farm, where a group of my schoolfriends had gathered. We were all there in our first cars, and those with the least mechanical sympathy would thrash their steeds mercilessly on the bumpy dirt. Of the motley selection of near-scrap that had assembled, one machine stood head and shoulders above the others where it came to rough terrain prowess – a luridly coloured ‘Bamboo’ edition 2CV.

We each took it in turns to roll the Citroen, gathering as much momentum as possible, making steering inputs that were as vigorous and abrupt as we could. And, although some truly alarming lean angles were achieved, the Tin Snail was resolute on keeping its tyres in with the earth. Things might have been different on solid tarmac, but harsh treatment on this loose surface resulted only in understeer. In fact, the 2CV probably did more ploughing on that summer afternoon than the Farm’s Massey Ferguson would later in the year.

Twenty years later and I’m back in a 2CV. Just like before, we’re on private land, but – although the car is broadly the same, the circumstances are rather different. Different enough for me to fear what my next 2CV experience might involve – when I’m 57.

Certain regular visitors to Redusernab – those who regularly drive an HMV Freeway, for instance – will protest, but the Citroen 2CV really is the least amount of car you can readily call an automobile. Dimensionally, there are far smaller cars out there, but precious few have less material content than the baby Citroen. All up, the 2CV has a kerbweight of 600kg. Again, there are lighter cars, but many of those will have been designed with weight-saving in mind from the outset, making much use of advanced composite materials. Not so the 2CV, which is made from elements primitive enough to have been in abundance in inter-war France, when the prototype was developed.

The 2CV’s design was fundamentally clever, with a suspension system that was linked from front to rear to prevent squat and dive when braking, and which helped the car maintain a level attitude when crossing rutted terrain. Its longitudinal stability was fantastic, though its lateral behaviour rather less so. However, despite tyres which some mountain bikes can out-wide, its grip on the road is incredibly strong, thanks largely to a remarkably low centre of gravity.

The 2CV carries much of its weight in its chassis. Its interconnected suspension system links horizontally, and runs parallel to its chassis rails. Its engine – all 652cc of it on later models – can be lifted by two men and probably bench-pressed by the more athletic. Add seats – the hammock-style tube-framed originals will do – and you can drive away; the bodywork only really serves to provide shelter from the elements and – with the canvas roll-top roof open, barely affords that.

Just how marginal the 2CV’s construction is can be best seen from inside the car. On my brief ride I sat in the back, where I spent the next ten minutes looking around in wonderment. Here I could readily see the body’s tubular frame – little thicker than a McDonalds straw – from which all the body panels are suspended. The doors, which are flat panels that plug gaps wrought in the structure, are no more than an inch thick, and practically hollow in construction. Its robustness, though, has been proven sufficient by hordes of survivors that exist today in loving, sympathetic hands. However, compare the monocoque body of something like a Mini – arguably Britain’s people’s car equivalent of the 2CV – and the Citroen is undeniably flimsy.

I find it hard to get my head round the fact that Citroen’s 1989 model range had the 652cc, body-on-frame 2CV at one end, and the dart-shaped, hydropneumatically suspended, 3.0-litre, 24v, Citroen XM – a car with an electrically adjusted centre armrest – at the other, and it’s this that throws how things have changed into vivid and terrifying perspective. For one thing, the 2CV was never subjected to mandatory safety testing. The French company certainly didn’t ignore safety, but rather paid it lip service. Subject it to the Euro NCAP tests that face most popular cars today, though, and the Tin Snail would barely budge the needle on the safety o’meter.

The paradigm has well and truly shifted. Today, the least amount of car you can buy in Europe is somewhat more substantial. ABS brakes, electronic stability control, Android Auto and 19-inch alloy wheels are all mandatory, or might as well be. New cars must also be proven safe to travel in. Not just safe as in “Ah, you’ll be fine” like with the 2CV, in a “you’ll probably not crash, and consequently, will survive” kind of way, but in the “you’ll be actually fine, even in a frontal impact with a steam locomotive” sense. If you want a new car that was built for lightness and simplicity, to the point of excluding even the most elementary safety equipment, legislation says you can’t have it. And legislation is set to get still tougher – mandatory autonomous emergency braking looms on the horizon.

From there, it’s not a huge leap to imagine a dystopian future where cars that fail to satisfy the latest safety demands are legislated off the roads. This could happen by direct order – “You can’t drive that on public roads any more”, or by indirect pressure: “We will charge you £infinity for insurance to drive that on public roads”. In all likeliness, with pressure mounting from environmental, economical and safety concerns, it’s likely that measures will be taken one day to outlaw potentially polluting, potentially “unsafe” cars like this from the road, dooming them to participating only in closed road events, or on private property.

Like today. Here I am, in a Citroen 2CV owned by a man called Graham. He’s bought his pride and joy along to the annual SMMT Test Day, an event where media types get to drive the ‘hottest’ new releases from all the big players in the UK car game. Citroen welcomed it to the brand’s stand, where it served as a link from then to now, showing just how far the C4 Cactus, for example, had developed from Pierre Boulanger’s pet project (a astronomically long way, of course, though the Cactus remains just a car, compared to the 2CV’s living legend status).

Graham was offering 2CV rides all day long. Quick, five minute excursions on the ‘City’ section of the Millbrook proving ground. This wasn’t an envelope-pushing experience; there was little hope of nearing the limit of 2CV capabilities. Full throttle was never reached, and the lean angles were tempered to be merely extreme, rather than death-defying. The magical 2CV ride quality was sampled, though, and all who rode feasted richly on the sight, sound and smell of conveyance by Tin Snail. Of course, many of the press in attendance were too young to have been alive during 2CV production, and regarded it as some bizarre intruder into the familiar world of the double-chevron brand. I don’t doubt that some had never seen one in the flesh before. To be honest, the evolutionary gap is so enormous as to make the 2CV almost totally irrelevant. I’d argue that not one car today shares anything but an underlying pursuit of efficiency with the little Citroen.

After I peeled back the door and stepped out of the 2CV, I realised that this sanitised, ticketed, low-adrenaline experience might well be a taste of the future. In a world where the driver is redundant on public roads – centralised autonomy having taken control – those who nurture the curious, old-fashioned urge to drive a car, must do so at a “driving ground”. A tarmac theme park, where you pay to drive your ancient, non-autonomous, fossil-fuel powered jalopy around realistically marked roads, in a location far from crowds of fragile pedestrians. The kind of place that the thinning ranks of ‘automobile’ enthusiasts can live out their peculiar fantasies, stoking the embers of a time when the journey was at least as important as arriving.

The 2CV, then. A curiosity 20 years ago, a relic today. A forbidden pleasure twenty years hence?

(All images copyright Chris Haining / Redusernab 2018)

  • If I may for a moment speak on behalf of everyone here who drives an HMV Freeway, I won’t protest your characterization of the 2CV until I myself get the chance to drive, or at least ride in, one of those whale-like automotive giants of the road.

  • Alff

    I spend an inordinate amount of time contemplating the issues you raise here.

    • neight428

      That’s why we have found this place, I think.

  • Sjalabais

    Another great piece of automotive philosophy. As a kid, my mother took us to France a lot. Our Twingo – a Polish concept made French by Renault – was among the most modern cars on the road. 2CV, R4 and a whole host of odd, mid-sized Citroëns were everywhere. People drove as if they had nine lives, and as someone born in Germany, where everybody would polish their base baby Benz on sundays, all the people parking with the bumpers as “sensors” were just a whole other culture. It was amazing.

    Today, I could almost wish that AI driving was available already for some. I am fortunate to have a twisty, well-paved commute along the fjords. The unfortunate bit is that it attracts a lot of tourists. RVs especially are like big, bad pills for my blood pressure. If they could just engage auto pilot and keep the speed limit, instead of half, while pointing at water falls and taking pictures of whales and mountains, that would help a fair bit. Of course, the end of the human driver is something I dread will happen in my lifetime. Also, there’s the concept of Skynet and more that doesn’t sound unreasonable to me either…all the more reasons to buy that off grid cabin today rather than tomorrow.

    • Rover 1

      I wasn’t aware Patrick Le Quément was Polish.

      en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patrick_Le_Quément

  • tonyola

    Citroen themselves tried to give the 2CV “a taste of the future” for 1975 by fitting rectangular headlights. It was a mistake and the company relented some years later.

  • neight428

    I believe it was Jay Leno that posited a theory that made the whole thing sound not so bad. Many people enjoy horses with great enthusiasm, though few do so with regular transportation in mind. We, the hoonitariat, will be like horse people are today. Fond of an anachronism for its own charm.

    • Sjalabais

      The achilles heel though: How often do regular folks like us get to go horse riding? I enjoy being behind the wheel several times a week, and even when the driving itself isn’t a pleasure, it is at least a meeting/phone call/internet memo free zone.

      • neight428

        That’s the downside, it will be far less accessible.

  • I had as my first car a Renault 4CV. Twice the power but not nearly the charm of a Snail.

    • Rover 1

      But more sales success.

  • You know, I’d argue that there is a class of vehicle that’s legal to buy in Europe today, that could be in the 2CV’s safety class: the heavy quadricycle.

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