Quirk icon: 14 years with a Citroen 2CV cult classic
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Katrina Leighton’s Citroen 2CV was built towards the end of the deux chevaux’s production run in 1987.
The design was the brainchild of Citroen managing director Pierre Boulanger, in the mid 1930s. He suggested a car that would suit the ordinary hardworking French citizen traversing daily on often appalling provincial roads. Production began in 1949.
It would have four wheels, be capable of carrying “two sturdy peasants and 50kg of potatoes at 60km/h”, and must sip petrol at 3L/100km. It had to be able to drive across a ploughed field with a box of eggs aboard, without breaking a single one.
After early testing, prototypes were built for the 1939 Paris Show. But war was declared on September 3, the show was cancelled, and most of the cars were destroyed.
Engine development continued and, after the war ended, the 2CV was unveiled at the 1948 Paris Salon, with production starting the following year. Right-hand drive models were built in the UK from 1953 to 1964; production in France ended in 1988; and the last 2CV rolled off a factory floor in Portugal two years later.
Katrina was already primed to like quirky cars. Her first was a Ford Anglia when she was 17, “which I loved”. Sadly as the Anglia aged, it became expensive to maintain.
She noticed the 2CV while watching Antiques Roadshow, when host Michael Aspel arrived in one with a grandfather clock poking out of its open roof. She thought it was a “fabulous little car”, and one day spotted one for sale not far away.
“I took it for a drive, and got the hang of the gearstick straight away.”
She bought it. That was 14 years ago, before she began to dabble in vintage dressing, something she now does full time.
The look also suits her car, which is her daily runabout.
“I loved it from the go. There is nothing straight about it, everything is quirky,” she says. “I love having a car that makes people laugh.”
She likes “the craziness of the suspension. It’s like blancmange, and the way it lurches alarmingly round corners.”
The clever setup is self-levelling. Put simply, it’s as if the wheelbase lengthens on one side when turning, so it can corner briskly while cushioning even the most lurid of bumps. The 2CV tends to understeer alarmingly, but is almost impossible to roll.
Katrina appreciates that her car looks older than it is.
“It’s old enough for that look without demanding the extra maintenance of a 70-year-old car.”
She is fond of the “tiny little biscuit wheels” and the way the canvas roof opens right back while still imparting some wind protection because the side panels remain in place.
She jokes that the engine is almost non-existent. “Sewing machines are more powerful.”
She’s barely kidding; the engine’s only 602cc (the first 2CV was 375cc) with 21kW and 39Nm. Katrina has the car serviced regularly by Bishop’s Garage in Auckland’s CBD.
“It’s not a posh car. It spoke of French economy, bordering on meanness when it came to spending money on a car. You could fix it with a bit of wire and a hammer.” That said, it’s been “phenomenally reliable”, with bills mostly for replacing items you expect to wear out.
She did have the seats reupholstered in original fabric as they were falling apart, but there’s not much else to fettle. There’s no air con, no radio, no radiator, as the engine is air-cooled. And the windows don’t even wind, there’s a flap that folds out.
Katrina’s car may be 32 years old, with a design dating much further back, but it’s still engaging. Riding in it feels quirky and means being looked at, which she says took a while to get used to.
It spends most of its driving time in third gear. “You need a run-up to get into fourth, that’s mostly for motorway,” says Katrina. “It will do 100km/h with a tail wind, but it’s noisy and you feel as if everything’s about to drop off.”
On our drive we stuck to cruise mode. Just two people dressed to suit this model’s heyday, having fun on a sunny spring day in a cheerful French car.