The Citroën Deux Chevaux, more commonly referred to in French as the Citroën “2cv”, may quite possibly be the closest you can get to riding on a real magic carpet – perhaps even flying. Behind the wheel, there is no interaction between you and the pavement below. While modern day cars with soft suspension and very little road-feel are criticized for feeling “numb” and “emotionless”, the 2cv’s unique ability to soak up the bumps is something to be truly coveted. The bulbous, beetle shaped car glides over the deepest of potholes with such tranquility and finesse that you feel as if you are riding around in a small, mobile cloud.
My father purchased his bright red 1985 Deux Chevaux during the time that he was living in France, later to have it imported to the US. During the years he has owned the car, it has accumulated roughly 40,000 miles. Aside from (sometimes) changing the oil, the car has never once been actually serviced, and continues to putter along just as enthusiastically as the day it rolled off the assembly line.
Powered by a 602cc horizontally opposed two-cylinder engine that is approximately the size of a shoe, the car will produce a very optimistic 29 crank horsepower. However, crank horsepower is not the same as a regular horsepower rating. The engine makes a tentative 29hp at the crankshaft (the spinning part of an engine that will eventually make the wheels turn—hence crank horsepower), though this power must then pass through the transmission and other various car parts. Although this may seem confusing, the takeaway is simply: The car’s engine might make 29 horsepower on a good day, but the actual amount of power that makes it to the wheels will be less, probably around 24 horsepower. (The modern sedan makes on average well over 140 hp).
Despite the 2cv’s pathetically feeble engine, it has no issues getting up to speed. Response from the gas pedal is direct and immediate, and mated to a 4 speed manual transmission, the car feels surprisingly peppy. It has a signature rumble that is neither harsh nor soothing to the ear. Although not particularly pleasant to listen to, the distinctive wail of the 2-cylinder engine is so odd and full of character that it is impossible to stop yourself from grinning.
The secret of the Deux Chevaux’s unexpected panache is hidden within the simplicity of the design. There is no plastic paneling on the dashboard and doors, no cup holders, no armrests, no power steering, no seat warmers, no (real) air conditioning, no multi-speaker sound system, let alone airbags to be found anywhere. Located on the passenger side of the front seat is a lone, tiny speaker that is completely inaudible once the car is running. For true cold AC, you just open a giant vent under the windshield for a sudden blast of fresh air.
The vehicle is, in essence, just about as technologically advanced as a tin can. The entire engine assembly fits neatly within one tiny corner of the engine bay under the hood, and the couch-like seats closely resemble generously padded two-person lawn chairs. Between each metal body panel on the exterior are huge gaps that allow the air to seamlessly pass through the fuselage as if the vehicle were a rapidly advancing ghost. After having accelerated up to speed, the air enters through the massive gaps and simply drifts through the empty interior and out the back with very little resistance.
In the case of an accident, the Citroën Deux Chevaux would make absolutely no effort to save your life. Rather, it would most likely try to eject you. However, despite the complete lack of safety equipment, driving the 2cv wraps you up in an intense feeling of protection and security. The brakes don’t really work that well, but that’s ok. The crash ratings are abysmal, but that’s alright. In fact, everything that this car is lacking creates its unique charm.
The prehistoric 4 speed transmission is clunky and may fight back on every shift, but slowly rowing through the gears brings forth a strange trust in a vehicle. This counterintuitive feeling of trust is ever-present when driving the Deux Chevaux. Jokes aside, rolling this car over is literally impossible. Go as fast as you’d like and turn, and all that will happen is the car will happily lean to one side at an impossible angle, then proceed along as usual. Furthermore, the likelihood that a 2cv will get in a crash is much lower than any other car: it is so incredibly slow that so-called “reaction time” is entirely unnecessary.
As much as I’d like to offer you some performance figures such as the 0-60mph time, our Deux Chevaux will only hit 55 (with a tailwind, on a good day, and with one person). When I drove my dad’s 2cv, it didn’t matter that I put the car into reverse every time I reached for second gear, or that the speedometer has actually never worked. Driving a Deux Chevaux is an incredibly sensory experience. As you listen to the howl of the engine, take in all of the old-car smells, sink into the seats, and feel the wind in your hair from the non-existent roof, you forget entirely that you are sitting in what might be the most dangerous car in current-day America. All the rattles and clunks of the engine gently simmer away until all that is left is you and the road, puttering along on a pleasant cloud, accompanied with that old familiar sense of everlasting trust.
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