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Citroen Part 1: The TPV.

In the mid 1930’s Italy France and Germany all began work on their own interpretation of the “peoples’ car.” Italy came first with Dante Giacosa’s brilliant 1936 Fiat 500 “Topolino”. Adolf Hitler took it a step further and commissioned Ferdinand Porsche to create the Volkswagen - literally “The Peoples Car”. Finally, in mid 1939 France’s Citroën presented the 2CV at that year’s Paris Motor Show.

The car’s progenitor, Pierre – Jules Boulanger had been appointed to his position as Vice President of Citroën in 1935. Until then he had been on the board of directors of Citroën’s largest creditor, Michelin.[1]The Traction - Avant had been way ahead of its time, including a unibody chassis, independent suspension all around and the front wheel drive that gave the car its name, but the development costs of these technologies had been more than the small private company could take and Citroën was forced to declare bankruptcy in 1934 with Michelin becoming its largest shareholder. Nevertheless, the Traction’s success in the marketplace caused Pierre Michelin to double down on Citroën’s high tech and avant-garde designs, giving Boulanger carte blanche as chief of the design and engineering department. Boulanger’s design brief to engineer André Lefebvre and designer Flaminio Bertoni for the company’s next project read as follows.

“... create a car that can carry four people and 50 kg of potatoes at 60 km/h, while consuming just 3 litres of fuel per 100 km... it should be drivable by a woman or by a learner-driver ... and don't worry about how it looks.” [2]

Inspired by the sight of a horse and cart struggling along a rural road near Paris, Boulanger’s “TPV: Tres Petite Voiture” (as the project was called within the company) was to be basic transportation for the French working classes especially in rural areas, eschewing all frivolity such as styling. On September 2, 1939, the first exemplar was ready to be shown to the public and an initial run of 250 cars was produced[3]. On September 3rdGermany invaded Poland and would soon dominate most of France. The TPV project went underground.

World War 2 was a dark time for France in General and the French auto industry in particular. Under the authority of Ferdinand Porsche, most French automobile companies were forced into producing equipment for the German war effort. But Citroën’s President Pierre Jules Boulanger who had succeeded his friend Pierre Michelin at the head of the company in 1937, was not going to take occupation lying down. Refusing to speak directly with Ferdinand Porsche, Boulanger purposely slowed down production of trucks for the Wehrmacht. In fact, he went further by installing mismarked dipsticks causing engines to seize as their engine oil dropped below the required level. When in 1944 Gestapo Headquarters was ransacked by the French Resistance, Boulanger was top of the list of suspects and remained on the Wehrmacht’s most wanted list until the end of the war.[4]

Almost miraculously, amidst all this turmoil, work on the TPV project persevered. Prototypes were disguised as pickup trucks hidden in various barns and buried underground in the countryside. The French resistance purposely mislabeled train carriages transporting further examples, as agricultural equipment while André Lefebvre and Flaminio Bertoni continued to improve the project in secret[5]. Walter Becchia designed a 180-degree V twin air cooled engine to replace the costlier water-cooled unit. He also fitted a four-speed gearbox which was far ahead of other French cars of the day that made do with three gears at best[6]. The strange hammock seats too were replaced by more conventional contraptions.

At the end of hostilities in 1945 even after all the improvements, the introduction of the TPV was once again delayed this time by political decree. Named after former naval officer, Paul – Marie Pons who was now working at the Ministry of Industrial Production[7], the Plan Pons(Pons Plan) aimed to make sure scarce resources went mostly to essential rebuilding projects and less to secondary industries such as the production of automobiles. Even within autos strict production quotas applied. Panhard and Simca would cover the bottom end of the market while Peugeot and newly nationalized Renault would cover the middle. Citroën’s Traction - Avant was to be France’s luxury offering. The TPV once again was sidelined.[8]

France’s road network was in poor condition and only five percent of the prewar car base was still serviceable. Many in the countryside had returned to using horse and cart for both personal and commercial transport. It was now in times like these that France needed the TPV more than ever.

Luckily, the French soon realized that quasi-Stalinist command economics was not going to rebuild the country when even the evil Boches(French slang word for Germans) were rising like Phoenix from the ashes from the rubble of their industrial heartland. And so, in 1948 the TPV was finally unveiled at the Paris Show under its official name: the 2CV- derived from its fiscal power rating. The following year, the Plan Ponscame to an end and the first finished cars were delivered to customers.[9]

Despite ten years of development and a decade of advancement in automotive technology - to a large part hastened by the needs of war - the “Deux Chevaux” was a very basic almost primitive machine. The 375cc 180-degree “V” twin cylinder engine was less than a third of that of Ferdinand Porsche’s Beetle and produced less than half the power. But that was the point. The little car was all about the basics and it delivered those splendidly. Above all, it portended a characteristic of all future Citroëns and to a lesser extent, French cars in general: incredible ride comfort. You could really cross a freshly ploughed field with a basket of eggs and arrive at the other end, eggs unscathed. Further along the simplicity theme, the cooling fan and dynamo were integrated into the crankshaft making drive belts superfluous. The brakes were the only hydraulic part of the car and the dashboard was graced with only a speedo and ammeter. The only concession to luxury had been added just before the launch; an electric starter motor.[10]

A correspondent for Autocar Magazine, ridiculed the car opining “it is the work of a designer who has kissed the lash of austerity with almost masochistic fervor.”[11]But the public delighted in its simplicity, flooding the company with orders and within months of its release, the waiting list had reached five years. Meanwhile the second-hand market value of the cars exploded. With 876 units produced in 1949 the total reached more than 6000 in 1950. Despite the shortage of finished vehicles, in accordance with the Tricolore spirit of “Liberté, Egalité and Fraternité”, citizens who needed a car to perform their jobs such as country doctors, veterinarians and farmers as well as those for whom other cars were truly too expensive were given priority on the waiting list.

A special version for oil exploration was produced for Africa and called the Sahara. Almost everything the 2CV had, the new version doubled. It had four driven wheels, two engines, two transmissions, two gas tanks and cost twice as much as a standard 2CV. Over the years a plethora of special editions were produced ending with the luxurious “Charleston” with two - tone burgundy and black paint akin to a 1930’s Rolls Royce. Furthermore, the 2CV underpinned much of Citroën’s post war range from the Dyane via the strange - looking Ami 6 and Ami 8 models, all the way to the pioneering Mehari.

Paul Jules Boulanger would see his creation put France on wheels after the war. By the end of 1953 100 cars a week were leaving the assembly line and by the end of production in the 1990’s, the total would be in the millions.[12]Unfortunately he would die tragically in a Citroën Traction - Avant in Broût-Vernet on Sunday 12 November 1950 on his way from Michelin Headquarters in Clermont-Ferrand to Paris. In January 1942 however, he had planted the seed for what would become Citroën’s greatest breakthrough when he made a young and inexperienced draughtsman called Paul Magés responsible for suspension and braking systems. But that story is for another day.













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