Irish writer Terence Kennedy and his Dutch wife Elise know the Citroën 2CV better than most people – they have driven nearly all round the world in one.
The couple, now settled in Tarn-et-Garonne, were first bitten by the bug when they bought a 425cc car from a friend in the Netherlands for 10 guilders in the early 1970s.
Mr Kennedy had dreamed of doing the “hippie trail” overland to India in a London taxi and also driving overland down Africa, but the taxi was hopeless for the job, mainly because of its low ground clearance.
“With the 2CV, it all clicked and we were off,” he said. “In total, we have travelled some 300,000km in 2CVs.” He wrote a book about their travels, A Non-sense Of Direction, which he is planning to republish as an e-book.
After a succession of classic 2CVs, they graduated to a brand new Méhari, the plastic-bodied open-top 2CV, and built a double-storey, hardboard “house” on it, which they took through the Sahara. “Because it was so light, it could go where heavier vehicles, like Land Rovers and Jeeps, would get stuck,” said Mr Kennedy.
“When it did get stuck, because it was so light, it could be lifted out of trouble.” The first Méhari was changed for a rare 4x4 Méhari, developed for the French Army. Again, a double-storey “house” was built on it, this time heavier than the last, which proved to be a problem when the chassis snapped on a rough road in what was then Zaire.
“We were still missing one piece when a Roman Catholic missionary picked me up hitchhiking.
I explained the problem and he said he might be able to help, as he had buried a scrap 2CV 20 years before because it was an eyesore. We dug it up, and it had the piece we needed.”
While on the old road between Addis Ababa and Nairobi, they averaged three punctures a day, and could change a tyre, with a patched inner tube, in 12 minutes.
Their final Méhari is now on display in a Dutch museum.
“It’s often surprising we survived,” said Mr Kennedy. “Life on the road hit us with everything from malaria to dysentery to the toughest affliction of all: a lack of funds.”
We love corrugated H vans
Those old 2CVs and H vans looked so funny... family holidays in Brittany and Normandy as a child left a lasting impression on motorbike magazine writer Kevin Raymond, especially the cars.
One of four children, he used to look out for the Citroën 2CV cars and corrugated steel-sided H vans, which were then fairly common.
“They just looked so funny compared to the other cars, I loved them,” he said. “We called the vans biscuit-barrel vans, because of the sides.”
Years later, when his then girlfriend, now wife, Carole said she wanted to buy a 2CV, she found she was pushing at an open door.
“It was black and yellow and proved to be rotten with rust nearly everywhere. Through it, we made good friends with a garage owner in Loughborough who specialised in 2CVs. When we moved to France, he asked me to look out for 2CVs and H vans for him to do up and I continued the interest.”
While in the UK, Mr Raymond joined a team driving 2CVs in 24-hour endurance races. The cars were on lowered suspensions and only limited modifications to the engines were allowed.
“In one race we were in third place for many hours, but had to stop in the pits. We got so good at changing the whole engine that we could do it in 12 minutes flat.”
The couple, who live in Normandy, have an H van they have fitted out as a camper van. With only three gears, a top speed of around 80kph and petrol consumption heavier than a Rolls-Royce, it is not the most practical way to tour, but they have used it to follow the Tour de France.
“It gets great interest wherever we go,” said Mr Raymond.
As for 2CVs, they own one in bits and an old van awaiting restoration. Parts are easy to find as Mehari Club Cassis has been licensed by Citroën to make spares to original specifications.
The supply of 2CVs, which used to be ample and cheap, has now dried up, with many being scrapped.
‘Gangster car’ gained us friends
Buying a collector’s Citroën Traction Avant and a 2CV van have proved to be a great way for Elisabeth and Allan Dollie to mix with French people and make new friends.
The couple moved to their holiday home in Lot-et-Garonne when they retired and talked about buying French collector cars to celebrate the move.
They fell in love with the flowing lines of the Traction Avant, the first mass-produced car in Europe to use front-wheel drive.
Built from the 1930s to the mid-1950s, the car gained a reputation as a gangster’s favourite, then as the car used by the Gestapo in World War Two.
After the war it was one of the first luxury cars available. Citroën was tasked with building luxury cars while Renault, taken under state control, built for the masses.
After buying the car, the couple joined the Traction Avant Périgord club, based in Bergerac.
Mr Dollie, who is working hard on his French, said: “Having a shared hobby is a wonderful way to meet people and break the language barrier. The people in the club have been very welcoming and it is rare that a meal does not end without a toast to les anglais, which I find very touching.”
The car, called Seible, needs a lot of maintenance, including a full greasing every 800km, which Mr Dollie does himself.
The couple previously bought a 2CV van with a small 425cc motor that they call Henri.
“We take Henri out to the market each week, and there is a steep hill we have to go up,” said Mr Dollie. “It is so underpowered that sometimes I wonder if it will make it.”
DS saves De Gaulle’s life and other Citroën facts
A special gear, patented in Poland in 1900, inspired Citroën’s famous double V logo.
Company founder André Citroën (pictured left) bought the rights and successfully developed the gear design, laying the foundation for his industrial success.
The V form of the gear allowed easier engagement, less noise and more efficiency.
André Citroën was a marketing genius and in 1920 was the first to register a consumer credit company in Europe to help people buy his cars.
Visitors to Citroën showrooms in the 1920s and 1930s received typed letters with handwritten sign-offs from André Citroën himself, something credited with sealing thousands of sales.
Expeditions such as his trans-Sahara crossing, and crossings of Africa, Asia and Alaska also promoted his company.
One of the first uses of lights to advertise on the Eiffel Tower was in 1925 and Citroën was the company featured.
The advertisements were renewed annually until 1935 when Citroën was bought by Michelin.
Charles Lindberg said seeing the tower lit up (by Citroën) as he flew towards Paris on the first non-stop Atlantic crossing, brought home to him the immensity of his achievement.
It also boosted the image of the car company.
Through a quirk in sanctions- busting, for a while in early 1970s Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), the only new cars on sale were Citroën DS21s, Alfa Suds and Datsun 120Ys.
André Citroën was in financial difficulties in 1934, when the famous Traction Avant was first put on sale in France and he counted on the car to bring in cash.
Teething problems gave the car, later to become famous after 1936 design changes, an early bad reputation, leaving him no option than to go into bankruptcy and the firm into receivership.
Michelin bought the firm in 1935. André Citroën died from stomach cancer later that year, aged 56.
The SM was a luxury coupé, powered by a V6 Maserati engine derived from a V8 racing car motor.
Produced between 1970 and 1975, the car did not survive the oil price shocks of 1973 and 1975 and the engine’s high maintenance costs, but is now a sought-after collector’s item.
The iconic 2CV, on sale from 1948 to 1990, was actually first produced in 1939, just before World War Two broke out.
It was created with rural users in mind and was designed to fit four comfortably, traverse rough country roads, transport a flat box tray of eggs across a ploughed field without breaking any, and be affordable and fuel-efficient.
All the 250 models built in 1939 were dismantled and destroyed to avoid them falling into German hands.
Prototypes and some parts were hidden in the loft of the building at the Citroën test track and in the cellar of the Citroën design centre in Paris.
Two attempts on President Charles de Gaulle’s life, in 1961 and 1962, failed while he was being driven in a presidential Citroën DS.
During the first, the car was blown across the road by a bomb made of 40kg of plastic explosive and dynamite, oil and nails, but stayed structurally intact, upright and accelerated away.
De Gaulle praised the unusual abilities of his unarmoured DS – a French pronunciation gives déesse, meaning goddess – for saving his life.
In the second attack, by machine guns, bullets punctured the car’s front tyres but the front-wheel drive and hydraulic suspension of the DS allowed the car to be driven away from the would-be assassins.
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