A French Icon Made in Portugal

WORDS James Plaskitt

It’s slow, it’s noisy, it leans precariously in corners, but it makes people smile and wave. And at the peak of the Algarve summer, I can’t think of a better way to tour our beautiful countryside than in a 2CV.

Most people recognise it as either ‘one of those funny little French cars’ or they know it’s a 2CV. Or, if they are less polite, they may call it ‘the tin snail.’ And although it is a French icon, mine and many others like it were actually made in Portugal.

Prototypes of the 2CV were made before the outbreak of the Second World War. With the outbreak of hostilities, they were hidden away to prevent them from falling into the wrong hands. After the war, Citroen resumed development. The car was conceived by Pierre Boulanger, who took over the company after the death of its founder, Andre Citroen. Boulanger gave his team a simple brief. He wanted an uncomplicated car that would get French farmers off their horses and carts. He said it needed to be able to carry four people and 50kg of potatoes. It should consume no more than 3 litres of fuel for every 100 kilometres travelled. It should be capable of transporting a tray of eggs across a ploughed field without one breaking. And he didn’t care what it looked like. 

Mangualde factory 2CV production line © Citröen

The last 2CV manufactured in Mangualde © Citröen

Citroen’s chief engineer, Andre Lefebvre, was able to present his answer to this brief at the 1948 Paris motor show. The initial response to the spartan little car was mostly one of astonishment. Few would have believed that production would continue until 1992 and that almost four million would be built.

Citroen built a new factory at Levallois in Paris to assemble the 2CV. Production steadily increased. The new car started to sell across Europe as buyers responded to its simple virtues and, eventually, to its cult appeal. As demand increased, Citroen expanded its production facilities, including the construction of a new factory at Mangualde in Portugal. By 1988, the Paris factory was seriously outdated and the working conditions were poor. The factory was closed, but the 2CV was still in demand so all production was moved to Portugal. The last 42,000 2CVs – of which mine is one – are Portuguese.

When you drive a 2CV, you know the design is essentially 80 years old.  Nothing is power-assisted. You cannot fail to appreciate that you are surrounded by something mechanical rather than electronic. The accelerator is best thought of as an on-off switch. Breaking requires some anticipation. Gear changing is achieved by pushing, pulling or twisting a lever that resembles the end of a hockey stick. Steering requires strong arms. Starting up is an art form that 2CV owners often take years to master. But all this quirkiness seems only to add to the fun of owning and driving one of these amazing little cars.

Technically, the car has hardly changed through its 40 years of production. It is based on a ladder chassis. The suspension consists of horizontal tubes containing the springs, connected to the wheels by long arms. The engine is a flat, twin air-cooled unit of 602cc, which incorporates a gearbox driving the front wheels. The lightweight body panels are all bolted on. The result is delightfully uncomplicated and simple. The downside is that these are not the most robust of vehicles and none survive without periodic restoration and plenty of TLC along the way. Originally built in 1989, mine has had its bodywork restored at Auto Don Henrique in Portimão, many of its mechanical parts restored by Auto Mansos in Almancil, and its interior refurbished by Simo Estofos in Odiáxere. 

The Algarve in summer is a natural habitat for the 2CV. It’s the perfect time to roll back the weight-saving canvas roof, taking care to secure it tightly with its plastic straps, flip up the windows, which hinge horizontally, and let the wind loose as you bounce along the country lanes, letting the long-travel suspension soak up the lumps and bumps of the road. It’s as if the little car, built in Portugal, knows it’s at home.

James Plaskitt was a Member of Parliament in Tony Blair’s government in the UK. He is now retired in the Algarve.


Share this edition