Thursday, 25 October 2018

Citroën 2CV (1948) and Smart ForTwo (1998)

Here are two cars, fifty years apart that oddly enough seem to have more in common than you would think.

Citroën 2CV

One of the all-time classics of automotive design, work on the 2CV started before the Second World War. The design criteria were a product of the age – a low cost and versatile car that could transports four people plus 50 kilos of goods at 50 kilometres per hour across bumpy roads, and also that the car should be tall enough for the occupants to travel to church while wearing their hats. Work on prototypes known as TPVs continued with various novel cost-saving designs involved. By August 1939, Citroën were ready to go into production with a pilot run of 250 cars which were to be called the Deux Chevaux (French for "two horsepower") or simply the "2CV".


2CV and 2CV-derived Citroën Acadiane van

War broke out on the 3rd September 1939 and the launch was cancelled as France geared for conflict. But by June 1940 France had fallen to the Nazis, and then the story takes a strange twist. Citroën were worried that the prototypes might fall into enemy hands, so most of the prototypes were destroyed with a few hidden away.

Despite the Nazis trying to steal Citroën’s tooling, work on the car carried on in secret (there is a parallel with the Morris Minor here) and the designs evolved to meet what they thought would be post-war requirements. The car looked in doubt again with the post-war French government wanting Citroën to concentrate on another market segment altogether.

But – eventually – in October 1948 the 2CV came to market. To say it was basic would be an understatement. There was no lock on the ignition or the door, no fuel gage, there was a speedometer you couldn’t see at night, no real boot, no heater, a single tail-light and it was only available in grey. The car needed to be started with a cranking handle. Despite this, the demand for the car was huge and a waiting list developed that was five years long.

Inside the original was a tiny 375 cc generating 9 horsepower, and to save money and weight the entire roof was made of fabric that could be rolled back to make it a convertible. The elegant yet simple design inside and out owed more than a passing nod to the Bauhaus school of design. And despite the apparently basic specification, the engineering behind it all was rather innovative.

Over the years the car was improved with better (although still tiny) engines and luxuries such as indicators, a starter motor plus all the other things that were missing from the 1948 model. A huge number of variants and derivatives followed, and the 2CV moved from being a basic car for farmers to being a slightly less basic car for people who wanted to make a lifestyle statement.

It was hardly a fast car. The most powerful production engine gave an output of just 33 horsepower. Idiosyncrasies in the air-cooled design meant that cars came with both a summer and winter front grille, the latter being more insulated and helping the engine to warm up. Until the end of production, the 2CV could still be started with the supplied cranking handle which could also be used to remove the wheels. The soft suspension made handling somewhat comedic.

The car rolled alarmingly going around a corner, and the minimalist seating didn’t offer much support to stop you sliding off. More worryingly, the lightweight 1940s design didn’t offer much in the way of crash protection.

Production of the 2CV came to an end in 1990, but over that that its uniqueness always gave the car a distinctive appeal. Excluding all the variants, over 3.8 million 2CVs were manufactured. Today a 2CV in good condition can set you back more than £10,000 in the UK.

Smart ForTwo (1998)


Where the 2CV can trace back its styling to the influences of the Bauhaus, the car that because the Smart FourTwo was originally proposed by funky Swiss watch company Swatch. Founder Nicolas Hayek wanted to make a fun, small car with an electric powertrain and after searching around for a partner he eventually reached an agreement with Mercedes-Benz.

Mercedes had prototyped a two-seater city car in 1981 called the NAFA, and although that never reached production it gave Mercedes an insight into what would be needed. A proposal was drawn up and the new car was called the “smart” (in lowercase) which stood for “Swatch Mercedes ART”.

Things soon fell apart though, and Swatch was disappointed that Mercedes wanted to put in a small petrol engine rather than something more forward-looking, and during development they dropped out leaving Mercedes to go it alone.

What was eventually produced was quite radical though – a tall but short two-seater car with a little rear-mounted two cylinder engine to drive it. Although the original Smart (originally called the City-Coupé) was aimed at city-dwellers rather than farmers, the cars had some similar concepts… not least of which was that the ForTwo was built in France.


A pair of customised Smart FourTwos
Like the 2CV, the Smart had plenty of headroom inside. People who expect the tiny car to be cramped are usually pleasantly surprised by the amount of space. The high driving position and good all-round visibility makes it feel more like an SUV or van, and it’s easy to think that you are driving something much bigger until you glance behind you and remember there is no back row of seats… in effect you are driving half a car.

The Smart could originally be had as a cabriolet or a coupé with a hard-top. The fabric top of the convertible version again had echoes of the 2CV, and it was the cheapest soft-top car on the market.

Both cars featured a very small petrol engine. In the case of the Smart it was a three cylinder 600 cc unit with a turbocharger 45 horsepower or upwards. Over the years, this two became more powerful and the BRABUS version has a 100 horsepower engine. Although the light weight and capable engines made the Smart fun to drive, its ability to go around corners at speed was not only comically bad but also rather frightening.

The poor handling was a black mark in what was otherwise a remarkably safe little car. The body was created around a reinforced safety cage (called the Tridion cell by Mercedes) which offered very good all-around protection for a little car. The Tridion cell is typically a different colour from the rest of the car. Airbags and electronic stability also improved the overall safety. The original version had a somewhat vague automatic gearbox which could be changed to a rather better sequential one at the push of a button.

In the original car, the brightly-coloured plastic panels were easy to remove and some owners engaged in “panel swaps” where they could change the look of their car by exchanging panels with someone else. Some owners went further with their alterations too, and a healthy modding community grew up.

Today the Smart ForTwo is in its third generation, but has never had the success that the 2CV did. Various companion models came along, including an interesting but problematic Roadster that was around for a few years, two completely different four-seat “ForFour” models along with some more esoteric versions of the ForTwo itself.

The little Smart car ended up being something of a design icon of its own, where the 2CV was originally meant to be utilitarian before it acquire a counter-cultural vibe about it, the ForTwo was more a symbol of young fun-seeking city-dwellers. Whether or not the Smart will still be thought of that way in another half century is to be seen…

Image credits: Conrad Longmore and Classic Fan via Flickr

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