What's Better Than Walking
In the Rain?

photo: first sight of a 2cv

Once the first 2CV peeked out, then there were
millions of them.

A Four-Wheeled Bike With an Umbrella

Paris:- Friday, 4. May 2001:- When I heard the characteristic wheezy flat-twin whine of Dimitri's Deux-Chevaux - or 2CV for short - I knew he'd arrived. Since we have a date to go to the monthly meeting of the 2CV Club 92 tonight, I don't think it is Martians.

'2CV' is pronounced 'Deux-Chevaux' but on its initial road-worthy license, rubber-stamped on 28. August 1939, it is simply written as '2CV.' According to my elderly 'Nouveau Petit Larousse' it is neither a word nor a name. Somebody is sleeping at some switch, because millions of 2CVs were made.

The '92' part of the club's name is the code-number for the Hauts-de-Seine department, which wraps around a third of Paris but is not in it.

Dimitri also belongs to the bigger Paris 2CV owners' club, but its weekly meetings are on unhandy Thursdays. The one we're going to is a breakaway splinter group from the Paris club. 'Break-away' because Antony is just outside of Paris, where there are places to park - in the nearby 'province' - a bit south of the Porte d'Orléans. Don't worry if you never heard of the place. This will be my first visit to Antony.

After several years of hearing aboutphoto: dimitris 2cv Dimitri's car, the first time I see it is when I exit from gloom of the entry to my building's courtyard. From a distance, and in the bit of dim light we are allowed today, his cherished car seems to be in pretty good shape.

Dimitri's 2CV is a 1959 model. It does not have electric windows.

Up close I see that the paint has had a few unwaxed years since it was sprayed on in the late '50's. There are some minor scrapes and tiny dents, but this is Paris, not a fancy-car museum.

This is the model with the 'suicide' front doors that open at the front. Getting in is best done backwards - open the door, turn around and sit down in the low-slung garden-type lawn seat. Closing the door is like slapping your knee - which you should make sure is inside the car before you do it.

Dimitri starts it up and there is its noise again. The only remotely similar sounds are made by BMW's flat-twin motorcycle motors, so if you haven't heard one of these either, it is hard to describe.

The car lurches back out into the street. It doesn't 'lurch' exactly - it is just that its suspension is a bit 'floaty' and direction changes are somewhat boat-like. At the corner Dimitri activates the turn-signal switch, apparently to the left, and we sway around the corner to the right. Dimitri later tells me this switch automatically turns off - to conserve electricity - but is not self-canceling.

Going down Rue Boulard he shows me how the windshield wipers work. When we stop at the Daguerre crosswalk, he shows me how they work when they aren't powered by the speedo cable. There is a knob you twist back and forth to make the wiper blades go back and forth.

"What's that gauge by the knob? " I ask. It is located to the far left, about level with the bottom of the windshield. "Is it for the vacuum or something?"

It is the speedometer he says. The only other gauge I can see is on the instrument panel, placed justphoto: dimitris driving skill above the steering column. Its purpose remains a mystery, except I know it is not the gas gauge because there isn't one.

Dimitri shows off his rapid steering style, too fast for the camera.

Headed toward the Porte d'Orléans Dimitri decides to show me how the engaged clutch functions at idle while in first gear waiting for a stop light. What happens is nothing, but as soon as he steps on the gas pedal the car advances. The clutch has built-in first-gear slip - like an automatic, except it doesn't creep forward.

The car-wide vent under the windshield is open and a bobby-pin contraption is holding the door window open at the bottom on my side, letting in lots of fresh arctic-like air.

Dimitri has his door's half-window flipped all the way up. This effectively widens the small car by an elbow-width and provides an arm-rest. I keep my elbows closer to me, for warmth.

We manage to not get on the Perifreak! and once beyond it, we are in terra incognito. We want the Route National 20 - and not any of the other 87 proposed directions.

"Damn!" Dimitri says, "Where's that red café where we're supposed to turn right?"

All the buildings around look like they were tossed up yesterday, and none of them look like they are in France. Further away from Paris, France still looks like France, but close to Paris it looks like outer Moscow or Slough or Burnaby.

Instinctively Parisians know this. For this reason they have a horror of exploring Paris' near suburbs. So while Dimitri is rolling slowly through vast intersections I am scanning all the direction signs and shouting, "Don't take that one for Versailles! Not the one for Clamart either - it's even worse!"

Other drivers, in their anonymous hulks of flashy racing cars are passing us on both sides - all drivers not driving 2CVs automatically avoid hitting all 2CVs on principle - because, even if they are only going 10 kph, they are a 'national heritage' after all.

Dimitri remembers that we are supposed to look for Châtenay-Malabry, after we've turned where the red café isn't any more, and by some miraculous fluke we see the sign for it and go right in order to turn left, and as we cruise across another vast intersection I actually see a very tiny and faded-red 'N-20' tacked onto the top of a totem-pole of direction signs.

So we actually get out of Montrouge and through Fontenay-aux-Roses, Bourg-la-Reine and Antony, without getting lost in Clamart or lost in Fresnes or at Orly.

We have to go a bit beyond Antony without running into the combined autoroute jungle of Longjumeau, Palaiseauphoto: 2cv parking lot or Morangis. Dimitri spots the club's café and we go up to the next place to turn around and come back to get into its tiny parking lot. Switch off. Whew!

A small fraction of the 2CV's owned by club members.

As a note here for long-distance fans, I'd like to point out that if you can get beyond Paris, can get beyond the maze of Longjumeau, Palaiseau and Morangis - you can stay on the N-20 all the way to Spain.

The café-restaurant 'Le Coup de Coeur' is unadorned with aluminum window frames or much else that suggests newness. Locally it might be called 'the place across from the Ford dealership.' Most of Paris' outskirts are not mentioned in guidebooks, so this place just to the west of Orly airport isn't either.

We are pretty early for the meeting. Part of the restaurant has been set up in a 'L' shape, and the other part has a few non-members dining in it. I am introduced to the members who are present - actually this is done spontaneously and mostly without formalities other than hand-shakes and a couple of 'bisous.'

The club's secretary, François, has brought a plastic case with four large albums full of photos of various excursions made by the club. There are also photos of restoration projects. Some of these involve starting with a wreck of a 2CV found in a barn, and rebuilding it by hand.

Gradually more members arrive, including one or two kids and a couple of dogs. By the time there is some organization - this is not the right word - there are about 30 altogether. Two waitresses try to get everybody to take the plat du jour. Some do, but this is France, so most order the 'exceptions' from the carte.

Then, serving these is chaotic, because some people can't remember what they've ordered. There are no 'official' speeches or light shows - the sole order of club business is having a meal.

What makes a 2CV club meal in a restaurant different from all other restaurant meals, is the diners talk about 2CV exotica instead of talking about food or other meals in other restaurants - which is normal conversation in France during meals in restaurants.

At one point, Julieta, who is sitting beside me, asks all smokers to do it outside because the room is getting too polluted forphoto: resto, au coup du coeur the kids and dogs. I'm glad I've kept my coat on because the door is right behind where I'm sitting, and it doesn't close any tighter than Dimitri's 2CV doors.

Ordinary road-side café outside, and warm hot-bed of 2CV-dom inside.

2CV fans have a lot in common with baseball fans, except that 2CVs have been around for less time, and there are fewer models than baseball teams. One 'fact' I saw was from a magazine article which said, 'Only Four Changes In 20 Years.'

'CV' in French means about the same as 'HP' in English, except it actually stands for 'Chevaux Vapeurs' which means 'steam horses' instead of plain 'horse power.' This means the French got into steam while English speakers are still fooling around with horses.

When the 2CV was dreamed up most cars in Europe were far too expensive for ordinary workers and farmers to buy. In fact, when first thought of in 1931 it was not supposed to cost more than 'two cows.'

Four years later French automobile magazines began to ask for this car. The first response came from Fiat with its Topolino, which was sold in France in 1936 as the 'Simca 5.' This lit a fire under Renault, Peugeot and Citroen - and Renault responded with its Juvaquatre while Peugeot brought out its 202, both in 1937.

Citroen was tied up with its 'Traction' at the time. It was a car technically of the future. When it became time to think of their 'voiturette,' Citroen's engineers freely borrowed concepts from the advanced 'Traction.'

'Tout Petite Voiture' was the internal code name, or 'TPV.' The 'motor' behind the idea, Pierre Jules Boulanger, ordered a market survey - a first in France - for it and it brought in 10,000 responses. Some of them suggested the new little car had to cost under 10,000 francs - somewhat more than 'two cows.'

This imposed lightness, lightness meant a supple suspension - which meant a special one. Lightness permitted a small motor, permitting only a slow speed. It didn't matter if it was slow and ugly - it would be cheap enough to afford.

As early as 1937 the flat-twin BMW motorcycle motor was a model for the 'TPV.' A secret test track was set up 100 kilometres westphoto: steering wheel, speedo of Paris, and by January 1938 there were 20 prototypes tooling around it. According to Boulanger it was still supposed to be a four-wheeled bicycle although water-tight, and able to roll at 60 or 65 kph on the flat with no wind.

Speedo on left is not vital to the 2CV's operation - but the flip-up window is.

It was also not to need any serious repairs for 50,000 kms, and not cost more than ten francs a month to run. Any adjustments it needed were supposed to be simple enough for the owner to do himself or herself, according to gender.

Finally, it was decided to make 200 pre-series examples for the 1939 Auto Salon in October. The first one rolled off the assembly line on 2. September 1939. The first bombs fell on the factory on 3. June 1940.

After the war, Renault got a commercially-ready 4CV to the Auto Salon first. The 2CV shown at the same salon, had a cast-iron fake motor so nobody would learn Citroen's secrets. Plus the hood was locked. Then the real one was snuck in the middle of the night into the salon's expo hall in 1949 - with a years' worth of pre-publicity.

After making over three million 2Cvs, up until about 1988 - my 'fact sheet' doesn't give an exact date - the last one rolled out of the factory near Paris. For a few years afterwards, they were made in Portugal I think, but now it's really finished.

This means all current and future owners have to make do with what's left - and this is the major topic of conversation during the meal at the monthly club meeting of the 2CV Club 92 in the restaurant 'Le Coup de Coeur' tonight.

Parts-tips are exchanged. Everybody seems to have memorized the parts catalogues because nobody looks quizzical - everybody knows the differences between '59 and '60 models for example.

The parts have to be exactly right though. 2Cvs are not exactly soundproofed and their drivers are very sensitive for foreign noises - especially ones caused by wrong-model parts.

Dimitri's 2CV currently has a rattle that he finds very embarrassing. He knows what it is and how to fix it. He says it is not a loose front bumper. He says the motor is running like a clock.

Besides having club meetings in restaurants and rebuilding their cars, the main purpose ofphoto: traction van at retromobile owning 2Cvs is to drive short or long distances to calm and green places to have picnics. These kind of start within the cars, on their built-in picnic seats.

The 2CV's big brother, the'Traction.' Here as an ultra-rare van model.

After having the café we are outside in the serious breezes blowing around the N-20. After untangling ourselves from the 2CV-sized parking lot, we take the Route Nationale back the way we came.

There is not much traffic and Dimitri stays in the centre of the three lanes. Our only bit of angst comes at the dodgy twists and turns by the non-existent red café. Once over the Perifreak! we are aimed like a speeding bullet towards the Porte d'Orléans and the safety of downtown Paris.

There is a national 2CV organization with 60 local clubs around France and the number doubles if unaffiliated clubs are counted along with clubs located in France's overseas' departments. The Web site of Antony's 2CV Club 92 is a bit more 'hand-made.'

The next national meeting is to take place at Diou from Thursday, 24. May to Sunday, 27. May. Among themselves, the 2CV clubbers call themselves 'Deuchistes.' Germans call the 2CV 'the duck.'

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