WAR ON WHEELS

By Stuart Grant with photography by Henrie Snyman

Beetle vs 2CV (17)

A shootout took place between two contenders: one a quirky French voiture and one a loved and enduring German bug. But who wins the title of the 'People's Car'? Read on to find out...

In April 1934, Adolf Hitler gave the order to Ferdinand Porsche to develop a volkswagen, a term that literally translates to ‘People’s Car’. As it was to be for the masses, the brief called for an affordable car capable of transporting two adults and three children at 100km/h. He added that it should be economical to run and therefore sip petrol at a rate of no more than seven litres per 100km. The 2CV tale starts shortly after this in 1936, when vice-president of Citroën and chief of engineering and design at Citroën, Pierre-Jules Boulanger, briefed his team about penning what would be called the TPV, which stands for toute petite voiture, translated as ‘very small car’.

Porsche drew experience from his 1931 Type 12 Auto für Jedermann (car for everybody) designed for Zündapp and 1933 Type 32 for NSU to come up with a pair of Type 60 prototypes in 1935, which eventually led to a batch of 44 VW38 pre-production models. These introduced the distinctive round shape and split rear window that morphed into the Beetle we know and love today. True to the brief he opted for a simple flat-four air-cooled motor which did away with the fuss of coolant plumbing and the chance of freezing in the European winters. As we all know, this engine found a home in the back of the car and drove the rear wheels.

Beetle vs 2CV (9)

Citroën too went with a flat-engine layout, but for the TPV went the route of a water-cooled twin-cylinder engine mounted up front and driving the front wheels. Boulanger had put Grand Prix racer and designer André Lefèbvre in charge of engineering the project, and his obsession for keeping contact between tyres and the road is the reason that hard-cornering 2CVs often see bizarre amounts of body roll and odd wheel camber angles. Boulanger was hell-bent on making the TPV ultra light and set almost impossible goals in this department for the engineers. Their solution to this was to use a lot of aluminium and magnesium parts on the prototypes. Seats were hammocks suspended from the roof and as French law only required a single headlight, this is what the early prototype TPVs received.

By mid-1939, 250 units were produced and the TPV, soon to be marketed as the 2CV, earned its homologation papers. Launch date was diarised for the October 1939 Paris Motor Show. But this was never to be as France declared war on Germany and the motor show was cancelled.

Beetle vs 2CV (13)

In a similar vein, the production of the Volkswagen slowed right down with the onset of war, with only a handful of Beetles being produced for the Nazi head honchos between 1941 and ’45 and the factory dominated by military vehicles such as the Kübelwagen and Schwimmwagen. It was only when the British took over the operation after the war that civilian cars started rolling out the Volkswagen factory and this was only thanks to British Army officer Major Ivan Hirst convincing the British military to order 20 000 of the already-developed Volkswagen Type 1 cars, which soon became known as the Beetle.

Citroën managed to hide the TPV from the Germans as Boulanger refused to collaborate with German authorities. He was so vehement about this that he organised and encouraged sabotage against production for the German war effort and made it onto the Gestapo list as an "enemy of the Reich". The Nazis had even attempted to steal Citroën's press tools, but Boulanger was on the ball and got the French Resistance to re-label the rail cars, holding them in the Paris marshalling yard, and they ended up spread around Europe.

An increase in the price of aluminium during the war meant a rethink on the 2CV design. The only option was to go for steel and to keep costs and tooling to a minimum and as a result flat, slab-sided panels became the main guide to the aesthetic we now know. A new engine also found its way onto the Citroën drawing board when the firm got the rights to the air-cooled AFG (Aluminium Français Grégoire) lump. Boulanger ditched his ideas of water-cooled and, inspired by the AFG item, roped in Walter Becchia to design a two-cylinder air-cooled unit. He did this and even put together a four-speed gearbox that used up the same amount of space as the inferior three-speed and cost only slightly more to manufacture.

Beetle vs 2CV (10)

A three-year gestation period followed, where production of the 2CV was slowed thanks to the new socialist French government only allowing Citroën to dabble in the upper middle market with its Traction Avant model. The government gave the honours of the entry-level car market to the nationalised Renault factory and its 4CV and added to the frustration by allocating all the supplies of steel to Renault. Finally, this scheme was dropped and in October 1948 the 2CV was launched to the masses.

It was an immediate success, with orders backing up the customer waiting list to over two years and second-hand cars sold for more than the new items to avoid the queues. By the end of 1951, production hit the 16 000-unit mark and the odd-looking Citroën established itself as a picture of post-war France. Various versions popped up like the 2CV Fourgonnette van and even a Sahara-titled version, which was good for off-roading thanks to a second engine being fitted into the back and powering the rear wheels.1960 saw a minor update, with the most obvious change being the removal of the ‘ripple bonnet’ in favour of a smoother one using six concave reinforcements. And from 1961 the 602cc engine was offered alongside the earlier 425cc item, which had itself replaced the original 375cc. 602cc-powered cars were badged 2CV6 while the 425cc were called 2CV4.

Beetle vs 2CV (2)

To remove its wartime image, marketing gurus came up with the idea of making windscreen wipers various colours. Brochures depicted families having picnics on the removable seats and the fabric top that was originally installed to carry the likes of a painter’s ladder suddenly became a sunroof. To encourage free-spirited buyers, the Citroën Raid event was added to the calendar in 1970: customers were able to take part in long-distance adventure rallies – the first year 500 2CVs trundled to Afghanistan and back. For 1971 the run hit Iran but 1973’s Raid Afrique topped the charts, with 60 of the humble cars trekking Abidjan to Tunisia, through the unmapped and Ténéré section of the Sahara Desert.

2CV production ended in France 40 years later (although Portugal soldiered on for another two years under licence). On top of the home sales the Citroën excelled in Asia, South America and Africa. Production across the board came in at just over 2.4 million units.

Not surprisingly, with factories around the world and an American love affair with the Volkswagen Beetle, the German’s sales figures trump these French figures. Believe it or not, Beetle production ran through to 2003 and amassed a total number in the region of 25 million. Facelifts and changes were more significant than those of the 2CV though, and engines ranged from 1100cc to 1200, 1300, 1500 and on to 1600cc. The story of the Volksie has been told many times before so I won’t go into detail, but let’s just say that thanks to a solid product that met the initial brief and then evolved over time to suit the changing environment, and coupled with period-relevant marketing, the Beetle is the champion ‘People’s Car’.

Beetle vs 2CV (16)

While setting up to shoot the pictured Citroën 2CV4, we stumbled across the owner of this magnificent original 1961 Volkswagen Beetle and had to photograph the pair together. Even better was the fact that the Beetle owner had owned a 2CV and travelled Europe in it.

He recounted stories of how, together with his wife-to-be, he traversed Europe, pottered up the Alps at slow speeds and moved the seats out the way each night to make a Citroën camper van. Just as I thought his mind was made up to trade the Volla in and buy a Citroën, he quickly swapped back to Beetle-fan mode: “But the Volksie drives so much better”. A fact he proved recently by taking it on a 1 200km round trip through Mpumalanga.

Beetle vs 2CV (1)

And I can see why the Beetle seems like a lot more car than the 2CV. It has curves, a full-length dashboard and, thanks to the engine being behind the sound-absorbing rear seat, runs a lot quieter. Despite being located ahead of the front wheels, the noise coming from the 425cc engine through Citroën’s rudimentary dash and thin firewall is more than noticeable. And the Beetle doors close with a reassuring thud while the 2CV is somewhat tinny.

Where the French offering comes to the fore though is in the ride department. Climb into the driver’s seat and the car drops visibly under your weight. It soaks up the bumps and road irregularities in a calming, boat-like manner. Rumour has it that you can load up a basket full of fresh farm eggs and drive across a ploughed field without a single egg breaking.

Obviously we can’t compare like with like in the specification department, with one engine being almost three times in capacity than the other. Finding zero to 100km/h times appears to be impossible, most likely as they take what feels like a lifetime to get there and the 2CV max speed is only claimed at 101km/h when you wring its neck. The Beetle manages this rate with slightly more ease, but neither is going to win any speed test. They do both climb steep gradients well though – not fast but with consistency. In slippery conditions the Beetle will probably do a bit better, with the weight transferring over the driven wheels. Then again, the 2CV keeps the rubber in contact with the earth so much better thanks to its agile suspension.

Beetle vs 2CV (21)

Picking a winner is near impossible with both fighting hard for the title of the People’s Car. The French offering wins in the rarity department, and perhaps in the looks field too (if you like a somewhat comical aesthetic), while the Volksie takes the title if you are looking for a more solidly built machine and one that sold in record numbers.

To settle this war we call on any readers out there with either of these cars to complete a race. Pack both cars with the family, load a basket of eggs on the back shelf and head for Lesotho via Sani Pass. Once at the top we will analyse the data, comparing how many eggs broke, the number of family feuds along the way, fuel usage, time it took and how many tools from the tool box were used.

Beetle vs 2CV (3)
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