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24/09/2019
 

…that in France they use raw eggs as crash test dummies?

No, honestly, they do – or at least they did! “A basket of eggs should emerge unharmed from a trip along a rough farm track” – that was the specification formulated by Pierre-Jules Boulanger when a new model of car was being developed. And no, M. Boulanger was not the owner of the local boulangerie – or baker’s shop –keen to get his ingredients delivered in one piece. In the mid-1930s he was Director General of French automaker Citroën and the man behind the creation of the 2CV, a model known in Germany as “die Ente” (the duck).

At a time when car ownership was becoming a status symbol in France, Boulanger had an idea. He wanted to “export” this urban luxury to rural regions, at affordable prices and in simple but robust form. Farmers who still relied on horses for mobility should be relieved of having to care for their beasts of burden, he argued. So Boulanger’s specifications for the new model stated that two farmers in boots should easily be able to transport 50 kilos of potatoes in the new model. A top speed of 60 km/h would suffice. And there should be plenty of headroom, because farmers wore hats. And crucially, that basket of raw eggs had to survive a trip over rutted farm tracks intact. The plan was to launch the car at the 1939 Paris Motor Show.

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The 2CV was a car for rural regions – and for farmers who needed to transport baskets of eggs on the back seat. Photo: Citroën / Georges Guyot

 

But the war had other plans and most of the 250 pre-war models built were scrapped. When the Germans occupied France, the engineers at Citroën hid the plans and continued working on the car in secret. Then, at the 1948 Paris Motor Show, the 2CV was finally presented to the public. But was it truly presentable? The visuals took some getting used to, not least for Parisian auto fans. It soon emerged, though, that front-wheel drive, an air-cooled two-cylinder boxer engine delivering 9 PS, and of course that soft, go-everywhere suspension to keep those eggs intact, made an impressive package. In the post-war years, when practical solutions were in demand, the 2CV became a symbol of personal freedom. By 1990, the company had built five variants and a total of 6,956,895 units, all with that unmistakable “deux chevaux” look. 

But what earned it the nickname “the duck”? Anecdotal evidence says that a Dutch journalist, on seeing the car for the first time, said it reminded him of the ugly duckling in the fairytale by Hans Christian Andersen. In the story, the ugly duckling wants nothing more than to become a beautiful swan – which is ultimately what happens. Initially scorned, ultimately loved – that is indeed the story of the 2CV. But to round off our tale, we need to clear up that age-old question about what came first, the chicken (or duck) or the egg? In our case, at least, the egg came first – a whole basketful, in fact.

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1948: Pierre Boulanger (looking pleased) presents his new car to French President Vincent Auriol (looking doubtful). Photo: Citroën / DR