French Cars

“I’ll put that right at the beginning so that you have a chance to tune out.” – Len Frank
Originally published in European car magazine

I like French cars, or, more properly I like some French cars. I like them for many of the same reasons I like some Italian cars (or American cars, Japanese cars, German cars, Austrian, Australian, Spanish, Brazilian, English, etc. I do not like cars with no personality, inventiveness, superior function. It is not enough that a car just work—no appliances need apply.).

It has been said that the automobile was born in Germany (open to some question), but grew up in France. They held the first races (and brought politics into racing first), banned the first race. It is no accident that the “conventional” front-engined/rear-drive layout is properly called Systeme Panhard, or that the live axle suspended on parallel leaf springs in the rear was called Hotchkiss drive. The first modern high speed racing car engine with four valves per cylinder in a pent roof combustion chamber was from Peugeot (1912). And where did you suppose deDion rear suspension came from? or chassis? Or monocoque? or chauffeur?

When I came on the automotive scene—that is, when I stopped drawing airplanes in junior high study halls and started drawing cars—France still made both Panhards and Hotchkiss, as well as Salmson, Delahaye, Delage, Bugatti, Talbot-Lago, and, of course, Renault, Peugeot, Simca, Citroen. They had cars with engines in the front, cars with engines in the back, air-cooled, water cooled, front drive, rear drive.

While I was last in Europe, getting lost, Citroen announced the end of the 2CV, adeiu deux chevaux and all of that stuff. With the possible exception of the peripatetic Beetle, the 2CV has been in production longer than any other car. I think that it may have been the best, the most accurately designed car ever.

OK, I’ve just said that a car that looks like it was made from corrugated galvanized garbage cans was the best-designed car ever. Citroen’s chief designer was told to produce the very simplest kind of car: “four wheels and an umbrella,” were supposed to have been his instructions and that’s what he produced.

The idea was to build a car for people who had never owned a car. It’s pretty easy for us to be smug about it but the world is full of peasants who have never driven or owned automobiles (just my humble opinion but the U.S. is full of peasants—and others—who shouldn’t own or drive cars and do).

The 2CV was first rolled out as a peculiar looking prototype just before WWII. It first became a peculiar looking production car just after WWII. During that interval the conditions that caused the 2CV to be designed in the first place were strengthened—gas was harder to get, roads were worse, the railroad infrastructure was damaged…people laughed at it—but they bought it.

What they bought was a 375cc (2CV=two gasoline taxable horsepower) two cylinder opposed air cooled light alloy engine with hemi heads up front, bolted to a four speed gearbox with an automatic (centrifugal) clutch—it relieved the driver of the constraints of skill—proper cv joints to the half shafts driving the front wheels. Later cars have a normal clutch and a 600+cc engine. Wow. (snickering here)

It had leading arms in the front (slanted up) and trailing arms in the rear (slanted down) connected to coil springs mounted horizontally and longitudinally under the sides of the car. When a load was put on the car, the arms moved closer to the horizontal and the wheelbase got longer (chuckling, some laughter). When the front wheel hit a bump it, of course, compressed the spring that controlled it, but it also partially compressed the rear wheel spring on that side tightening the suspension and helping to maintain a controlled ride—and it was a wonderful ride. And no shocks. The early 2CVs used inertia dampers—they don’t fade or wear out.

Those of you who have seen 2CVs corner (I’m not sure that word applies), leaning at a ridiculous angle have somehow gotten the idea that they handle badly. Not so. Those bicycle-sized tires don’t have much grip but they don’t mind not being flat on the ground—it doesn’t seem to decrease the cornering grip and the car, leaning goes right where you want it to. (loud laughter)

There’s more: the speedo cable drove the wipers so you had to drive it flat out in the rain to see where you were going. The doors were removable with a single screw so farmers could get their produce in, and if they were carrying livestock instead of cabbages and onions, the roof rolled back for bovine headroom. (hysterical laughter)

The seats were tubular frames with rubber band springs and simple canvas covers. It took a minute or so to take the seats out–nice for picnics, important for getting sheep into the back seat area. (sheep—in the back seat. Enough)

There was a four-wheel drive version with two engines called the Sahara. It would go anywhere. There was a plastic-bodied version called the Mehari (camel)—body repairs could be done with a candle and a stick of plastic that looked like a knitting needle.

The 2CV had inventiveness with a purpose. It had a “damn the clinics, damn the product planners” quality that the original VW had. It had French solutions to a set of problems. It was a wonderful little car and if it weren’t for our foolish government, I’d own several today.

It’s not just the 2CV worth talking about. It might have been the Citroen Traction Avant that actually had been an American prototype that no domestic manufacturer would touch, or it might have been the DS19 (yes, another Cit) which was the most advanced–but not most intelligent—car built in 1956 (or maybe any time afterward). There were other clever, interesting, intelligent cars built in France—the Dyna Panhard, the world’s only two-cylinder luxury car, the Hotchkiss-Gregoire with a cast aluminum frame, the Peugeot 403, the 205, the 205 GTI 16V Turbo supercar—hell, even the mid-’sixties Renault Dauphines were light, fun to drive, had great brakes, good gas mileage, enough performance.

Sadly, I don’t see that special quality in French cars today. Some years ago an auto writer suggested that all real French cars were Citroens and that every French manufacturer made its own Cit. Maybe. The first Cit that really meant something to the world was the 1934 Traction—the one that was developed from a prototype by Budd in Detroit.

The current new Cit is the XM—it has the third or fourth generation of the hydro-pneumatic springing first used on the last Tractions and the DS that followed it. It shares its engine, driveline and suspension platform with the Peugeot 605 (Peugeot, Citroen, what remains of Chrysler Europe, Panhard, and others are grouped under the PSA heading, controlled by Peugeot’s conservative management). The 605 and XM are supposed to be imported to the U.S. in a year or two, as soon as certain questions are well and truly settled. I think they are going to fall on their respective Italian noses (the XM is styled by Bertone, the 605 by Pininfarina).

The last new French car brought to America was the Peugeot 405. They expected to sell 20,000 in a year. At the present rate of sale it will take them more than three years. Why? It’s an appliance and the Japanese are the current kings of the appliance business. And not content with that, the Japanese are building cars like the Honda CRX, the Acura NSX, the Nissan 300ZX, 240SX, Toyota MR2, Lexus LS400—cars that clearly transcend appliances.

They have yet to build a small car with the basics of a Renault 5, but they have built a fake 2CV—the Nissan S-Cargo. The XM and 605 miss that distinctive flavor. They smack of focus groups and production engineers. Like all good appliances they’re swell—on paper.

The French are proud of their heritage. They have a committee that protects the purity of their language, chauvinistic laws that protect their trade, protects them (now) from barbaric imports. But once-upon-a-time they built the Maginot Line—a string of forts to keep the Germans out. The Germans just walked around the end. No laughter here. It wasn’t funny.

The real answer would have been to develop the internal strength that would have intimidated the Germans. That analogy applies equally to competition from the Japanese. Some French will disagree, but all of the new cars that I saw in France were appliances and not even the best appliances at that.

I’d like to see another real French car. I’d like to see them reinvent the 2CV.


Top image: A trio of Citroen 2CV vehicles (from Citroen UK’s 100 Years of Daring and Innovation series)

Len Frank
Len Frank

The late Len Frank was the legendary co-host of “The Car Show”—the first and longest-running automotive broadcast program on the airwaves. Len was also a highly regarded journalist, having served in editorial roles with Motor TrendSports Car GraphicPopular Mechanics, and a number of other publications. LA Car is proud to once again host “Look Down the Road – The Writings of Len Frank” within its pages. Special thanks to another long-time automotive journalist, Matt Stone, who has been serving as the curator of Len Frank’s archives since his passing in 1996. Now, you’ll be able to view them all in one location under the simple search term “Len Frank”, or just click this link: Look Down The Road. – Roy Nakano

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