Owners from 37 countries were expected to bring more than 5,000 Citröen Deux Chevaux cars to the small town of Salbris in France this week for the 19th two-yearly event known as Amis de la 2CV.
Fans of Citröen's 'tin snail' gather to declare 'Vive la 2CV'
MARSEILLES // For millions of drivers the world over, the route to motoring perfection may involve the comfort, luxury and power of sleek sports models or bulky state-of-the-art 4x4s.
But for an army of enthusiasts gathered at a 60-hectare site in central France, happiness comes in humbler form: a sluggish old runabout that makes passengers feel they are being shaken around inside a tin box.
This is the week of the Citröen 2CV, or Deux Chevaux ("two horsepower"), which ranks with the Ford Model T and VW Beetle among the most distinctive creations in the history of cars.
"It is a car loved by people from all walks of life, without trace of social barriers," said Frédéric Ozog, the president of the 2CV club in the Sologne, the area in which the rally is being held, and vice-president of the national body.
"It has become a symbol of France. But while there is something special about the Deux Chevaux that is dear to the hearts of the French, it also has appeal for people in every continent."
Owners from 37 countries were expected to bring more than 5,000 2CVs to the small town of Salbris this week for the 19th two-yearly event, known as Amis de la 2CV.
Originally designed to offer French peasant farmers a cheap motorised alternative to the horse and cart, the 2CV attracted nicknames wherever it was sold, from the "ugly duckling" or "goat" to "the upside down pram".
It was prone to rust, tested the driver's patience with eccentric road handling and had so little thrust that even owners joked about taking a day to reach 90kph.
Indeed, the earlier versions never reached 90kph at all. But their maximum speed of 60kph suited country-dwellers looking for practicality not performance.
Seats and panels could be detached to make room for sacks of potatoes or other heavy objects. A rugged chassis and tube framework added a sturdiness fit for the unmade roads of rural France, the resilient suspension allowing 2CVs to be portrayed as the car that could be driven over a ploughed field without breaking eggs perched on the back seat.
Work on developing the 2CV began in the 1930s. When war interrupted launch plans, Citröen and its biggest stakeholder, Michelin, destroyed or hid prototypes, fearing the Nazis would find a military use.
Many sneered at the ungainly newcomer when it was finally launched at the 1948 Paris motor show. "Does it come with a can opener?" an American motoring correspondent is said to have asked.
But among lower-earning residents of la France profonde, the Deux Chevaux was a huge hit. Orders flooded in, leading to a waiting list so long that second-hand cars could for a time fetch higher prices than new models.
Appearing at first only in grey, with hand-operated windscreen wipers and engine power limited to 375cc, the 2CV gradually acquired refinements, a little more speed and more colour options.
Between 1948 and the end of production in 1990, more than 3.8 million saloons and 1.2 million Fourgonnette vans were produced.
If the farmers were the original target market, the quirky design and fuel economy of the 2CV - three litres of petrol were enough to carry the first models 100km - also attracted hippies, who adopted psychedelic colour schemes for the bodywork.
The makers of James Bond adapted a yellow model for an improbable car chase scene in the film For Yours Eyes Only, in which the secret agent was able to manoeuvre through a Spanish olive farm to escape pursuers.
Twenty-one years after the last new cars left production lines, the 2CV remains a common sight, many of the owners banding together in a network of clubs.
Mr Ozog, who has restored to original specifications a 1962 2CV van previously in the service of the French postal service, said: "It is impossible to say how many remain, but there could still be a million on the road around the world."
For Amis de la 2CV, he expects a record attendance with 15,000 people visiting the site before the event closes. Pre-war prototypes are among the fleet of 2CVs on show and the programme includes a disassembly-and-assembly competition.
Visitors will also see how the farmer's utilitarian tin snail has helped to shape transport for modern times, with Citroen displaying its Revolte electric "city car", inspired by the 2CV silhouette.