1976 Citroën 2CV6 CT (Ref# 0814A)
I sat in the high speed train from Valencia to Madrid, ripping through the Spanish countryside at more than 300kph, marveling at the speed and efficiency of modern bullet railways and chuckling inwardly at how I would be coming home at a pace decidedly more sedate. I was on my way to Zamora, a city somewhat northwest of Madrid, to pick up a Citroën 2CV and drive it all the way back to Javea, on the Mediterranean coast. It would be a journey of well over 1000 kilometers in a 29bhp car I had never seen before.
I was buying the car from José María, the founder of the 2CV Friends Of Zamora and an avid "deux chaveux" fanatic. I was especially excited, having never driven a 2CV before.
Owing to the rather limited top speed potential of the car, I had planned a route home that avoided the 120kph autovias and stuck to "nationals" and "carreteras," but I was still curious to know what kind of maximum speed I could count on from the car. When I asked José, however, he just shrugged. "You can ask him," he said, referring to the Citroën, "and he will give all he can."
My route home would take me south from Zamora to Salamanca, then through Avila, and then past Madrid down to Toledo. From there, I'd angle east toward Albacete, on to Alcoy, and then cut through the mountains down to the Mediterranean coastal town of Benidorm. From there, it would be a short run up the coast to my home in Javea.
In Madrid I switched trains, getting off the "Ave" and onto the local coach that winds its way northward, stopping at almost every pueblo along the way, and it was nearly 2:30pm when I arrived in Zamora. José María was there at the station waiting for me, and we hopped in the car and went to lunch at a local café.
"How long," he asked, "do you think it will take you to get home to Javea?" I told him it didn't matter to me. Maybe two days. Maybe three.
"This is good," he said, nodding and smiling. "You can go anywhere in this car. Anywhere. Provided you are not in a great hurry." Then he shook his head thoughtfully, spread his arms wide, and added: "But this is the way travel should be, no?"
Over a lunch of grilled octopus and coarse red wine, we sat and talked politics for a bit, and after lunch we sat some more, and debated the benefits of graduate school, and then we sat some more, discussing the merits of reading books in their original languages. By the time we got around to taking care of paperwork, it was nearly 6:00pm, and I had a hell of a long way to go. I made my excuses, dropped José María off at his flat in the downtown area, and began picking my way though the center of the city, in stunningly perfect late summer weather, looking for the arteries heading south towards Salamanca.
The first thing you notice when you drive a "deux chaveux" for the first time (or "dos caballos" in Spain) is how wonderfully inexplicable it is. The shift pattern for the four-speed manual looks conventional enough, stenciled innocuously on the instrument cluster, but instead of a normal shift lever coming out of the floor as expected, you are greeted by a thick, shining steel rod sticking horizontally straight out of the dashboard, with a curved end like an umbrella handle. It's hard to envision how one could make it follow the shift pattern in the stencil. (Doesn't it just slide straight in and out?) Switches are labeled with letters like "R" and "V" (both of which relate to the lights, it turns out. There are anachronistic knurled turn knobs jutting out of the cowl, and several plain-looking buttons in the cluster with no markings whatsoever. Nothing seems to make any sense.
Don't sweat it. Don't overthink it. Just get in and take a crack at it. The ignition key unlocks the electrical system, and a quick stab of the wonderful red starter button is all it takes to get the engine fired. Engage the clutch and try to find first and odds are you will. I don't really know how to EXPLAIN how the shifter works, other than to say it does, and feels quite a bit more conventional than it appears. Underway, you're aware of the horsepower limitations, but the car moves out of its own way just fine, thank you very much, and in a city or on country lanes, progress is perfectly acceptable. So far, so good.
Once on the open road, well... it's best to be the patient sort, but the second thing you notice when you drive a 2CV is that you have become something of an instant celebrity. Everyone smiles and points at you, and most wave. Virtually every bicyclist waves, as if they feel a kindred spirit somehow. Cars that are overtaking you (and there will be many) all stare and grin and offer enthusiastic thumbs up, and everyone seems delighted to see you. In two days of driving, every honk of the horn I received was of the "cheerful toot" variety, never a cranky blast to "move over." This is a happy car.
I toured south through the endless farms on the way to Salamanca, through countryside that reminded me of Nebraska or Kansas, only much drier. Angling east toward Madrid brought more ancient villages and historic churches, and past the perfectly preserved walled city of Avila I bent to the south and headed for Toledo as the sun got very low in the sky. The country was hillier now, and the 2CV isn't much of a climber. On the flat, "if you ask," he will give about 100kp/h. Maybe 110. As the road turns uphill however, you will find that velocity bleeding off quite rapidly, and on some of the rather steep, mountainous climbs near Madrid I found myself down into third gear and 50kp/h or so, rubbing the dashboard and repeating "Vamos, patito!" ("Come on, little duck!")
The 2CV is, quite simply, my favorite touring car ever. It's not fast, no. But it's remarkably roomy, incredibly efficient, and makes every trip of any length an adventure. It's like the joy of riding a Vespa. Sure, technically you could jump on the freeway, but why would you? The pleasure of traveling slow is a pleasure that keeps unfolding into new and unconsidered gifts. The roads you are forced to take end up carrying you through countryside you rarely see and towns you rarely visit. You smell things other than diesel fuel, like cut grass and honeysuckle. You are forced to navigate by turns and crossings, not exit numbers. Getting tired? Stop at the next town and get a coffee at a small café and have pleasant conversation with the handful of people who are certain to appear to ask questions whenever you stop. You have to be a bit of a poet to drive a 2CV. You can't be in a great hurry to get anywhere. You have to roll with the punches a bit. But if you do, you'll find there is something consummately pleasurable about touring in a 29bhp vehicle with a fabric roof...
I hit Toledo after dark, and tucked the patito into the underground parking garage at the (exceedingly comfortable) Hilton Buenavista Hotel. The next morning I was up before the sun, and after a quick check of the oil (Citroën air-cooled twins always use a little) I was off again. In a lot of ways, the deux chaveuax is remarkably modern, and in other ways it is almost comically archaic, but the combination, winding through the empty, pre-dawn streets of a walled Spanish city like Toledo, with the fabric roof rolled back and the little headlights boring their twin holes through the darkness, is nothing short of enchanting. I am in love.
Toledo to Albacete was hot and flat, with the relentless sun reminding me I was now in the southern half of Spain, but as I made my way east, toward the coast, the hills returned and the little Citroën never missed a beat. It never faltered. It always fired on the first couple revolutions of the starter. Some cars are reliable and some cars aren't but only a very few immediately give you the sense that they will never let you down, and this little 2CV is one of them.
In the end, I made it to the coast, and up to Javea, on that second day, completely without issue. At the shop, the technicians gave the car a clean bill of health, needing to fit only a couple new heater hoses to the exchangers, and effect a repair of the fuel gauge sender. The bodywork, however, was a little shabby, so it went in for a full coachwork reconditioning and respray in the original creme beige color. A new grille was fitted, rare and wonderful Robi trim was installed on the fenders, and the wheels were resprayed in the factory original gray. The interior went to the upholsterer for recovering front and rear seats, and the result is a visually stunning 2CV in an elegant color combination and with the mechanical trustworthiness to drive anywhere.
I'm still in love.