The Citroën 2CV’s closest rival in France was the Renault 4 – but which was better? We pit late examples of each against each other to find out

Words and images: Sam Skelton  With thanks to: Jack Grover, Katie Robotham

The Citroën 2CV is so well-established as a shorthand for France that it’s inserted into almost any scene with the regularity of Breton stripes, garlic or a Routemaster bus in London. And with good reason: this clever little car was instrumental in mobilising France. But following the launch of the Renault 4, the 2CV’s popularity waned – and while it enjoyed a revival in the 1970s, sales were never again as strong as they had been before Renault waded in. Neither the Ami nor the Dyane reversed Citroën’s fortunes and the Renault 4 had usurped it as the popular French people’s car.

But why was this? Was it a better car, or was it simply something new? There can only be one way to settle this over 60 years later – to take comparable examples of both cars and to assess each in the context of the other.

Citroën 2CV

The story of the 2CV begins before the Second World War. Citroën Vice President Pierre Boulanger had identified a market for a Toute Petite Voiture – a small car for taking the farming family to Mass and to market alike. It didn’t need to be powerful, quite the opposite. It needed reliability above all else, simplicity, the ability to be driven by an inexperienced driver, the ability to be mended with a handful of tools, and the ability to handle French roads or even ploughed fields without breaking its cargo of up to 50kg of market goods. Original plans included a water-cooled engine and roof-suspended hammock seating.

By 1939 it was ready – and would have been launched, had it not been for world events. Instead, the project was shelved and the few prototypes hidden. In 1945, Citroën revived the concept – though with different parameters. It now featured an air cooled engine with no gaskets for greater simplicity, interconnected springing, and bench seats which could be removed to gain cargo space. Launched in 1948 at a cost of 225,000 francs (the equivalent of £300), priority was given to vets, doctors and farmers, so the ordinary Frenchman would have to join a six-year waiting list if he wanted one.

Initially 375cc, the engine size was increased to 425cc from 1955. This engine became standard with the 2CV’s first and only real facelift in 1960, where the rippled bonnet gave way to a new wavy number. Barring front-hinged doors in 1965 and the addition of a rear quarterlight, the 2CV would remain largely unchanged in physical form until 1990. From 1965 a 602cc engine became optional, while the smaller unit was increased in 1970 to 435cc.

New sister models including the Ami and the Dyane attempted to replace or supplement the 2CV during its years of waning interest in the 1960s, but the oil crisis of the early 1970s saw a resurgence of interest in the Deux Chevaux. Citroën kept producing them in France until 1988, transferring production to Portugal for the final two years before accepting that it just cost too much to make in a new, primarily automated manufacturing world.
Get into the 2CV and at first, everything feels alien. It’s stripped out, yet those deckchair style seats are oddly comfortable. You sit high and forward, and yet it really doesn’t feel like a cramped car. The gearlever protrudes from the dashboard like an errant umbrella, and the handbrake is on the other side of the car such are its dimensions. It feels larger than it is from inside almost, there’s space for four six footers in comfort with plenty of luggage space, but few frills.

Hinged windows are about as prestigious as the 2CV ever got, and a jazzed up base spec like the Dolly we’re in feels like even that is a luxury which was reluctantly given. Door cards are literally that, flat pieces of card with a bent bit of plastic screwed in to pull the doors shut. There’s a choice of two positions for each front window – fully open or partially open – and a flap under the screen which provides effective fresh air ventilation. Fold back the plastic hood – lighter and cheaper than steel – and suddenly the lack of luxuries no longer seems to matter. You’re in an icon of France, and all you’re missing is the egg basket. Cliché perhaps, but for a reason.

Our test car is a 2CV Dolly, one of the last French cars from 1988. It’s a genuine Dolly too; so popular was the model that some dealers countered short supply by painting the wings of a standard Special in a contrasting colour and terming the resulting hybrid a Dolly Mixture. Finished in the adorable-sounding “Strawberries and Cream”, our test car may be shabby but that’s really how a 2CV ought to be, it’s an honest working car for French farmers or Parisian city dwellers alike, and in neither situation is a car immune from signs of use.

The 2CV cranks slowly, you wonder at first if it’s actually going to fire or if you’re going to need the starting handle that was standard equipment until the end of production. But they always fire, and after surprisingly few revolutions. You’re rewarded by a sort of angry wasp sound, the calling card of the flat twin. Twist the umbrella gear lever to the left and pull it back, and you’re in first – a dog leg position designed to leave second and third more easily accessible for hilly roads and manoeuvring. And you’re off.

There’s no driving experience quite like a 2CV – steering which is well weighted and direct amuses, especially when coupled with comical lean angles which are a by-product of its soft suspension. In a world of potholes and rutted surfaces, it’s the perfect antithesis to the modern Audi. And it’s a car which rewards demented driving. Drive a 2CV slowly and it’s OK, charming but not the stuff that dreams are perhaps made of. But on a winding B road, trying to wring every last ounce from that 602cc engine, timing gearchanges to perfection? The Tin Snail is more amusing than any sports car you can name. And it’s a beautiful gearbox to boot, almost impossible to crunch, with well-chosen ratios it’s rare to find a scenario the tiny engine can’t handle.

And they’re practical to boot. Take that rear seat out and there’s space for a ram or two, or a few hay bales. The average IKEA flat pack is no problem at all.

But the best bit about owning a 2CV is the people. Rarely a happier bunch can you find than 2CV enthusiasts, and the welcome you will receive from the like-minded almost justifies the purchase in itself. You might never have considered one, but the 2CV is one of the most rewarding classics you can own.

Renault 4

The Renault 4 came along some 13 years after the 2CV in 1961, and outlived it by two. It was Renault’s take on the concept of a small car for the people, having watched the success of the 2CV and taken note of what some owners felt to be its shortcomings.

Renault chairman Pierre Dreyfus instigated the Renault 4 programme in 1956 – the intention was to replace the Renault 4CV saloon with a model which was better-equipped to take on the 2CV and beat it. Renault recognised the flaws inherent in the 2CV – it had been designed for a rural market which was dwindling, and as the road network in France improved it was being left behind on the new autoroutes.

The suspension system was overly complicated in a bid to improve the ride, now no longer as crucial a consideration as it had been 20 years earlier in and among the fields. The body was narrow for its size owing to separate wings, and Renault knew that a pontoon body could be more practical within the same footprint. It also recognised that an estate-type configuration like Citroën’s larger Traction Avant Familiale could make for an even more practical car.

The R4 of 1961 was that car. Designed to appeal to city-dwellers without compromising too much of the 2CV’s rural remit, simpler torsion bar suspension was fitted, which resulted in a design oddity. Owing to the positioning of the torsion bars across the car one behind the other, the wheelbase was asymmetrical – three inches longer on the right than the left. Citroën itself had recognised that the 2CV’s rural market was fading, and launched the Ami 6 the same year as the R4 to target the same sort of urban clientele. But while the Ami looked far more swish, underneath lay all the compromises of the original 2CV. Early 4s came with a 747cc engine, larger than any 2CV ever received, and subsequent models grew to 845cc and even 1108cc from the larger Renault 8 model.

The short-lived Renault R3 was a pared-down model, targeting the same rural buyers as the 2CV with missing rear quarterlights, little exterior brightwork, no roof lining, no fuel gauge and a 603cc engine. Priced below the 2CV, it lasted just a year before being discontinued through poor demand.

The R4 was renamed in 1965 – all Renaults lost the additional R, making this car the Renault 4. Early cars were three-speed, gaining a fourth gear in 1968. Facelifted in 1967 and 1974, little was new except a change of grille cosmetically. By the end of production, the sole model was the 4GTL, complete with 1108cc engine. The 4 was replaced by the Renault 5 Campus as Renault’s cheapest model, the wider 5 range having been usurped by the new Clio of 1990.

The Renault 4 experience is familiar to 2CV devotees, but it feels far more modern overall. Our test car is a later GTL, finished in a colour Renault simply described as yellow but that is akin to the perfect egg yolk, and whose brightness emphasises the jolliness of this car on a bright Cotswold day. A full width shelf dominates the dash, but now it’s a plastic moulding. There’s a familiar umbrella handle gear selector, but now it drives a conventional H pattern.

The seats are very soft, but they’re more conventional in shape and trim than the equivalents in the Citroën. There’s the same hard wearing floor covering, but the driving position feels more natural. You’re not hunched over the wheel slightly, you’re sat behind a wheel that’s far more vertical in aspect and in seats which recline. Turn the key and it’s a more conventional noise than the Citroën, but then the whole car feels slightly more conventional. Witness the ventilation options – you lose the folding hood, but gain opening rear windows.

Select first – left and forward, like a typical supermini – and that’s in truth what this car feels like. It’s the precursor to cars like the R5 and the Fiesta. Yes, it’s soft like the 2CV – and its high speed ride is actually better than the Citroën – and yes, it handles in a similarly entertaining diagonal manner. But it also feels wider inside, a cleverer use of space, and there’s a big boot behind that folding rear seat. Despite an engine almost twice the size of the Citroën, it doesn’t feel that much more powerful – and it isn’t, with 5bhp more and 20% greater weight it actually has a poorer power to weight ratio than the Citroën but compensates with greater torque.

Steep hills need a dedicated right foot, and there are times you almost wish you were in the Citroën instead where that demented little twin could rev to its heart’s content. But the Renault, ultimately, has greater refinement both of experience and concept. It feels more like you expect a car to be – the 2CV might be an entertaining toy in the 21st century, but the Renault still makes sense as a car.

It comes replete with just as dedicated a band of fans as the Citroën too – the pictured car isn’t actually the one we arranged for the photographs, but following a mechanical mishap the owner of the first car managed to arrange the loan of this one just three miles up the road. Renault 4 owners in a nutshell.

Citroën 2CV vs Renault 4: our verdict

The Renault is in truth the better car. It’s got more room in it despite occupying a smaller footprint, it’s more powerful, the ride – in certain situations, but predominantly suited to decent road surfaces – is better, and the hatchback body makes it a more practical proposition than the 2CV.

It was these criticisms of the original design that led to Citroën’s introduction of the Dyane, but even that wasn’t enough to seize the sales lead back from Renault and with good reason, the 4 was simply put, a more convincing overall package for those seeking a small and economical town car.

The 2CV’s problem is that while it answered the needs of its design specifications perfectly, that specification was rather focused upon the small farmer – a breed which was becoming scarce even by the 1950s. That meant that as time went by the Citroën became seen more as a city car, and in this environment the Renault is a superior product.

But that’s not to criticise the 2CV –and if I may be personal the 2CV is actually my winner. Because while the Renault is better at being a car, I don’t think that it offers quite the same amount of charm as the small Citroën.
As a classic to cherish and enjoy the way that the 2CV makes me feel outweighs any small practicality advantage the Renault might offer.

You might disagree – and there’s nothing wrong if you choose the Renault as your personal victor. It’s a closer call than anyone could predict, and it comes down to whether you prefer to think with your head or your heart. I’m simply romantic enough to give the latter to the 2CV.