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The Minimum Automobile Celebrates Its 50th Birthday

September 13, 1986

PARIS (AP) _ Fifty years ago, an automotive phenomenon was born - the first prototype of the Citroen company’s Deux Chevaux, frequently referred to as the absolute minimum in motoring.

It may have looked like one, but the Deux Chevaux was not a joke. And despite its ungainly appearance, minuscule engine and total lack of style and equipment, the little car has found a warm place in the hearts of millions around the world.

It is so ugly, it’s beautiful, its admirers say.

Good-natured humor long has been one of its selling points, along with strict functional utility. More than 250 Deux Chevaux clubs have been formed by enthusiasts worldwide, many of whom take pride in the unofficial slogan ″Zero to 60 in the same day.″ It is the ultimate in unprententiousness.

The Deux Chevaux was the brainchild of Pierre-Jules Boulanger, then managing director of Citroen, who in the 1930s wanted to make automobiles available to an entire social class for whom cars previously had been prohibitively expensive.

Boulanger is said to have told his chief engineer: ″Design me a car to carry two people and 50 kilos of potatoes at 60 kilometers per hour using no more than three liters of fuel per 100 kilometers.″ And the price was to be less than one-third that of Citroen’s then most popular car.

The first preliminary wooden model was unveiled Sept. 4, 1936, and more than 250 prototypes had been built by 1939 when Adolf Hitler started World War II and put things on the shelf.

The final product was presented at the 1948 Paris auto show and went on sale to the public the following year. It resembled a turtle on wheels, or an upside-down baby buggy. Some humorists said it looked like it had been made with abandoned U.S. army garbage cans and a cement-mixer motor.

Even Citroen’s publicity department acknowledges that the Deux Chevaux was ″launched with the thinnest press release in the history of public relations.″ The first sales brochure noted that ″we have eliminated everything that is not absolutely necessary.″

The original Deux Chevaux had front-wheel drive, a 375 cubic centimeter engine, weighed 1,750 pounds and was priced at the equivalent of $650. Initial plans for a rope starter like a lawn mower never panned out. Since then, hundreds of improvements have been made, but it remains essentially the same car.

First aimed at rural, low-income customers, over the years it became a favorite of the unconventional and rebellious young, and in recent times, it has evolved into something of a reverse status symbol for the Yuppie generation.

Deux Chevaux have heaters, but hardly anything else. The austere cloth seat covers are stretched over a simple tube and wire frame. Roll-up windows are out of the question. Windows are built in two parts, the bottom half flipping up for a little air or resting an arm.

A common sight today is a Deux Chevaux careening down a country road, windows flapping like a dying moth and body swaying madly side-to-side on its thin suspension bars.

In an era of speed and high technology, Deux Chevaux still can be seen straining up Alpine roads at a snail’s pace in first or second gear, or grinding their way to the top of a long incline on a superhighway, outpaced by virtually everything but cyclists and hitchhikers.

The car has been used in every imaginable terrain, from the Arctic to African deserts. It claimed the automobile altitude record, reaching 17,782 feet on Bolivia’s Mount Chacaltaya.

Its hardy little engine has challenged and defeated the greatest hardships. Once two Frenchmen, Jacques Seguela and Jean-Claude Baudot, lost all of their transmission fluid in a remote area during a round-the-world trip. They filled up the gearbox with crushed bananas and drove on for 200 miles.

From 1949 through the end of 1985, Citroen has built 3,716,968 Deux Chevaux in 30 different versions, many of them for export. In the first six months of 1986, Citroen produced 34,336 of them, an increase of 18 percent over 1984.

The cheapest Deux Chevaux on sale today is a model with a 602cc engine priced at the equivalent of $5,200.

And the 50th birthday? The French press overlooked it. Nobody at Citroen appeared to have given it much thought, and a spokesman appeared surprised anybody asked.

End Adv Weekend Editions Sept. 13-14

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