Au revoir, deux-chevaux

Citro"en has announced that it is to cease production of the deux-chevaux in France. The car will, however, continue to be made in Spain and Portugal. (News item)

I AM afraid that a Spanish or Portuguese deux-chevaux will never express the image of France in quite the same way. We're still reeling from the abolition of the French policeman's traditional cape and kepi in favor of a uniform that is but a pale clone of that worn by the American policeman. Now the deux-chevaux is to go. What next? The baguette? The croissant? The beret, even? The roads of France sans deux-chevaux are hard to picture. What shall we all be able to overtake now?

Riding behind two horses used to be considered a very civilized way to travel - and deux-chevaux drivers have carried on that tradition. I remember the first time I saw one, with its angular body that looked as if it had been made out of surplus tin cans, and its charming habit of leaning outward as it went around corners, like a beginner skier.

I remember the first time I rode in one: A friend of mine used to drive me, my two daughters, and her two sons every Thursday (which is a school holiday in our part of Europe) up the nearby mountains to ski. The roof was not strong enough to take a ski rack, so you slid the skis in from the back of the car underneath the seats, avoiding the pedals and things in front of the driver's seat, and they made a useful sort of platform on which to rest your feet.

You crammed in the children, the picnics, ski poles, gloves, and goggles, pointed the deux-chevaux toward a mountain, and up it went, taking icy hairpin bends in its stride, slowly but ever so surely. One Thursday, I remember, the deux-chevaux was having a minor repair done, and our outing took place in the large family sedan instead. Alas, the very smoothness of the suspension and efficiency of the heating system made the children complain. They sat, pale and silent, as I coaxed them in vain to sing our usual jolly songs that went so well with the deux-chevaux's bouncing gait.

I remember the first time I drove a deux-chevaux, easing myself into the ham-mocklike seat and gazing in disbelief at the gear lever - a little knob on the dashboard that went in-out-in-out. There must have been a difference between the ``in'' that was first gear and the ``in'' that was third, but I never did discover what it was.

Like everything else about the deux-chevaux, the way the windows opened was unlike any other system anywhere - the window was divided in half horizontally, and you just flung the bottom half outward and upward with enough force to make the two little rubber suckers stick it to the top half. The disadvantage of this system became apparent only if you were driving along in a carefree way with your elbow on the window ledge and you hit a pothole.

The car was designed, according to Citro"en, ``to accommodate a couple of farmers and 20 kilos of potatoes.'' But it became something uniquely French - a sort of antistatus symbol. Not only was it driven by farmers in berets, but also by wild and hairy students, independent young girls of good family, and, of course, priests and nuns.

It even became a movie star, figuring in the ``Gendarme'' films of French comedian Louis de Fun`es. Whenever he was lost, pursued by bandits, or in any other sort of trouble, along would come a deux-chevaux driven by a nun dressed in the habit of the Sisters of Charity (complete with enormous white coif). She was an atrocious driver but a very good nun as she drove across plowed fields, straight up hillsides, or even down flights of steps. Good always triumphed over evil, and she and her deux-chevaux survived every challenge, though her passenger always emerged at the end of the ride looking extremely relieved and rather green.

My daughter's primary-school teacher drove a particularly battered example of the genre and the whole class mourned with her on its demise. A little while later I saw her driving a new ``Dyane'' (a slightly up-market version just launched by Citro"en) and asked her how she liked it. With a look of disparagement, she muttered: ``Rather nouveau-riche, don't you think?''

Speed, power, and prestige were concepts totally alien to the deux-chevaux, which laid heavy emphasis on economy, reliability, and utilitarianism. Part of its undoubted appeal was that, as it didn't have any shiny paintwork or immaculate chrome, it could serve as a blank canvas for its owner's artistic or political messages. Our streets were all the brighter for the colorful extravagances of flowers, animals, or Pop Art depicted on the bodywork. Many a near-miss was caused by a motorist trying to get close enough to the deux-chevaux in front to see whether the inscription across its back was a witticism or an insult.

In fact, the whole philosophy of the deux-chevaux was summed up in the bold declaration painted across the back of one I overtook this morning as it chugged slowly up a long incline. ``Quand je serai grand,'' it said, ``je vous d'epasserai tous.'' (``When I grow up I'll pass all of you.'')

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