PARIS — France's unglamorous but beloved Citroen 2CV, a low-powered car whose sales have neared 5 million since it was launched in 1949, is nearing the end of its run, with domestic production due to stop next year.
This first French popular car, originally designed to carry four farmers and a sack of potatoes, has left an indelible mark on the country's motoring history.
Although Citroen announced this week that it would stop French production of 2CVs in the first half of next year, partly because of falling sales in France, fans of the rough-and-ready little car need not despair just yet.
It will still be produced in Portugal and should be around to celebrate its 40th anniversary in 1989.
The 2CV, nicknamed "la deudeuche" after its brand name the "deux chevaux" (two horses) and known in some countries as "the ugly duck," had a protracted birth, which was interrupted by World War II.
Its story began in 1935 after financially troubled Citroen, now a division of car maker Peugeot, was taken over by tire maker Michelin. Michelin decided that a revolutionary but practical new model was needed to turn the company's fortunes around.
The new head of Citroen, Pierre Boulanger, told his designers to draw up a "minimal French automobile," a small car, financially accessible to all and easy to maintain.
At that time, Mussolini's Italy had just brought out the "Topolino" (little mouse), while in Nazi Germany, the design of what was to become the immensely popular Volkswagen Beetle was taking shape.
The new Citroen's design specifications could be summarized as "four wheels under an umbrella."
The car was aimed at farmers, to replace horse-drawn vehicles. It had to be capable of carrying four people--with clogs--and 110 pounds of potatoes at 30 miles per hour in reasonable comfort.
It also had to be able to cross a plowed field with a basket of eggs on the back seat, without breaking a single egg. A final condition was that the car should cost no more than a moped.
Its outward appearance was of no importance.
Ten thousand people were questioned about what they wanted in a car, in possibly the first mass-market research study in the history of the industry.
The new model, initially dubbed TPV for "Toute Petite Voiture" (very small car), was ready in May, 1939, and 250 prototypes were built for an auto show that never took place because war broke out. Under the German occupation, all but one of the prototypes were destroyed so that they would not fall into enemy hands.
The surviving original model, now a museum piece, shows the distinctive curvy shape and canvas roof of today's version.
The chassis was partly sheet steel, partly a rust-proof lightweight alloy. There was a starter handle at the front; the bottom half of the side windows flipped up to allow hand signals--there were no indicator lights--and there was only one headlight.
The real launch was not until the French auto show of 1948, by which time the TPV had become the 2CV, with a second headlight, electric ignition and other improvements.
It drew a mixed reception. Industry Minister Claudius Petit exclaimed that it was "shameful that a company such as Citroen should go so far as to bring out such an ugly car."
One journalist asked whether the 2CV came with a can opener.
But it was an immediate and resounding financial success. Demand rapidly outstripped supply, and farmers, doctors, nurses, social workers, salesmen, country priests and nuns had priority, while others had to wait.
To obtain a "deudeuche, " prospective buyers had to fill in a lengthy questionnaire and sometimes received a visit from an inspector to verify that the answers were true.
In 1950, the waiting list was as long as six years.
So long a familiar part of the French scene, the 2CV has seen sales in its country of origin decline in recent years. Between 1983 and 1986 they dropped by nearly half, to 14,008 from 26,221 a year. Exports rose in the same period to 43,944 from 37,000 a year, but a Citroen spokeswoman said they too could begin to fall.
While it is still the cheapest French car on the market at 35,900 francs ($6,000), it has been hit by competition from even cheaper foreign cars, such as Fiat's 126FL which sells for $5,050.
West Germany, the biggest market for 2CVs, with 15,000 sales a year, is likely to remain faithful, but the spokeswoman said stricter anti-pollution regulations were expected to cut off the Swiss and Austrian markets soon.
The deudeuche may be in its twilight years, but it is not out of date. One longtime fan described it as a car for the young at heart, adding: "It's not a car, it's a way of life."