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At a dinner table the other day, somebody once again felt the need to share their aversions towards the Citroën Berlingo. The harsh words came from a younger generation, and in their eyes the Berlingo has only one superior as the ugliest car I existence: FIAT Multipla. I saw it as my duty to introduce a bit of perspective.

I am NOT a particularly great supporter of Citroën’s Berlingo. I accept its distinctively practical features and its budget price level is of course another strong argument in its sales pitch. In other words, it’s an obvious alternative for people who don’t care about driving, but merely require a highly functional vehicle which really isn’t considered much more than an extended part of the home toolbox. The young people around the table might well understand all of that from a practical point of view, but they did not understand that those attributes can in fact also be both interesting and in some cases even quite beautiful. It has been seen before that ugly cars eventually win our hearts, even though they were surrounded by plenty of negativity in their time – not entirely unlike today’s Berlingo.

Citroën were first out in 1948, where the 2CV came to town – or rather, to the countryside. The driving force behind the development of the model was André Citroën’s dream of producing a small car for the French farmers which could replace the horse-drawn carriage. The story goes that he had expressed: “Build an economic car for the French farmer, possibly a passenger and some goods, in which he can drive to and from his fields, but also to church. Therefore, there must be enough height in the car to wear a hat.” Economy was equal to simplicity. And from that came the 2CV. So spartan it had only precisely what was necessary in order to move a person from A to B, protected from the weather and faster than by bike or on foot. Citroën’s brilliant creation soldiered on all the way to 1990, when the demand for new environmental and safety requirements of the time finally killed the small car.

Then came the second “ugly” car from France, which was equally not intended for a role in front of the Casino in Monaco. The Citroën 2CV had of course proven to be a huge success, and Renault wanted a piece of that cake. So the Renault 4 made its debut at the Paris Motor Show in 1961 and was immediately in direct competition with the 2CV. Although many consider the light R4, with small capacity engine and field-friendly, soft and elongated suspension, like a shameless rip-off of the eccentric Citroën, it was probably a better car. They doubled the number of cylinders in the engine, made it easier to drive, and on the whole it was just a little more robust and more civilised. Compared with the primitive 2CV, the R4 with its hatchback design was frankly more suitable for goods transport. Someone once wrote that what the R4 lacked in charm compared to the 2CV, it made up for with its excess of practical features.

Neither of the two cars require any further introduction. They have both rightly been recognised for their place in automotive history and belong – in my eyes – to a very special little group of great classics which helped mobilise the world. Granted, it might well be difficult for the Berlingo to join such fine company in 30 years time, but it makes a decent attempt at filling those big shoes.

Whether my speech helped towards changing the young people’s negative attitude to Citroën’s Berlingo by getting the perspective in place, I really have no idea. They did at least quickly agree that the R4 and 2CV are both “MEGA COOL” – one even called them “SUPER NICE”, and it was a bit like calling out a winner of the two. I myself own both models, and as it is of course impossible to favour one of our children over another, it is equally impossible for me to choose the best of the two. Yet, I think I agree with the popular argument: the 2CV possesses the more interesting design, while the R4 is a better car in the technical sense.

How do you feel about the 2CV and the R4? Do you have a favourite, and why?

 

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3 Responses

  1. Kim
    Definetly the original over the copy, however, as a former R5 pilot i’ll be happy to supplement my 2CV with a R4..
    Reply
  2. luis
    Putting this in perspective is nearly the same as plotting the story of marketing (in the sense of knowing the market and not advertising only) a type and concept of a car. Sir André Citroën was aware of what was the business about. All this was in the beginning of the mass motorization era and, therefore, any idea of a new product targeting a demographic share could work.
    Today, everything is saturated of new ideas that came up through decades of good, medium, and poor ideas. The good ones define the story, the medium ones so so, the poor ideas serve – eventually – as an act of learning and so on. We could refine this tentative scale of ideas and market success.
    I am not reducing the merit of 2CV, by the contrary. What I am trying to build is what was firstly and quite rightly called: putting in perspective. And that is the scenario under which, for those who have a wider knowledge of automotive industry history, the Citroën Berlingo is observed, which makes quite a difficult task for the Berlingo to survive. Moreover, in this era of optimization and rationalism – with respect to technical solutions, of course – it is so difficult to discern the difference between a Renault and an Opel.
    So, having scratched some ideas which go around this subject, yes, the Berlingo was a brilliant kick off to a greater story: the lovely Citroën 2CV.
    I find also very interesting the “evolution” of the 2CV around the Dyane, Mehari but we all know that could food for thought to a new Article.
    Reply

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