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