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To Moscow and back by Deux Chevaux

The Citroen 2CV was unveiled at the Paris Salon de l'Automobile on 7 October 1948. On its 60th birthday, Stephen Mulvey pays homage to a car that took him and a friend to Russia, Estonia and Ukraine, with barely a hiccup.

The car in an Estonian camp site

In the summer of 1984, the year chosen by George Orwell for his vision of totalitarianism, the Soviet Union seemed like an obvious holiday destination.

How was Big Brother? He didn't seem too well. Soviet leaders had been dropping like flies, maybe the new one would too? (He did, a few months later.)

More importantly, how were the Proles? The only way of meeting them without the Thought Police in tow was to travel by car.

ITINERARY
Outward: London, Stockholm, Helsinki, Vyborg, Leningrad, Tallinn, Moscow
Return: Moscow, Vladimir, Suzdal, Orel, Kiev, Warsaw, Hamburg, London
Our choice - my girlfriend paid for it - was a second-hand yellow 2CV. It was cheap, and it had a certain style. It had a soft top too - an essential requirement.

I thought it was designed by Le Corbusier, which is not quite true, but for Brits it certainly evoked the France of his generation - of Jean Gabin, Jacques Tati or Cartier Bresson.

The car was a survivor of the old France, the real France, like filterless Gitanes and onion soup.

Western chic?

In the USSR, the 2CV had none of these associations.

It must have looked weird. Heads turned as we rattled past. Somewhere west of Leningrad a cyclist teetered and crashed to the ground.

Citroen in unknown location
The 2CV preferred warm weather... it might refuse to start in the cold
On at least one occasion, I wondered whether people assumed it was the latest in motoring chic from the magical West.

"What a beauty!" one man murmured, as we pulled up in a town-centre parking bay somewhere in the north-west. (Parking was easy in the USSR.)

At a campsite in the Estonian capital, Tallinn, a crowd gathered as soon as we stopped the engine.

"Go on, open the bonnet," someone asked, and a difficult conversation began.

How powerful was the engine, one man asked. I don't remember what I replied. Maybe, "Two horsepower" - on the grounds that it was a Deux Chevaux. Another myth.

I was delighted when the discussion turned from the intricacies of the motor, of which I knew nothing, to fuel efficiency.

But instead of asking how many miles it did to the gallon, the question was how many litres it took to travel 100km.

Not an easy sum to do while putting up a tent.

Eventually I came up with a figure that raised approving eyebrows. What a sensible, economical car! It was almost hard to believe...

I probably bungled the maths, but who knows? The 2CV must have been half the weight of a Lada, maybe less.

Low-tech

In fact this car, selected mainly as an affordable style accessory, proved to be a perfectly practical choice for a journey from Helsinki to Hamburg, via Leningrad, Tallinn, Moscow, Vladimir, Kiev, Warsaw and Berlin.

There was nothing wrong with the engine, it was just the accelerator pedal coming loose
Low fuel consumption was just what was needed in a country where filling stations providing high-octane fuel, in exchange for foreigners' petrol vouchers, were few and far between.

The car broke only once. Somewhere between Tallinn and Leningrad it started becoming harder to overtake the erratically driven, blue trucks from the collective farms. The 2CV was rapidly losing precious horsepower.

This could have been very bad news, but appropriately for such a low-tech car, the problem turned out to have a low-tech solution.

There was nothing wrong with the engine, it was just the accelerator pedal coming loose. A few twists of a spanner and we were back to full thrust.

That was it, apart from the usual problem of not being able to start the thing when cold, and a flat tyre in Poland.

Mysterious couple

We had none of the Orwellian experiences that bedevilled Colin Thubron's Soviet road trip in Among the Russians, published the previous year (first sentence: "I had been afraid of Russia ever since I could remember.").

A Russian church
Travelling by car made it possible to explore decaying countryside churches
There were plenty of encounters with dodgy speculators, and with traffic police - especially if we veered off our pre-arranged route - but no obvious or threatening spies.

At one campsite north of Moscow, though, we did meet a mysterious young couple. They too had started in Finland, and were travelling south. The man claimed to be Australian but had a strong Slavic accent.

They were also driving a 2CV - white with a red-striped top. An odd coincidence. How many others could there have been in the USSR at the time? One, two, a handful? Surely no more than that.

But if they were watching us, they must have lost interest pretty soon. We met them again, but only once or twice.

The sense of returning to Europe was tangible as we entered Kiev, with its chestnut trees, onion-domed churches and cobbled streets.

In Poland it got stronger still. And in Hamburg… fresh green broccoli sprinkled with lemon juice. A more intense dose of vitamins than anything we'd had for weeks.

Checkpoint Charlie

But before Hamburg, there had been one last experience where the car took centre stage - at Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin.

We turned up, and we should have been turned back, as this most famous crossing of the Berlin Wall was intended for diplomatic cars only. But the East German border guards seemed intrigued.

No diplomat would ever have been seen driving a 2CV, of course. Or any yellow car for that matter.

For a few minutes, I imagined it being taken apart panel by panel. But the checks on the way out of the Warsaw Pact turned out to be less stringent than those on the way in.

What did that prove? Maybe that the authorities were already less afraid of outsiders than their own people - that they were more concerned to keep their citizens in the dark about the West, than to catch every scrap of samizdat or verboten photo (of a bridge, say, or an airfield) on its way out.

Or maybe the couple in the white 2CV had simply told their bosses we were OK.

Nevsky Prospekt, Leningrad
Nevsky Prospekt, Leningrad: One benefit of a soft top - you can stand and shoot




SEE ALSO
Your pictures: The 2CV
17 Aug 08 |  In Pictures
Your pictures: The 2CV
19 Aug 08 |  In Pictures
The 2CV: Your stories
20 Aug 08 |  UK
French mark 60 years of the 2CV
16 Aug 08 |  Europe


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