My idea of a classy car is one that starts when I turn the key and runs until I reach my destination. I have faked an interest on occasion, but I never really understood why the other little boys, when I was a child, and the other big boys, when I was no longer a child, were so fascinated by the makes of cars and the supposed differences among them. Given my probably un-American attitude to all things automotive, I was surprised awhile back when I saw a photograph of the last Citroen Deux Chevaux coming off the line. I found myself overcome with regret and sentimental memories. The Deux Chevaux was a car I understood.
Thirty years ago, Citroen used to offer a good deal to frugal travelers. One could buy a Deux Chevaux, drive it for up to six months and, if it had no visible blemishes, sell it back to the company for a sum large enough to make the venture a great deal cheaper than a car rental would have been. In the spring of 1962, I flew to Paris to pick up my Deux Chevaux, miraculously managed to get it out of the city unscathed (that would never happen now) and began the long, slow drive to Sicily. Very slow, but that was all right with me. I planned to hunker down in Sicily and write my second novel (it was never published), but the real point of the Sicilian journey was the trip down, the trip back and my meanderings around the island.
The car was no surprise to the French, of course. They hardly looked up when my barely animated tin can bounced along the back roads that I chose or happened on in my drive south -- unless, of course, someone wanted a ride, which was often the case. I discussed land use with a baffled peasant woman, Camus and Sartre with some Spanish students and the United States with almost everyone. The conversations could be carried on with ease, as though we were sitting in a cafe, for the Deux Chevaux did not move much faster than a cafe chair. It was a beautiful automobile from which to see the countryside, because there was never the likelihood that a church or a barn would flash by before I had a chance to take it in, to decide whether or not I wanted to come to a full stop and move in on foot.
The only startled French reaction to my Deux Chevaux came from a bellboy in Nice, and his surprise was not at the car itself but that someone who drove such a vehicle wanted his services. I had decided to splurge a little after a series of country towns, so I chose one of those fadingly elegant and still inexpensive hotels facing the Mediterranean. Once he had accepted the bona fides of my presence, the bellboy became alarmed on my behalf. There is no room for a trunk in the Deux Chevaux, of course, and he pointed out that my spare tire, resting in its accustomed place behind the back seat, was visible through the window and fair game for light-fingered passersby. I indicated that I would lock the car, and he, with a wonderfully graphic gesture, showed how the canvas top could be sliced open. Although I prefer faith to caution in these matters, I gave in to his concern. We then paraded across the grand lobby, he with my bags, I with my spare tucked under my arm.
When I got to Italy, particularly as I got farther and farther down the boot, the Deux Chevaux ceased to be commonplace. It became a wonder. In Sicily, it was a particular hit with boys in the villages, who would surround me with an odd mixture of envy and derision, laughing at so bizarre a contraption and desperately wanting to drive it. It looked like a toy to them, and they never understood why I would not share my toy with them. A more aggressive gang of boys in Palermo, annoyed that I did not respond to their requests for money, surrounded the car and began to rock it back and forth so enthusiastically that it tipped like a small boat riding an ocean swell. Only a quick start and a string of invective from the elderly expatriate American woman riding with me saved us from ignominious upending.
Once on the road between Palermo and Messina, two men threw themselves in front of my onrushing vehicle -- not highwaymen, as Sicilian myth might suggest, but two parishioners wanting a ride for their priest to the next town. I hope that the padre saw their gesture as risking life and limb for him, but I suspect that they took one look at my car and guessed that at its speed and weight it could run into them and, at worst, cause minimal damage -- to the car. When I drove around the interior of the island, inching my way up the mountains toward Enna, my feeble honk at blind curves would be answered by silence, then a thundering automobile, wild honks of greeting and hoots of delight. I like to think that I and my Deux Chevaux brought as much joy to Sicily as the island did to me.
Having worked out on the Sicilian hills, I decided to drive back north over the Sila Massif, as steep as it is beautiful. I crawled along, sometimes moving so slowly that I could have walked more briskly. As I chug-chung-chungged upward, cars sped around me, the drivers laughing at the foolishness of such a creature's trying to crawl up the mountain. There is a particular god that looks after Deux Chevaux drivers, however; it is called the air-cooled engine. As I persevered, like the little engine who thought it could, I passed, one after another, the no longer laughing drivers and their stalled cars, steam pouring from the radiators. High triumph for the Deux Chevaux -- high and unhurried triumph.
I never had any trouble with the car -- well, almost never. The windshield wiper did quit working as I approached Sicily and I assumed -- Deux Chevaux parts not being available at every Italian crossroads -- that I would be able to drive only in the sunshine. In Taormina, however, I found a mechanic who took one look at the long wire that moved the wipers and decided that he could construct a replacement. He did such a good job that the wipers worked like new, and the dealer, when I got back to Paris, never noticed the home repairs. He paid me off, and I abandoned my car. I walked off into the streets of Paris, a lump in my throat.
The lump came back when I read that the Deux Chevaux had been abandoned once again, this time by Citroen and forever.
Gerald Weales is a writer living in Philadelphia.