By Fred A. Reed
One of an occasional series of Scenes from a Southern California Boyhood.
What looks like a toad and sounds like a battery of industrial sewing machines?
The Citroën 2CV, of course.
I should know. I’ve been the proud owner of two of these remarkable vehicles. To it I owe—indirectly—my ultimate survival to a ripe old age.
My fascination with the “deux chevaux” began when, as a university student, I made the acquaintance of a California eccentric named George Arndt. Mr. Arndt, who had converted his East Pasadena garage into an organ too powerful to be played also possessed a magnificent harpsichord, which my late brother Jim—a budding musical talent—was itching to try.
More to the point, he drove a four cylinder Citroën Traction. It wasn’t long before we began to recognize this car—long, black and sleek—in French films, its six-cylinder version a Gestapo favourite…but also of the Resistance.
(Alert readers will note that these automobiles preceded the DS-19, the ultimate Citroën about which semiologist Roland Barthes wrote an entire essay likening it to a gothic cathedral, and which became, immediately following its launch, the inseparable and official state vehicle of Charles de Gaulle.)
Such automobiles were far beyond our means, but not the 2CV. Thanks to Mr. Arndt, we—hereinafter taken to mean Jim and myself—located a garage in Highland Park, just over the hill from our home in Pasadena that sold and serviced them. Eureka!
Southern California in the late fifties, need I explain, had already become an automobile culture. The freeways had replaced the region’s fast, efficient and cheap rapid transit light rail system, the “Big Red Cars” of the Pacific Electric Railway. If you wanted to go somewhere, or impress a potential girlfriend, wheels were a necessity.
Having a slight talent for drawing, I was rapidly recruited to sketch designs for customization of the 1950 Mercury, the vehicle of choice for the Chicano car gangs that pullulated in the greater Los Angeles region. Chopped and filled, these cars, with their slightly bulbous profile, were objects of envy and covetousness.
But we neither envied nor coveted them. No, the 2CV was the object of our affection. The Highland Park garage, what’s more, had one. It was the base model: grey, with an air-cooled 425 cc motor, front-wheel drive, and whose sole instrumentation consisted of a speedometer.
Fanciers of the 2CV will know, of course, that the gearshift was a push-pull lever. The windshield wipers were hand activated, you started the engine with a cable, and checked gasoline levels with a dipstick. And in the event of battery failure, you could crank the motor to life. The basic repair kit consisted of a screwdriver and a wrench.
The seats, suspended on industrial strength rubber bands, could be removed with the twist of a lever, meaning that the car could be turned into a shelter, aside from the sheep-carrying capacity for which it was originally designed.
The sound of a 2CV was unique. It could cut through any ambient noise, and reminded me—in later years—of Herbert Von Karajan’s description of the resonance of a 12 cylinder Ferrari as inferior only to the final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
Indeed, you could hear a 2CV before you could see it though, like the Ferrari, it could not overcome Beethoven.
The mechanic from whom we bought the car had modified another, similar vehicle, adding a second engine and removing the body to produce a proto-ATV that he and his Nazi assistant Hans used to hunt rattlesnakes in the Mohave Desert. I know; I went along for one wild ride, during which the driver had to shift gears for each engine separately. We caught no rattlers on that outing but it was as terrifying, as we surged up rocky hillsides and rushed through narrow gullies, as it was thrilling.
It was with that newly purchased 2CV that we travelled north to Alaska. 10,000 miles in three weeks, most of which was spent foot flat against the accelerator. We alternated driving chores. While Jim drove I read Nikos Kazantzakis’ epic novel The Greek Passion.
That was the book that had leaped into my hands in a Hollywood Boulevard bookstore one hot afternoon, whispering: “Buy me! Read me!” As a film, called “He Who Must Die”, directed by Jules Dassin, Kazantzakis’ tale of justice and redemption transfixed me and set me on my way to Greece.
Thus as we whirred northward, Alaska bound, my plan to leave my home and my country began to take shape. Vietnam was of course the cause. The flashes of combat flickered on the far horizon, as if the war crime of aggression unleashed on Southeast Asia had begun in Burbank, say, or Glendale. Just beyond the ridge that separated our idyllic Southern California enclave from the cruel and nasty world of Los Angeles and, by extension, America.
Intuitively I had grasped ‘what’ I must do. Now, as our 2CV made its way through the dust of the Alaska Highway, ‘how’ it could be done began to emerge into plain sight.
These thoughts I shared with no one, not even my little brother, and a forgiving and gentle soul whom I mourn to this day. No, I kept my own counsel, enjoyed the scenery, the glaciers and the dense coastal forests of the Alaska Panhandle, and on our return, the emptiness of Nevada that we transited, driving full speed, by night, while lightening flashed on the horizon.
A few months later, in New York, I boarded the SS Queen Frederica for the Atlantic crossing that brought me face to face with my future. But in hindsight, I am convinced that it was a 2CV that had delivered me, metaphorically of course, to the pier.