May 31, 2014

When one Citroen won’t do

“I like unusual cars,” says Dave Major, in what may rank as one of the great understatements.

“I like unusual cars,” says Dave Major, in what may rank as one of the great understatements.

Major, you may remember, is the guy who dressed up a little BMW mini car with a tail assembly and a propeller, creating what looked like a flying car with its wings clipped. He and his wife, Irene, have long enjoyed the “art car” scene and have traveled all over the country showing off their creations.

But recently, their focus has shifted gears toward some of the most unusual cars ever to cross the Atlantic: the French Citroens.

It actually began about 15 years ago, when a fellow art car buff gave the Majors a ride when their car suffered a breakdown during an event in Boston.

“The guy had a Citroen 2CV. I have wanted a Citroen ever since,” said Major, who began hunting for one of the strange little bug-like cars a few years ago. He found what he was looking for in North Carolina and soon was puttering around in the two-tone yellow car nicknamed the “Lonesome Duck” – an apparent play on “Lonesome Dove/Ugly Duckling.”

The 2CV is the French equivalent of Germany’s VW Beetle, and it proved immensely popular, with nearly 3.9 million of the little air-cooled 2-cylinder cars produced between 1948 and 1990.

The Majors’ 1980 2CV is often driven in parades and displayed in car shows with a huge inflatable yellow duck perched on its open roof.

“We have put 5,000 miles on it in three years … and have had more fun with it. It will get about 37 miles to the gallon on the highway,” Major said. “It will go 70 mph, but it takes a half a mile to get up to that speed. It’s got a 602 cc engine. My riding lawn mower’s got a bigger engine than that.”

“After a couple of years learning about Citroen, I found out they had these spaceship-looking cars,” Major said. The Citroen D Special was at the opposite end of the scale, a true luxury car.

“It was a doctor or lawyer’s car, a wealthy person’s car,” he said. “They built 1.5 million of them in 20 years. They debuted in 1955 at the Paris Motor Show and they were very popular in France, but they didn’t sell real well here. They were very expensive and hard to maintain … and in that day, they didn’t have streamlined cars.”

He decided he wanted to explore that end of the Citroen spectrum and began seriously looking for a D Special about six months ago. He checked out cars in Michigan and Nova Scotia, but they didn’t fit his needs.

He had been in touch with Wally Escherich, the president of the Southern California Citroen Club, who sent him a book to help with his research.

“The Los Angeles area is sort of the hot bed for this model,” Major said. “I wanted one nice enough that I could fly out, try it out, buy it and drive it home.”

Finally one day, Escherich called to say, “I found your car … there is a celebrity out here who has put his up for sale. He wants a convertible and he’s in France right now looking for it.”

Major made the trip to Los Angeles where he checked out that car, along with two others. All three prospective sellers had Major drive the car over the same set of speed bumps to show off the D Special’s amazing hydraulic suspension system.

Speeding up, rather than slowing down, for speed bumps was a bit intimidating, but Major said it proved the upscale Citroen’s claims of being one of the best-riding cars.

“This car will run on three wheels,” he said, demonstrating how the Citroen’s built-in high-pressure hydraulic system can level the vehicle to run without one of its rear wheels. In fact, he pointed out, a limousine version of the Citroen is credited with saving the lives of French President Charles De Gaulle and his wife when assassins shot out the car’s tires in a 1962 attack.

Major eventually settled on the 1972 D Special owned by Armand Hargett, the actor/director, who had put about 7,000 miles on the car after buying it in Denver a year earlier. Hargett also had the body of the car repainted a brilliant silver while he had it.

When Major bought the car recently, it showed 21,000 miles on its odometer. He drove it home without incident, sleeping in its plush reclining seats two nights at rest stops.

The Citroen D Special is powered by a 2-liter, 4-cylinder hemi-head engine that produces about 106 horsepower, Major explained. Like the 2CV, it is front-wheel-drive and a 4-speed manual, but its shifter is mounted on the steering column, not the dashboard like the little car.

The engine powers a hydraulic pump that supplies fluid not only to the suspension’s shock absorbers, but to the power steering and brakes. The ride height can be set at five different levels, the highest allowing the Citroen to plow through deep snow, Major said. When parked, the car settles back to just above the ground.

Irene Major is not a fan of manual transmissions, saying, “I don’t drive it, I ride in it.” She said it’s so comfortable, it’s hard not to fall asleep in it.

Dave Major had to sell one of his BMW mini cars to be able to afford his second Citroen, but he says it was well worth the trade-off.

“The French have a different idea about making cars,” he says. And as he pointed out, he likes unusual cars.

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