Being a motor journalist has some really wonderful perks, like free overnight, after-hours access to any Sizzler's salad bar. I think my favorite perk is that you can often convince motor museums to let you actually drive some of their cars. Which is exactly what I did at the fantastic Lane Motor Museum.
I wish I could have spent much more time at the Lane, but I was on the tail end of my cross-country trek, and as such could only stop in for a bit. Still, even in that little visit the Lane staff made my visit worthwhile, and one of the high points was driving this charming orange '78 Dyane.
I've wanted to drive a 2CV ever since I saw one first in — and let me be clear here, I was about to make up some dumb joke until I realized just now — just now — the very first place I ever encountered a 2CV. It was in the Peanuts animated special called Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown (and Don't Come Back!).
Holy crap, that's it. I remember the car the Peanuts gang rented in France (to Snoopy, technically, since it would be irresponsible to rent a car to a bunch of six-year olds. Much better to hand the keys to a trustworthy beagle) was this strange Beetle-like car. As a kid, I was really taken by this car, but I haven't seen this thing in years, and it's only now I realized it was a 2CV and maybe the genesis of my fascination. How about that.
Sorry about that. Point is, I've always wanted to drive a 2CV, and this Dyane was the closest thing they had handy and ready to go. It's essentially a re-bodied 2CV, so I jumped at the chance.
The Dyane isn't generally considered as collectible or valuable as an original 2CV, though I think that's something of a mistake. The Dyane was meant to be an ever-so-slightly upmarket 2CV, with a bit more comfort and convenience — it had a full hatch and everything. Stylistically, it resembles something in between a more squared-off 2CV or maybe a more squarical, crisper-edged Beetle. I think it's quite handsome.
The car isn't big, but there's an impressive amount of room inside. The FWD layout means that little flat twin and the transaxle and all the noisy, oily bits are stuffed up there in the nose of the car, leaving a nice totally flat floor and plenty of space for you, your amis and your crap.
I think the most distinctive thing about this car has to do with that 'Confort' classification, which, of course, means "comfort." See, French is one of those made-up languages like Pig Latin, but you replace m's with n's. That distinctive trait are the seats in the Dyane. They're like couches. No, wait, even better — sofas. They're like the big comfy sofa in the basement of your mom's house that's just a little too ugly and outdated to be seen upstairs, but is by far the best place to nap in the western spiral arm of the Milky Way.
These seats were brilliantly, unrepentantly 1970s orange and striped, and they may have been the most bouncy, comfortable car seats I've ever placed my ass on. The rest of the interior sort of felt like an afterthought, because when your car has seats like this, who gives a shit that your dash and door panels look like a Soviet fax machine's underside?
Though, to be fair, there was one pretty severe ergonomic issue. Look at this picture here, and tell me where the door opening handle is:
I'm going to assume five hours have passed and you've given up. Good, no shame there. There's no way you'd know. It's this hidden, recessed little handle up and under the upper trim lip of the door panel. There's no visual cue for it at all. The Lane museum worker (I won't say the name to prevent embarrassment. You're welcome, David! Crap.) who was with me told me that the first time he drove the car, he was alone and found himself stuck in the car for 45 minutes because he couldn't figure out where the damn door release was.
That's some impressive not-give-a-shittery on Citroën's part.
Once the door handle paradox was revealed to me, we piled in the car (Otto and Mrs.Torch came along, too) and prepared for a little trip around the block.
Now, I only drove it around the block, but even on that little excursion, I found so much novel, delightful, and baffling about this car. The little air-cooled flat twin is only 602cc and puts out right around 30 HP — you could think of it as half a Beetle motor, but it's surprisingly adequate.
The real baffling part to anyone not familiar with a 2CV or its derivatives is the crazy shift pattern. Once I saw the linkage, it all suddenly made sense, but when you're sitting in the car, you're confronted with this little orb mounted on a cranked handle, and you push and pull and twist it to get through the gears.
It's tricky to wrap your head around initially. You rotate counter-clockwise and pull back for first, then flip the knob upright and shove forward for 2nd, then pull back out again for third, and then a clockwise turn and push for 4th. Reverse is counterclockwise and push. Easy, right?
It's really just an H-pattern (with 1st where 2nd usually is, and R where 1st usually is. 4th is where R usually is, and I Don't Know is on third) accessed via a delightfully absurd linkage made of a lamb shank and coat hangers. In practice, you get used to it, and I actually found shifting the car to be a lot of fun.
The suspension on 2CVs is, of course, another hallmark of the car, and when driving one you see why. The front and rear wheel on each side share a torsion spring between them, and when one wheel goes up, the other counters the motion, and the result is a lot of stability with a ton of body roll, and an insane ability to smooth out bumpy roads.
At David's encouragement, I drove over a set of four railroad tracks at full speed, and while there was a hell of a lot of noise outside, all of us in the car had incredibly un-pummeled butts. The Dyane floats, springily, over awful surfaces and doesn't see the need to get the passengers involved.
You can also corner at speeds that feel frightening and tippy inside, but no wheel ever leaves the ground. It's pretty remarkable, and is a novel, enjoyable driving experience.
All told, I really found myself liking the Dyane. It's an exuberant mix of clever, crude, and comfortable, and I think this could make the sort of commuter/city car that you never felt stuck with. I could easily see being very happy with a daily driver Dyane, and it doesn't even seem like too taxing to use as a modern car, provided you avoided a lot of high-speed highway trips. Because you're not going anywhere "high-speed."
Thanks again to the Lane for letting me drive this citrusy little gem; I had a blast, and I'm pretty sure I'll be coming back for more.