Fifty years ago, I shared the Pumpkin, a 1959 Citroen 2CV, with my college roommate Bill. We had the ridiculous idea that it would enhance our social life.
By Paul Wilson
The Pumpkin was rescued from a junkyard. Under the circumstances, even a 20-year-old should have expected the worst, but its dejected, down-in-front stance appealed to the side of me that since then has caused me to adopt mutts from the SPCA. “Runs good,” they told me at the junkyard. The bill of sale contained an omen I should have heeded: “One Citron car, $75,” it said. Citron, in French, means lemon.
Like Cinderella’s pumpkin-coach, our 2CV was orange, but the key similarity was that her coach was drawn by four mice. The Pumpkin’s little flat-twin, with 12 horsepower, was good for 48 mph on a level road with no headwind.
We had a couple of girls with us when we learned that the front windows, which hinged upwards and hung on a clip, slammed down unexpectedly if the wind caught them–POW! Then we went over a big bump, the unit body flexed, and a front suicide door popped open. It flew back against the matching rear door–BAM!–like an incoming mortar round, and everything in the car blew around wildly in the air blast from the door opening. We got used to these things, of course. But the girls wouldn’t go out in the Pumpkin again.
We were taking some other young women to something fancy in downtown Boston, all dressed up, when there was a loud bang from the front, and the engine quit. It was a real fire, with smoke and flames, which we put out by throwing dirt on it. A wire had melted onto something hot. We wrapped the affected area with electrical tape (which we always carried for such emergencies) and went on, but the electrical system was never the same. (Nor, of course, was our relationship with those well-dressed young ladies.)
If the Pumpkin had ever had fuses, they no longer functioned, and the ignition switch and the do-everything control for the lights and horn smoldered continuously with low-level short circuits. “Is that something burning?” passengers would ask. “Yeah, probably another fire,” I’d tell them.
These problems did not affect the wipers, which were driven by the speedometer cable. When the car was stopped, you were supposed to work them manually by turning a little wheel near the windshield. Either way, you didn’t see much when it rained.
You saw even less when it snowed. Winter air was barely warmed at all by the engine on its way to the heater outlet under the dash. We blocked off the opening, but drafts still came in everywhere. A 2CV is made of the same corrugated metal as a Quonset Hut, with no insulation at all. A bare hand, painfully applied to the windshield, was the only defroster, and it cleared only a few square inches.
Passengers in the Pumpkin would go pale and clutch at the door when we took corners, thinking the car was about to roll over. It was sprung like a baby carriage–extremely softly, with no conventional shock absorbers. With one hand the rear bumper could be pushed down six or eight inches. If you popped the clutch the car rocked rearwards so violently that the front wheels pawed feebly at the pavement before pulling you in a bellowing lurch to about 15 mph, where you plunged the dash-mounted shifter into second and significant acceleration ceased. The rear wheels could be bounced high enough to be pushed sideways into a tight parking space. Two guys, half-standing in the back and jumping in rhythm, could make the whole car leap wildly about while it was sitting in traffic. Most onlookers to this spectacle were tight-faced, avoiding eye contact, as if we were committing an obscene act.
The seats were also very soft. They were canvas and attached to a tubular frame by a series of rubber bands (this was the original arrangement, not my invention), so the driver, suspended in his hammock of rubber bands, never knew quite where he was relative to the steering wheel or the rest of the car, and the car itself had only a vague connection to the road. The stitching that held the rubber bands to the seats began to pull out, so from time to time we’d hear a sharp snap, the elastic would fly off to the other side of the car, and the seat would settle slightly lower.
By spring vacation our social life, partly due to the Pumpkin, had dwindled to nothing, so we headed for Michigan to visit Bill’s family. Of course we did it in typical college-kid fashion, as a nonstop, Iron Man enduro–we were on the road 24 hours. We hit headwinds on the New York Thruway, in the Mohawk Valley, and couldn’t quite make the 40 mph legal minimum speed. Then we were delayed half an hour, working by flashlight in the freezing wind, before realizing that I’d pinched a fuel line when I lay down for a nap in the back–we’d taken out the back seat for the trip. The next day, crawling across the flat plains of southern Michigan, we combatted exhaustion by sharing the driving–I held the accelerator down with my left foot, while Bill, idly holding the wheel with one hand, gazed out the window on his side. Then the car shed its accelerator return spring, providing cruise control for the rest of the trip. The driver lifted the accelerator with his foot for stops, but otherwise it fell to the floor and stayed there.
I’m amazed to find specialists still selling restored 2CVs, for thousands of dollars. I wonder who they sell them to. The Pumpkin was an automotive Sick Joke, with a temporary adolescent appeal. A restored car would not have its reliability problems, of course, but otherwise wouldn’t be much different. I’m told some of them go 70 mph, a terrifying idea.
To be fair, I have to say that Bill took his future wife Dana out on their first date in the Pumpkin. After a traumatic drive in the Pumpkin, none of the girls I met would speak to me again. But Bill and Dana have now been married for 50 years.